The effusive welcome of the pier*

*WH Auden

As I disembark on shore from the Hovercraft at the Isle of Wight’s Ryde Pier, I’m happy to know that the father of Philip Norman, biographer of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, once ran the pier’s Seagull Ballroom. The no 4 bus will deliver me from the pier head to Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s island retreat during the second half of the 19th Century, in the space of less than thirty minutes.

Apparently, the view of the Solent from the house reminded Prince Albert of the Bay of Naples, and once I have stood high on the sunbathed Terrace and seen it for myself, I can believe him. The original design for the rebuilding of Osborne House was by Albert with Thomas Cubitt, and Rudyard Kipling’s father John (originally trained in ceramics) with his architect pupil Bhai Ram Singh, designed the Durbar Wing.

The pier was opened in 1814; before that, visitors were carried ashore on the back of a porter.

Alfred Tennyson (he accepted a peerage in 1883) moved his family in 1853 from Twickenham, where the poet had been distressed by the advent of the railway and a pervasive smell of cabbages, to Farringford House, overlooking the island’s Freshwater Bay. This remained his main residence for nearly forty years. Tennyson quoted someone he met as describing the air here as “worth sixpence a pint”.

Even here, however, fans from the mainland would track Tennyson to his home, some even pressing their noses to the windows to peer at the family. He built a rustic bridge over the public footpath which crossed his grounds, only for members of the public to gather beneath it, hoping for a glimpse of the large bearded poet as he crossed it in his blue military cloak and broad brimmed hat.

Three years later, the owners from whom Tennyson had rented sold the house to him. Prince Albert called in unannounced on the day the family moved their own furniture in, and found them unpacking. He picked some cowslips for Victoria, and promised to bring her to see the place. Tennyson finally met her at Osborne House in 1862.

J B Priestley wrote in “Rain upon Godshill”:

“….you can spend days and days exploring the Isle of Wight, which, if you are really interested, begins magically enlarging itself for you.”.

Priestley sold a holiday home in Chessell to his friend Louis Macneice, and lived with first one wife, then another, at Brook Hill House.

Karl Marx and his wife Jenny stayed at Ventnor in 1874, before the extent of his illness was fully realised. Their second daughter, Laura, paid them a weekend visit and wrote that they were: “….like two schoolchildren, suffocating with suppressed laughter that at last despite all efforts would well forth.”.

Charles Seely, a Liberal MP who supported the unification of Italy, invited the great liberator General Giuseppe Garibaldi to stay at Brooke House on the island in 1864. A crowd of some 2000 admirers accompanied Garibaldi along the fifteen miles from Cowes to Brooke House.

During his stay, Garibaldi visited Farringford, where Tennyson took him to his study and advised him not to discuss politics in England.

Before he left Farringford, Garibaldi was accosted by a woman on her knees. She was Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneering photographer and a neighbour in Freshwater. She held up her chemical stained hands and begged him to sit for a photograph. He is said to have mistaken her for a mendicant, and she to have retorted: “This is not dirt, but art!”.

Eventually Queen Victoria, tired of the brouhaha, instructed the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to write to Charles Seely urging an end to Garibaldi’s visit.

Charles Dickens rented a house for the summer of 1845 at Bonchurch. Tennyson was godfather to Dickens’s fourth son. Following the christening, Dickens invited him to share a house with him and his family in Switzerland. Tennyson refused, “fearing that fundamental differences of temperament would make such a close association fatal to their friendship.”.

One has to draw the line somewhere.

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