Follow in the Footsteps of Heroes

The famous have always been drawn to the Isle of Wight, and they still come – often incognito. If you want to see some of the places where they once lived or stayed, or to walk the places that they trod, or even eat and drink at the places they did, then here are a few suggestions.

Cowes has always attracted famous people to its regatta in August, including the royals who would sometimes stay at Rawlings Hotel – now a newly refurbished boutique hotel called North House. Princes Harry and William stayed here for a mate’s stag party weekend in 2008. More recently it was the hotel accommodation for the cast members of feature film Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard and Michael Gambon. “We were all in the same hotel in Cowes, which was glorious, and in the evenings we would all sit around one little fire pit outside and have a drink and all go off to bed,” said Judi in the Isle of Wight County Press.

And around the corner from North House on the corner of Market Hill and Castle Road is the white wood panelled house that belonged to Celia Imrie, who lived in Cowes for many years and had lots of her famous friends visiting her for weekends and holidays. Celia especially liked to cycle along the seafront to Gurnard and take breakfast at The Watersedge Café on the beach, which you might like to do too.

Film star Benedict Cumberbatch married Sophie Hunter on Valentine’s Day 2015 at the pretty church at Mottistone and the couple had their reception in an enormous marquee in the garden of Mottistone Manor across the road, which you can visit as it’s owned by the National Trust. The day after their wedding the couple hired the Sun Inn pub at Hulverstone so that all of their famous guests, including Tom Hiddleston and Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman, could eat lunch away from prying eyes. They do great food here and the views down to the coast across the fields are fab.

The poet superstar of his day, Tennyson made his home at Farringford House just up from Freshwater Bay and you can retrace his steps up to his beloved downs from the back of the house if you wish. He even had a little bridge installed to avoid the public footpath as people would come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of him. You could briskly stride along the cliff tops reciting poetry if you really wanted to get into character. After a walk on the downs that now bear his name you could get a lunch or afternoon tea at Dimbola, the museum and photographic gallery in the former home of his friend Julia Margaret Cameron. Upstairs you can see the photographs she took of the great man.

Walk along to the southernmost end of Shanklin Beach and you can look for fossils as Darwin once did, when he stayed on the island whilst writing The Origin of the Species. The Fisherman’s Cottage pub at this the end of the beach would have been a bath house in his time, offering warm salt water bathing to cure all ills. But you can get a fine fish supper in this ancient thatched hostelry nowadays. It was also the preferred watering hole for David Essex, Ringo Starr and the other cast and crew members of That’ll Be The Day when it was filmed here in the 1970s. Further along the seafront the boarding house where Darwin stayed is now the Waterfront bar and restaurant.

Karl Marx was advised to stay in Ventnor for his health toward the end of his life and would walk on Ventnor Downs daily to take the air. You can see the blue plaque on the house in which he stayed in St Boniface Road, facing the downs, and a pathway leads to the downs from across the road, should you wish to retrace his steps. Curiously Winston Churchill might have been staying in Ventnor at the very same time, but as a small boy with his nanny at her sister’s home in Alexandra Gardens that overlooks the Cascade down to the seafront. Just below here is Ventnor Winter Gardens where many of the big names of pop played in the 1960s before they became mega famous such as The Who and David Bowie, and you have great views of the beach from the bar where you can get food and drinks.

Charles Dickens stayed in Winterbourne in nearby Bonchurch in 1849 and although it is now a private home you could walk along to Horseshoe Bay from Ventnor and see the beach where he would play rounders with his staff every morning. Walk up from the beach and you pass Bonchurch Old Church that dates from the 9th century – King Charles I attended a wedding here in 1649!

Then walk past Winterbourne to see the blue plaque and wander up to the Bonchurch Arms, which is little changed since Dickens’s times – as you walk into the courtyard you could be walking into one of his books. This hostelry is built into former stable buildings and it’s feasible that Dickens may have paid a visit as it was granted its licence in the 1840s. It’s also a favourite haunt of celebrity chef Rick Stein when visiting the Island.

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6 December 2017

By Jo Macaulay in Articles