The Isle of Wight has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries but it was not until the 1850s that the Island really took off as a place to seek solace from the burgeoning urban centres of Victorian Britain. And it was Queen Victoria’s purchase of the Osborne Estate in 1845 and her subsequent arrival in 1851 that truly transformed the Island into a chic retreat for the wealthy and elite of the day.
Town’s such as Ventnor, Ryde and Shanklin all began to be transformed by the building of substantial villas and hotels to house the growing number of visitors. Alongside Victoria the likes of Tennyson and Keats established homes on the Island and with them came many notable visitors of the day – Darwin, Dickens and Carroll were all regulars, many staying for extended periods to write and ‘take the air’.
The 1850s saw major growth in the British rail network and the Island opened its first line in 1862 between Newport & Cowes, over the next 30 years the network would be extended to connect all of the major towns on the Island. During this period railway travel was still primarily the transport choice of the elite, so although opening the Island up to many new visitors it was still some time before tourists arrived en masse.
Cowes was also a major pull during this time with the Americas Cup being founded in 1851 by the then Royal Yacht Squadron and the growing popularity of the Cowes Week Regatta. East Cowes too grew in popularity with a grand master plan for the town being developed during this period – unfortunately only a small number of the grand villas were completed before the project was cancelled due to lack of finance.
The Victorian’s continued to frequent the Island for their holidays and the Queen loved the place so much that in her later years, after the death of her beloved Albert, would refuse to go up to London, instead demanding her dignitaries meet her at Osborne on the Island. Victoria’s death in 1901 would bring a close to the great Victorian era in the Island’s history and begin the next phase – holidays for the masses.
The 1920s and 1930s saw a series of changes in employment legislation leading to greater ‘leisure’ time for the masses, with the railways now connecting most of Britain and fixed factory closing and ‘paid’ holidays there was an explosion in British tourism.
This continued way into the 1950s & 1960s with the growth of the motor car. This coincided with the rise of the ‘Holiday Camp’, many former military camps on the Island such as The Savoy and Brighstone were transformed by local entrepreneurs into thriving bases for family holidays.
During the 50s/60s air travel took off and the elite moved on to warmer and more exotic climes but the masses remained and the Island continued to prosper as a family resort destination right up until the 1980s.
The 1980s saw the rise of the cheap foreign package holiday which heralded the beginning of a decline in the traditional British holiday. The Island wasn’t immune and the 1990s saw a period of uncertainty with many of the traditional ‘holiday camps’ closing their doors for the last time.
The 2000s saw a rejuvenation with the growth of the short-stay market. Many of the old camps got 21st century makeovers, new events such as the IW Festival & the hip Bestival brought the Island to a new audience, new accommodation providers such as Vintage Vacations popped up and classic hotels such as Ventnor’s The Royal were restored to their former glory.
The Island in 2012 is almost a brilliant mix of the past & the present. If you want to head right back in time there are the historic houses such as Osborne to visit and grand hotels such as the Royal to take ‘tea’ – there is even the original Steam Railway to enjoy. If you want the 1950s then head over to Sandown or Ventnor for the day, rent a deckchair (especially from Ken Kemp – he has been a longshoreman in Sandown for over 70 years!), roll up your trousers and tuck into an ice cream whilst watching the day pass by. Many of the 70s/80s attractions still exist for a bit of childhood nostalgia and why not pack that old bell–tent and get all carry-on with that camping!
There you have it, 150 years of Vintage British Holidays, all located just under 2 hours from London, on a sweet little Island only 13 miles wide by 23 miles long off the south coast of England. So come on over and join the VBH club - grab a Red Funnel ferry from Southampton – they’ve been running for 151 years so you’ll be in good hands.