The Isle of Wight is an old haunt for me. For several years in the 1960s it was the summer holiday destination of choice for the Jones household. Over the many visits we trooped up and down the disused railway lines, which thanks to Dr Beeching were now converted into byways, and we rambled the hills and woods which are criss-crossed by more miles of footpath than almost anywhere else in southern England. We did a bit of sight-seeing, a minor concession of my naturalist father to his slightly reluctant children: there was the Godshill Model Village, Sandown Zoo, Bembridge Waxworks and Osborne House. Well, not the house at Osborne, just the gardens actually. And there was an ulterior motive here.
Mostly, of Osborne House, I remember, down by the royal children’s Swiss chalet-style ‘playhouse’, this gate:
For it was over this that my father dragged a hesitant 10-year-old to go exploring in the woods that ran down to Spithead (incidentally one of the best-named tracts of water anywhere on the planet). Because of its royal history, there remained at Osborne a large segment of the island that was footpath-free and very private. This did not suit my father’s inquisitive need to check out the plants and insects, so we took it upon ourselves to go trespassing.
Trespassing comes naturally to a Jones. Through all the years of traipsing across the English countryside, either with my dad, or off on my own, a “PRIVATE — KEEP OUT” sign was of no consequence. We went where we would.
On the whole we never met anyone, or if we did a gentle polite conversation was usually enough to show that we were doing no harm. The insect nets were always good ice-breakers and obvious signs that we were either nutty or scholarly, but not dangerous. Very often the convivial conversation would turn to country matters, wildlife, nature or the obscure history of individual pollard trees. My father always wore a tie, and usually a suit. When I realized that power-dressing could have influence on the game-keepers, woodmen or occasional owner on horseback, I too kitted out in worsted or tweed, and knotted a smart tie. I sometimes still do.
I can’t really remember what we found down in the lower Osborne woods, we certainly didn’t meet a soul there; but I do have a memory of the flotsam-covered beach, and the broken concrete runway down which Victoria’s wooden cart-wheeled bathing machine was run into the sea whenever she fancied a dip.
Now it’s my turn to take family holidays on the island. We do more sightseeing than trespassing. We always head to Osborne to marvel at its kitsch bling interiors and take a wander around the beautiful sweeping grounds.
Now, however, that gate is open wide:
The private beach is now accessible to visitors; the bathing machine runway is still there, the old queen’s ‘alcove’ (ludicrously ornate covered seat) has been renovated, the beach has been tidied up and cleared of driftwood, there’s a cafe and everything. Spithead is still a wonderful sight, filled with sails and ships.
But it’s not quite as exciting as trespassing.