A little place in the country (Osborne House and the boat to Cowes)

Recently, Mum and I gave into the lure of our sea fever and caught a train for the coast. We were heading for the Isle of Wight, via Southampton. We had deliberately kept our plans vague, but we were determined to visit Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s country retreat, even if we did nothing else. It turned out to be worth a whole day.

Our plan was to get the bus from the station to the ferry terminus at Southampton, and sail across the Solent to Cowes on the Isle of Wight (UK Meet folks may want to know that the ferry terminal is opposite the Meet hotel). Unfortunately, our journey went a big wonky at that point. There is, in theory, a connecting bus which meets the London train. Unfortunately, there’s only a minute’s change and it had gone early. So we walked down the main road, cutting across the car park of the Novotel and two Ibises, past IKEA, and then past the Grand Harbour Hotel where the Meet will be. We even spotted some zebras on the way…

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These were just the ones we walked past–we spotted a lot more from the bus back to the station that evening 😀

Unfortunately, in the rush to get there by foot, we made a silly mistake with the boats. As you enter the ferry terminus by foot, there’s a ticket office immediately to your right. We dashed in there, not realising that it was for the car ferry and that the much faster passenger ferry was a little bit further into the complex. On the plus side, it was a lovely day,  so we sat outside at the front and got all the cobwebs blown out of us, which we wouldn’t have been able to do on the fast boat.

Once we got to Cowes, we headed uphill to Osborne House. Built in the late 1840s, as a private family home for the royal family, it’s an Italianate mansion overlooking the Solent, parts of which were designed by Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert (among other things, he insisted on making the central staircase from stone so it is inflammable).

We started our exploration of Osborne and its grounds by walking to the Swiss Cottage. This is a sizeable house in the grounds which was the domain of Victoria and Albert’s nine children. The cottage was part of Albert’s approach to the children’s education and came with a kitchen where they learned to cook, a dining room with space for the whole family, and a kitchen garden. Each child was given their own plot to grow fruit, flowers, and vegetables, which their father would buy from them. There’s a little toolshed in the grounds where you can still see their childsize gardening tools. Their learning in the cottage was meant to give them an understanding of ordinary life, but also gave them some freedom away from the main house during those times when affairs of government followed the family to their country retreat.

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The cottage is still surrounded by fruit gardens.

Osborne was always meant to be a family home. It was Victoria’s favourite residence–she referred to it as ‘cheerful and unpalacelike.’ Significantly, she and Albert paid for the furnishings of the new house with the funds raised by selling off the far more flamboyant Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The family went to Osborne at least four times a year and the impression you get as you walk around is of an idyllic bubble protecting what was one of the most high-profile families in the world.

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In the grounds of the cottage is the model fort two of the princes built as a surprise for Queen Victoria’s birthday one year (her sons clearly never grew out of this particular  style of present giving, as there’s a very large gun at the foot of the main stairs which younger son Arthur later sent her as a gift during his long and distinguished military career). Pity the poor governess who once got held prisoner inside the brick fort by a very naughty princess.

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We then followed a nature trail through the woods to the sea. All along the path are wooden sculptures of the wildlife that lives in the woods. 

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And there’s a beach. The tide was high when we got there, but there’s a lovely line of stripey deck chairs along the grass and a cafe selling ice cream. We got there at lunchtime, so every deckchair was full, but still found a bit of grass to sit on and eat our sandwiches. We spent some time watching a little boat moving from yacht to yacht before it got close enough that we could read the sign on its side–it was selling ice cream. Also by the water is Queen Victoria’s bathing machine, a formidable contraption. The children had an enclosed swimming bath built off the beach where they learned to swim (the boys taught by their father and the girls by a young Frenchwoman, Eugene Loby). 

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And here’s the house itself, viewed from the path from the beach. 

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The grounds are beautifully landscaped. The house itself has a very different character depending on which floor you’re on. The ground floor contains various rooms of state as well as the parlour and billiards room, Victoria and Albert’s private rooms are on the first floor, and the children’s rooms and nursery are at the top. The route around the house also takes you down into the cellars to get a glimpse at the kitchens and life behind the scenes. 

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It’s quite dim inside, and was very busy, so I didn’t take many pictures, but this piece of furniture caught my eye. It’s a conversation seat, with space for gentlemen to sit on the ends, whereas a young lady (and her chaperone) would need the larger central seats to allow for the width of their skirts. 

We also loved the nursery with its wooden ark and doll’s house and row of cots. One of the neighbouring rooms details the marriages and descendants of Victoria’s children, most of whom married into other European royal families. They and their children all spent time at Osborne–if you were to pick a crowned head of state from any part of early twentieth century Europe, there’s a pretty good chance they once slept in one of those little wooden cots in the nursery at Osborne.

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This is the Durbar Room in the newer wing of the house, built in the early 1890s, which was used for state dinners. Although it’s hard to see, the walls and ceiling are all decorated with intricate plasterwork designed by Punjabi architect Bhai Ram Singh.

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Back outside and looking across the terrace. You can see two of the three fountains that are set at varying levels.

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And here, with my back to the highest fountain, is the view down towards the Solent. This was landscaped during the building of the house, and was one of the draws for Prince Albert, who compared it to the Bay of Naples. You can clearly see the mainland, and we could even pick out a few landmarks, including the Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth.

We wandered slowly back down to the ferry, past a sign commemorating the very first speeding offence committed by a motorist in the UK, and decided that it was time to head for home. Back on the ferry, we sat out on deck for most of the trip, enjoying the views over the Cowes Marina and then along the Solent and across Southampton Water.

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We were there the week before Cowes Week, which is one of the UK’s biggest yachting events, and the marina was already starting to fill up.

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Cowes gives way to the Solent. It was slightly choppy as we crossed back towards the shelter of Southampton Water, setting off a whole chorus of car alarms on the decks below.

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There are several big oil refineries along the edge of Southampton Water and these tankers were docked at the pipelines. With the weather just starting to turn, we were glad to get back to dry land.

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2 Responses to A little place in the country (Osborne House and the boat to Cowes)

  1. Michelle says:

    LOVED this! I think the zebras and the couch were my favourite parts. (Although I would probably use the sections for the gentlemen to stack my books and snacks for a reading session. 😉 )

    • amyraenbow says:

      The zebras were great. They’re all over Southampton. The fort amused me most–I kept imagining Victoria’s face when presented with her birthday surprise.

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