SUNDAY MAGAZINE

In Hobbit land

Idyllic: A pub in the Isle of Wight.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

The quiet charms of Isle of Wight had once lured the likes of Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria.

QUEEN VICTORIA couldn't have been wrong. Not in an era when she became Empress of India and had the world at her feet. Nor, for that matter, could Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate of the Victorian Age. And yet, both of them chose to spend the happiest years of their lives on a little island, just 14 miles broad and 21 miles long. Tennyson wrote one of his most famous poems, "Crossing the Bar", on a ferry between his haven and the mainland. We followed them, more than a century later, when we visited the Isle of Wight and got an insight into what had lured them there.Our ferry from Portsmouth ploughed through the Solent as if it were an inland lake. Wight became a blur on the horizon, then a blue lump, then we snuggled up to the jetty and disembarked. It was drizzling a feather-rain when we stepped onto the island, but a few minutes later it stopped, a wind spun away the clouds, and sunlight flooded the scene: blue sea, foam-flecked; blue sky, with wisps of shifting clouds; a wooded rise, polished by the rain, dotted with cottages. "Welcome to Wight" said our taxi driver cheerfully.We were the first Indians he had met in Wight, he said. But then he had not been around when the Queen Victoria had come here. She had brought at least three Indians to Osborne House. Would we like to go there, he asked. We said we would, but we'd like to see the rest of the island before that. He nodded and drove left.

Quiet beauty

Downs undulated, enfolding little farms smug in their own privacy. Chesterton's rolling English roads rambled round the shires. If the Hobbits of Middle Earth had suddenly appeared we would not have been surprised. We passed a long line of backpackers, striding determinedly. "Italians" remarked our driver, "don't see many of those. They must be heading for the Garlic farm. Ha-ha!"We drove off the road. A peacock and a peahen grazed before a cottage. Inside, there was a shop devoted to garlic. Eight different kinds of garlic were displayed in bins, bags and bunches. There was Oak Smoked Garlic, garlic relishes with daunting names like Cheeky Monkey (garlic and banana), Daredevil (garlic with pineapple and chilli mustard) and Vampire's Revenge (garlic, plum and habenero chilli with the recommendation that it should be tried with ice-cream!) Apparently, nowadays, well-heeled Brits holidaying in the Mediterranean, associate garlic with The Smell of Affluence! An enterprising local farmer had cashed in on this.But then the Caulkheads, as the third generation born-in-Wight folk call themselves, have always been adventurous. Driving along the steep chalk cliffs, with the surf crashing below, we thought of the old Caulkhead professions: smuggling, piracy, wrecking. Wreckers tied lanterns on donkeys to give ships the false impression that they were approaching a safe harbour, and lured them to their doom on shoals and sharp rocks. Today, however, Caulkheads welcome visitors to their little villages like the beautiful Shanklin with its thatched cottages. Continuing down the curve of Wight's west coast, we drove into the rather manorial Farrington House. The deeply troubled Tennyson had bought this for his beloved wife Emily. From here the saturnine Poet Laureate of England would go for long, lonely, walks into the rugged countryside, his shock of dark hair and great cloak whipped by the sea wind. He must have seemed like an apparition, stalking out of the mist. Thomas Carlyle writing to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1842, described Tennyson as: "a man solitary and sad, dwelling in an element of gloom, carrying a bit of Chaos about him... .of sallow brown complexion, almost Indian looking..."

Things Indian

That was a time when India, and Indians, were very much on the English mind. The East India Company was pouring the wealth of India into England and it was every adventurous young man's ambition to make his fortune in the East. India was, clearly, the flavour of the age when Queen Victoria and her beloved consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, decided to find an island retreat of their own, and they discovered Wight, far from the starch of the mainland. Here, they chose Osborne House. We drove into their enormous estate where manicured green lawns, spreading cedars and beds of well-tended flowers framed a three-storeyed, Italianate, palace made of pale yellow, almost golden, stone. But though the first sight of Osborne House is impressive we were particularly struck by the interiors. Queen Victoria, before, and to a greater extent after, she became Empress of India in 1876, was more and more influenced by India and things Indian. There are portraits of the younger son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Duleep Singh, his wife "Maharanee Bamba" and their son Victor Albert hanging in the Durbar Corridor. There are two portraits of Abdul Karim, the Queen's Indian Secretary who taught her Hindustani. She also commissioned the Austrian artist, Rudolph Swoboda to go to India and paint portraits of Indian people. He was away for two years and his Indian portraits also hang in the Durbar Corridor. The Corridor is outside the Durbar Hall. This magnificent room, replicating a royal durbar hall of an Indian Maharaja, was designed by Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling, and decorated by an Indian artisan named Ram Singh. It was built between 1890 and 1891

Witness to the end

Victoria and Albert loved both Wight and Osborne. From here they planned the marriages of their children and grand-children in a royal web that netted Germany, Denmark, Russia, Prussia, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Romania and Spain. They spent her birthdays, together, in Osborne. And she died there, surrounded by her family, on January 22, 1901. Her body was carried from Wight, across the Solent, in the Royal Yacht. As Tennyson expressed it, both she and her Poet Laureate saw their "Pilot face to face, When (they had) crost the bar.." An age of great historical significance for the world had ended in a tiny island called Wight.

Quickfacts* Getting There: By Underground, taxi or bus from Heathrow Airport to the Train Station, and then by Britrail to Portsmouth. From the jetty take a ferry or hovercraft to Ryde on the Isle of Wight.
* Getting Around : By taxi, bus or cycle.
* Accommodation: To suit all budgets