Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight: Osborne House

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At long last, I finally made it to Osborne House, which certainly lived up to my expectations of Victorian splendour, but also provided an unforeseen number of annoyances (though I’m not sure why they should be unforeseen, when most everything generally irritates me).  All you really need to know about this place (to convince you to visit) is that Queen Victoria lived, and more importantly, died here, but obviously I’m going to go into way more detail than that.  Osborne House is near East Cowes, in the north of the Isle of Wight, and is plopped down on a huge plot of land that encompasses gardens, woodlands, and a private beach.  The Italianate house itself is similarly massive, though only a small section is open to the public.

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This is another English Heritage property, and they were quite aggressive with their membership spiel when we entered the gift shop/admissions.  I was tempted to tell them that I  frequent the National Trust far more than English Heritage, so there was no way I was coughing up their membership fee, but I held my tongue, and simply paid the £13.40 admission.  The main attraction is of course the house, but the whole estate served as a summer home for the Royal Family, and was where Victoria retreated to after Albert’s death, so there are a number of outbuildings, some designed primarily for their nine children. We decided to first head to the Swiss Cottage, which Albert built as a place for the children to practice their domestic skills.  I wasn’t kidding about the size of the grounds; the signs claimed it was a kilometre away, but as it took us a good half hour to walk there (and I’m usually a pretty fast walker), I think that was a lie. Never fear, there is a sporadic shuttle bus for the less intrepid. This supposedly “child-sized” cottage was bigger than most actual chalets I’ve seen, with “rustic” furniture that was still incredibly ornate.  Only the upstairs part is open to the public, as half of the lower level has been converted into a tearoom, so we trekked slowly behind a gaggle of elderly people through the handful of rooms.  I don’t wish to disparage the elderly, as I generally prefer old people to young people, but damn, these people moved so slowly that they had caused an unnecessary queue, (this is not a criticism of their walking pace, which I know they can’t help, but of the time they spent gawping at things) and had no qualms whatsoever about completely blocking my view, something which would prove to be a common theme throughout the visit.  I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on the poor dears; some of the older ones probably remembered the latter years of Victoria’s reign, and were simply reminiscing.

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Fortunately, we next progressed to the museum holding the Royal Children’s collections, which was excellent!  Being royalty, the objects they casually collected is the kind of stuff that would take pride of place in any normal museum; instead, it was all crammed together in dusty cases with rather terse captions, each curiosity more fabulous than the last.  There were extensive Egyptian and Native American collections, a taxidermy section that included a five-legged deer, and various rocks and minerals, but my favourite bit was the mishmash of oddities in the case to the right of the entrance.  Here I found a piece of wood from George Washington’s coffin (no dentures though!), a set of hand grenades taken from a lady anarchist who was executed on the street after being found with them, and a little doll made by a prisoner from wax and “partially masticated bread.” Honestly, after seeing this museum, I wouldn’t have minded if everything else was a bit crap.

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Around the Swiss Cottage, there were gardens interspersed with a miniature fortress with cannons, the entire deckhouse from the ship that carried Victoria’s body back to the mainland after her death, and a shed with wheelbarrows and wagons for each of the children.  After viewing all this, we decided to next check out the beach, as it was said to have ice cream for sale, and we were feeling peckish after all the walking (we’d visited Carisbrooke Castle that morning, so we weren’t just being lazy at this point).

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Access to the beach was via the “rhododendron” path, another twenty minute walk through (you guessed it) a rhododendron lined trail.  Not being much of an outdoors person (understatement of the post, as evidenced by my pasty complexion), or having any inclination towards gardening, I wasn’t even that sure what a rhododendron was until taking this trail.  I’m still in the dark about what those terrible bushes are that smell like vomit, but which every rich person in Wimbledon puts in their garden.  Can anyone enlighten me as to what those stink bushes are, and why people seem to love the foully odoriferous things so much?  Anyway, the wooded trail suddenly opened up into a compact little beach, and we emerged blinking into the rare English summer sun.

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It wasn’t really warm enough that day to go wading (though that didn’t stop a few other people from swimming), so we promptly made tracks for the ice cream hut.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they offered knickerbocker glories and sundaes (only one type of sundae, it is still Britain, after all, and we can’t be having all those choices) in old fashioned sundae glasses, but they were big sundaes, and unusually for me, I didn’t feel like I could put that much ice cream away right then, so I went for two scoops, which still turned out to be enormous for the price, at least by London standards, and topped it with the free (!) syrups on offer.  After wolfing that down, I took the time to pose in front of Victoria’s bathing machine which had a suspiciously narrow door for her aged portly frame.  I think only she was modest enough to bother with a bathing machine, as the children learned to swim in a netted safety contraption designed by Albert (I wish I could say the same; I had the fun of almost drowning during lessons at the Y, and still can’t swim properly).

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Fortified by the ice cream, we felt up for another lengthy walk back to the actual house, somehow managing to bypass the Ice House, which was meant to be somewhere on the way to the Swiss Cottage.  I felt like I’ve seen enough ice houses elsewhere that I wasn’t terribly bothered, plus my feet hurt and I wanted to spare myself the backtrack.  However, approaching the house from the rear gave us the opportunity to investigate the well-manicured gardens, which were especially lovely, and all the flowers were in bloom, another bonus!

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Upon entering the house, we were asked to present our tickets, so keep yours handy to avoid having to embarrassingly sort through the entire contents of your bag in front of the admissions lady.  Photography wasn’t allowed inside the house, so you’re just going to have to use your imagination for the next bit (or have a peek at the website).  The state rooms on the ground floor of the house were just as imposing as I’d imagined; the hallways were lined with classical busts and exquisite tiles (I assume they were imported, rather than being made at Jackfield, but you never know), and others were full of paintings, most with a religious or mythological theme. There was a Council Room, wherein Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for Victoria, a Billiards Room, and a Drawing Room that was a bit too yellow for my tastes.  Downstairs, we got a brief view of the servants’ quarters in the form of a servery and china cabinet/room, with a handwritten list of menus on display.  (Isn’t servery a gross word?  It makes me think of disgusting cafeteria food.)

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We were then directed upstairs to see the family rooms, several of which were filled with a nice exhibit on Victoria’s descendants (the vast majority of European royalty), complete with photographs of everyone, from dissipated old Bertie, to haemophiliac Leopold (and some good portraits of the Royal Family, including one that made Louis IV of Hesse look far more dashing than he did in real life (he was unpleasantly beardy, but here he was shown with his handsome youthful mustache)).  Unfortunately, I couldn’t properly enjoy them because some mother insisted on dragging around her bratty child, who wouldn’t stop snivelling.  I get that children lack self-control, but surely the mother could have had enough sense to take him outside until he calmed down, instead of subjecting us all to his shrieks, whilst remarking to her companion how articulate he was (yeah, it’s great that your small child can remark how he hates everything, but it doesn’t make up for his obnoxiousness!). Even the staff were giving them dirty looks. She wasn’t the only person who got under my skin at Osborne House; also up there was a lady who decided to park her capacious ass in front of the “Horn Room” for literally ten minutes, completely blocking the door with her wide frame so that no one else could hope to see inside.  I thought the agreed upon social convention was to look for a minute or two, and then graciously move aside when it becomes clear that other people are craning their necks to see around you.  Well, this lady clearly didn’t get the message. Ugh, all right, rant over (for now).

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Moaning aside (and I do love to complain), there were plenty more delights to behold inside the house. I adored the statue of Albert as some sort of ancient Greek, clad in a revealing tunic.  Though I seriously doubt (and photographs back me up on this) that he was that muscular in real life, it is a testament to the privacy and degree of comfort Victoria must have felt here that she prominently placed such a sexy statue in full view of the staircase.  Also upstairs were Albert’s private office and bathroom, and most poignantly, Victoria’s bedroom, site of her death.  It was closed off immediately afterwards for some fifty years, and thus preserved as a sort of shrine, so you can still see the actual bed she died in, which includes a secret plaque (intended for her eyes only) in remembrance of Albert, and has a large plaque above the headboard that her children added after her death, in memory of her matriarchal role.  All the paintings in the room were behind the bed, so I hope someone had opened the curtains on the day she died, so she wasn’t just left staring at a blank wall.  I guess it says something for the mood of the place, that it left me feeling quite sympathetic towards Victoria.

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Looking around the house probably took somewhere between an hour to ninety minutes, after which we went to look at the walled garden, followed by a trip back behind the house to see John Brown’s bench, which we missed the first time around.  John Brown as in her trusted Scottish servant, that is, not the notorious American abolitionist.  After a brief swing by the gift shop to pick up some postcards, we headed to the bus stop, subject of another beef (though I stress, this is in no way the fault of Osborne House).  The bus from Osborne House to Ryde (where the hovercraft and some of the ferries come in) runs only once an hour, despite the fact that the house shuts at 5, and the grounds close at 6, so clearly quite a few people are going to be taking the 5:30 bus.  We got there twenty minutes early, which made for a boring wait, (even Kendal Mint Cake wasn’t an adequate distraction, but then I do prefer fudge, but it turned out to be lucky we did as only the first six people in the queue were allowed on the packed bus (we barely squeezed on).  Seriously, most of the other buses I saw on the Isle of Wight were double deckers, so why on earth would they send a normal bus during what is obviously a peak time? There was a long queue of people behind us, who presumably had to stand there for another hour, or try to get a cab.  The situation was pretty ridiculous, and I don’t understand why they can’t at least run a bus every half an hour, especially towards the end of the day.

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Well, I clearly had some issues on the day of the visit, but none of them were really the fault of Osborne House (other than the pushy men at the door trying to sell memberships, but you get that at every English Heritage and National Trust property), so I won’t let it detract from my score, which is 4.5/5.  The house and grounds were gorgeous, and whilst I wish more of the house was open to the public, I realise the upkeep must be an enormous undertaking, so I can understand why it’s not. But I can see why Victoria and Albert loved it so.  A grand outing, and surely a must-see for lovers of Victorian architecture, and of the royal couple themselves – just be aware that the other visitors might cause extreme annoyance (though blogging seems to be a good way to vent those frustrations!).

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Isle of Wight: Carisbrooke Castle

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So, I honestly wasn’t all that keen on visiting Carisbrooke CastleCharles I has never been that high on my list (he’s never been that high on anyone’s list, which was clearly part of the problem), and to add to that, Carisbrooke is a good mile and a half from Newport, which, to avoid the expensive and erratic local buses, necessitated a long trudge up a very steep hill. However, it seemed silly to take the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight solely to see Osborne House, and as I’d been to the Needles, the donkey sanctuary, and the Garlic Farm on a previous trip, I was fast running out of island attractions.  Therefore, Carisbrooke Castle it was.

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Carisbrooke is an English Heritage property, which means they will try to persuade you to buy a membership, (even going so far as to only post the membership prices outside the door, to confuse foreign tourists) but if you stand firm, admission to Carisbrooke alone is £7.70.  The castle is most famous for being the place where Charles I was imprisoned prior to his execution, but the oldest bits of the castle date back to 1100, with various renovations throughout the centuries – the last being by Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, the other most famous resident.  The castle is also fairly renowned for its donkeys, of which more later.

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There’s a fair number of things to see around the castle, but we began with the museum, which was laid out in a handful of rooms over three floors.  I really disliked the signage in this museum; everything was in an irritatingly large font, giving the impression that the displays were intended solely for children, which I don’t think was the case, but it nonetheless infantilised the exhibits in an unpleasant way.  Captions aside, there wasn’t much point attempting to look around the ground floor, as it was packed full of children using the miniature trebuchet; clearly their parents were desperate to distract them after the donkey water wheel demonstration was postponed (I almost typed “donkey show” but I’d better not even go there).

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The top floor did contain some cool things, like the freaky doll pictured above, (her legs were in, er, pap smear position, whilst her torso was rotated the other way; no explanation for this was provided) and a player piano dating back to the 17th century that still worked! The main exhibit was on John Milne, (no relation to A.A.) geologist and pioneering seismologist, which my boyfriend was pretty excited about, but I found it kind of boring, and only perked up when I saw his paper on the Great Auk (anyone pick up on the Laura Ingalls Wilder connection?).

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There were some good Charles I artefacts in one of the attic rooms (yeah, he stinks compared to his son, but I’ll take regicide-related objects over geology any day), including the lace cap and cravat he was said to have worn on the day of his execution, and a lock of his hair, as well as some Roundhead armour and other Civil War memorabilia.

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The first floor contained Charles’s bedroom, but it has been so altered over the years, from having all the furniture replaced, to adding a useless minstrels gallery (and that’s not me being snarky, it actually was useless, as there were no stairs to access it!), that it bore little resemblance to the room he would have known.  Even the windows, which he mounted an escape attempt from, were changed, so I couldn’t even tell if he reasonably got stuck, or if he simply wasn’t trying hard enough (the current windows are much bigger than the originals would have been, so I couldn’t go by that).

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There was, at least, a rather good portrait of Charles II as a child, which wasn’t really compensation for the renovated windows, but it was something.  It’s worth noting that Charles I’s daughter Elizabeth was also imprisoned briefly here after his death, until she contracted pneumonia and died.

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Stepping out of the museum, we headed over to the chapel, which serves as both a Charles I and WWI memorial, and contains the cracking bust of Charles pictured at the top of this post.  Though the whole “remember” thing just made me think of the Guy Fawkes rhyme, which was another monarchical crisis entirely, it was a lovely quiet chapel, with a nice echoey floor.

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In an antechamber off the chapel, there was a video room showing the history of Carisbrooke Castle as told by a cartoon donkey that appeared to simultaneously rip off Shrek and Wallace and Gromit.  The actual donkeys are kept in a stable at the other side of the complex, from which they emerge several times a day to walk around the treadwheel to power the well, mainly for the delight of tourists.  They’re all given “J” names, but alas, there was no Jessica donkey; however, there was a Jill and a Jim Bob, which reminded me a bit too much of the Duggars (yes, I used to get sucked into watching that show when I was back home, because American TV is uniformly awful, with the exception of reruns of Seinfeld).  Cute donkeys though.

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Let’s see, the other main attractions involved walking up a crapload of uneven stairs to the top of the castle walls and the well, (which proved to be gratifyingly deep when I dropped a penny down it), or heading down to the Bowling Green, where Charles may have been allowed to exercise.  The top of the castle offers views of most of the Isle of Wight, and a garderobe, sans functional hole.  The Bowling Green was basically just a field, with cannons perched around the edges, and some hills that looked perfect for rolling down, but I didn’t want to ruin my dress, so I’ll never know.

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I shouldn’t neglect Beatrice’s garden, which was an Edwardian walled garden full of bees, and some butterflies, much to my dismay (damn stupid phobia).  The final part of the castle worth noting was the keep, which now contains a few replica weapons, like a crank-operated crossbow (you can turn it to your heart’s content, but obviously nothing is going to happen) and a cannon that “fires” when you touch the fuse to it (loud noise +flash of light).

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Ultimately, I think Carisbrooke Castle was middling at best.  At the end of the day, it was just a castle, and not substantially different from others I’ve seen; Charles I being kept prisoner was clearly the most exciting thing that’s ever happened here.  3/5; worth seeing if you’re interested in the Stuarts, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  And be sensible; drive or take a bus, because the walk is not especially pleasant.  They do sell chocolate “rat droppings” in the gift shop though, which I guess counts for something!

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