175 Years as The Holiday Island

Victorians flocked to the Isle of Wight to ‘take the air’ for their health, and started the trend for the Isle of Wight to be the place to take a vacation. Visitors have been flocking to this glorious garden isle ever since - so here's a look at how the Island's tourist offering has evolved over the last 175 years.

Victorians loved the Isle of Wight believing that ‘taking the air’ would drastically improve their health, and Ventnor especially became the ‘Belgravia of the Isle of Wight’ for these upmarket health tourists with many top notch hotels and upmarket shops opening to cater for them.

In 1841 Sir James Clark had written in his book 'The Sanative Influence of Climate': “I have certainly seen nothing along the South Coast of England that will bear comparison with it (the Ventnor area); it is a matter of surprise that the advantages it possesses to so eminent degree should be overlooked in a country whose inhabitants have been traversing half the globe in search of climate. Its most important qualities are as a winter residence for delicate invalids.”

Victorians were encouraged to take the waters – which included bathing in heated sea water baths. Of course they also bathed from bathing machines at the beach, covered from head to toe in bathing costumes. Nowadays swimming is a much easier affair and there are plenty of beautiful sandy beaches around the island for ‘bathing’.

On Foot

Walking was a pursuit that was encouraged for visiting health tourists, and eminent Victorians took walks on Ventnor Downs such as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a young law student called Ghandi who described in his autobiography a walk on the Downs with his landlady’s ever chattering sprightly twenty-five year old daughter, who “flew like a bird up the hill, and darted like an arrow down the hill,” leaving him shamefacedly struggling to get down.

In 1843 visitors were able to include a walk down through the gorge at Blackgang on their itineraries, and in a hut at the top were the bones of a huge fin whale that had been stranded off the Needles. Blackgang Chine, the country’s first theme park, was born.

Of course the poet Tennyson was also famous for his walks, on the downs that now bear his name in Freshwater near his former home Farringford. There are so many wonderful walks on the island and the Isle of Wight Walking Festival was started in 1998 to celebrate them. With five to eight walks daily over the two week period, there’s everything from one mile walks to walks around the whole island. 

In the Saddle

If you prefer to see your scenery from the saddle the island is a superb place to cycle, and there are special designated cycle paths and trails you can follow. The Isle of Wight has an annual cycling festival, with rides suitable for all ages and abilities. The gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) Isle of Wight landscape is ideal for cycling enthusiasts and there are many off road tracks for getting into the countryside.

Horse riding is another saddle-bound activity that has grown in recent years, although it was a necessity in Victorian times. Take a pub lunch hack from Allendale Equestrian Centre or a ride on the beach with Sally’s Riding. You can even bring your horse with you on holiday.

On the Water

Sailing is hugely popular outdoor activity that has grown in popularity since Victorian times. The first sailing club, The Royal Yacht Squadron, was founded in Cowes just over 200 years ago, but sailing really came into vogue after the first America’s Cup race around the Island in 1851. A Round the Island Race is still held annually and attracts over 1,700 boats, but it is Cowes Week regatta at the beginning of August for which the island is known worldwide. 

Watersports are prolific around the island, from canoeing and kayaking to surfing, paddleboarding, windsurfing and kitesurfing. Or at Freshwater you can try Coasteering; clambering along the bottom of the cliffs and plummeting into the sea with Isle of Wight Adventure Activities who teach all watersports. 

The Isle of Wight is one of the best places in the country for windsurfers of any ability with conditions from down-the-line wave sailing, to flat water safety for beginners. Former World Champion windsurfer, Ross Williams, hails from the island where his passion began at his family's windsurfing centre, Wight Waters in Lake. 

Paddleboarding has grown in popularity in the past few years, and the more gentle waters of the Solent are ideal for this. Surfing is better in the waves of the south west coast, and sometimes those of Ventnor, Shanklin and Sandown. 

Kite surfing has really taken off on the island over the past few years and beginners learn at Appley Beach or Yaverland with Windstalker Island Kite Sports. On a breezy day the skies of Brook beach are full of the sails of experienced kite surfers.

Or those sails might be of passing paragliders who tend to favour the south west coast and effortlessly hang above the cliffs, making use of the thermals. The Isle of Wight has been the training ground for a number of top British paragliding pilots and you can learn at Butterfly Paragliding or High Adventure Paragliding.

It’s all a far cry from Victorian times, but the island is still top of the list for outdoor activities – they’re just a bit more active these days and done in fewer clothes!

Jo Macaulay

27 April 2018

By Jo Macaulay in Articles