The Isle of Wight is England’s largest island with plenty of resorts dating to Victorian times. Possessing breath-taking views and a splendid nature’s abode, it had been the holiday destination of Queen Victoria, who had her summer residence at the Osborne House, East Cowes. It has a “Roman Settlements” heritage, a “Dinosaur” heritage, the famous 30 metre-high rocks called The Needles, llama and donkey sanctuaries, and a long list of famous people connected to the place, from writers/poets/naturalists Charles Dickens (who wrote his David Copperfield there), Lewis Carroll, J.B. Priestley, John Keats and Charles Darwin to director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient (1996)) and actor Jeremy Irons (The Lion King (1994)), who were born there (in Ryde and Cowes respectively). Much more than just “England in Miniature”, as it is often called, Isle of Wight has its own unique character and charm. A trip there is a trip to remember since it is bound to exceed expectations. Below are highlights from my recent trip to the Isle of Wight – I chose to focus on (i) Ventnor Botanic Garden; (ii) The Garlic Farm and on (iii) Newport.
I. Ventnor & Ventnor Botanic Garden
Ventnor is a seaside resort parish located on the south-east coast. It was developed in Victorian times. Karl Marx, Ivan Turgenev and Charles Dickens (at Bonchurch) were all enamoured of it and some of them started their books there. Having a warmer climate that the rest of England, Ventnor is home to some rare fauna and flora. In particular, it is famed for its Botanic Garden, first opened in 1970 by Sir Harold Hillier and built on the premises of the Royal National Hospital for Pulmonary Diseases. I was truly impressed by the variety of plants there. The Garden felt very cosy but also supremely large at the same time. It has sections representing subtropical and temperate regions of the world, and there are plants from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa and the Mediterranean. It is well-organised and provides for idyllic walks. Squirrels, wall lizards and sea turtles can all be spotted there.
While walking through the Garden, I spotted this “device” to the right. Reading further, I found out that the place where I stood was “the actual site of the original recording equipment used to measure sunshine at Ventnor in Victorian times.” Though, I also read that only the railings and plinth were original, and the equipment, the recorder itself, was merely a model.
“The Victorians started to measure the hours of sunlight using a Campbell-Stokes sun recorder which burnt hours of sunlight information onto a paper recording strip behind a glass globe that concentrated the sun’s rays.” The device must have been rather important at that time when visitors and those having health problems were going south to resorts specifically for fresh air and a lot of sunlight.
Being interested in Japan, I enjoyed the Japanese Garden. All kinds of bamboo were represented there, as well as other plants and flowers from Asia. The place even had a makeshift torii to give it the right atmosphere! (see the picture above). The wild flowers area was also impressive, and in the Garden’s Exotic Mushroom Chamber, one can find a variety of fungi and scary-looking mushrooms. The great thing is that the Garden even even has the so-called “Dinosaur” trail, on which one can see some of the “living fossils” that were present during the reign of the dinosaurs. Plants that flourished at that time were lavish Magnolia, evergreen Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana), different kinds of cycads and the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia).
II. The Garlic Farm
The Garlic Farm, located near Newchurch, is considered to be the “must-visit” place on the Isle of Wight. The farm has been growing garlic for over 60 years, and is also known for its garlic pickles and chutneys. The Farm provides different kinds of experience in terms of garlic. Since the farm is set in a very picturesque region of the island, walking tours are organised around the farm, which can be combined with a tasting experience, whereby visitors can try out the produce, “from chutneys and relishes to smoked and black garlic”. There is an education centre, a shop with garlic-inspired souvenirs, as well as a café and a restaurant on the premises too to try out garlic-inspired dishes and drinks.
Some interesting facts that I gathered while touring the Farm:
- “Garlic is grown globally, but China is by far the largest producer of garlic, accounting for over 77% of world output”; it is also a country that consumes the most garlic in the world, followed by South Korea;
- “Much of the garlic production in the United States is centred in Gilroy, California, which calls itself “the garlic capital of the world”;
- Around 2600 BC, the Sumerians, known as “inventors of one of the first forms of writing”, named garlic on their list of dietary staples. This is believed to be the first time the herb is mentioned in writing;
- In ancient Egypt, “garlic was used for embalming”;
- In the Roman Empire, “soldiers were fed garlic to make them more courageous”, and Garlic was used to be called “Russian penicillin”, which was given to soldiers as medicine during the World War II;
- In the 1700s, farmers in Europe “would attach braids of garlic to the entrance of their homes to assure evil would not enter”.
- In 1858, “French chemist Louis Pasteur…was the first to describe garlic’s antibacterial properties after observing bacteria he exposed to the herb”.
What I also appreciated at the Farm’s education centre were links made to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula . This novel “refers to the long-standing European superstition that garlic protects against vampires and werewolves”. One board at the centre says: “some suggest that Count Dracula himself was the mastermind behind the belief – since the herb has been shown to thin the blood, it would decrease clotting action, making it easier for vampires to feast on people who consumed it”.
Moreover, I’ve learnt that The Isle of Wight Garlic Festival, which first took place in 1983, is one of the largest events on the island. Sadly, it was cancelled this year due to the pandemic. It was due to begin on 21st August 2021.
The shop impressed me, too. There were on sale seed packs, garlic growing kits, garlic mayonnaises, oils with garlic, garlic dressings, stationery featuring garlic, souvenir magnets and clothes, and even the vampire gift set! The garlic-inspired beverages were as varied, from Black Garlic Beer to Black Garlic Vodka and the Bloody Mary Kit. The restaurant also offered such dishes as the Isle of Wight Chicken & Garlic Caesar Salad and Black Garlic, Chocolate Brownie and Raspberry Sundae.
The sculpture to the right is by designer and sculptor Guido Oakley. It was sculpted in situ from the oak tree on the site of the Garlic Farm café.
Newport is a county town situated to the north. There is the Newport Roman Villa, with its house constructed circa 280 AD, and also Carisbrooke Castle nearby. The Isle of Wight is known for its carnivals and festivals, for example there is the Isle of Wight Festival, the Yarmouth Fireworks Evening on 5 November and the Island Heritage Train Days. This year, many festivals and carnivals were cancelled, as the one that was due to be held in July in Newport. So, instead, this modest march procession shown on the right was held. Participating musicians were dressed in their Newport regalia, drumming different music to please their small audience.
The procession was held in front of the St. Thomas Church, the main Anglican church on the island (pictured left). It originates in the late 12th century when St Thomas of Canterbury church was built in its place. The Isle of Wight is famous for its picturesque old churches. There is Old St Boniface Church in Bonchurch, which is located east of Ventnor and dates to the 11th century, and St Agnes Church in Freshwater, Isle of Wight. St. Agnes Church has the distinction of having a thatched roof, which lends it a special charm. Another architectural gem is All Saints Church in Godshill, a village that lies between Newport and Ventnor in the southeast of the island. This church is considered to be the largest medieval church on the island and has at least one notable curiosity – a wall painting that shows Christ crucified, not on a cross, but on a lily flower. Lilies have a very long tradition of being associated with death (and resurrection). The aroma of a lily was used to disguise the pungent smell of a decaying body when it had to rest at home for some days before the funeral, but it also had a more benign connotation, representing the soul’s quest to return to the state of innocence.