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…
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.
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.
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.
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.