ENGLISH HERITAGE:Osborne House Location: York Avenue, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, PO32 6JX [map] Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar) Admission: £17.20 Website:english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne Four word summary: Queen Victoria's favoured hideaway Time to allow: at least half a day
To understand Queen Victoria, there's no better place to visit than her favourite home, on the Isle of Wight. A few years into her marriage to Prince Albert she sought somewhere private to bring up a young family, a rural hideaway, and plumped for a country estate on the outskirts of Cowes. She'd been to the neighbouring castle a couple of times on holiday, and liked the view, and buying a big house is easy when you rule the country. Unfortunately it proved nowhere near big enough, so a replacement was built in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, and that proved perfect.
The royal family spent extended periods at Osborne House each year, once around Victoria's birthday in May, once around Albert's in August and again in the run-up to Christmas. After Albert tragically died at the age of 42, their wedding anniversary became the favoured time for a visit, and the estate's seclusion proved ideal during four decades of mourning. Queen Victoria died at Osborne in January 1901, leaving strict instructions that the house should not be disposed of after her death. Edward VII promptly did exactly that, because none of the nine royal offspring liked the place as much as their mother had. Osborne became a Royal Naval training college, then a military convalescent home, and is now one of the jewels in English Heritage's crown (as the admission price suggests).
I suspect more people would visit Osborne House if it were easier to get to (except of course the key driver behind its original location was that it isn't). But once across the Solent it's easily accessible, and I was impressed/disappointed by the crowds queueing through the gift stop first thing on Bank Holiday Monday. Large family groups sprawled down the drive towards the ramp into the back of the house, where the older generation paused for breath, and staff handed out activity trails to the younger visitors. These printed booklets looked like a jolly good idea at the time, but by the time we reached Queen Victoria's bedroom I was cursing their existence.
Visitors filter round the house via a pre-determined route, either admiring the decor and contents of each room, or tracking down a painting of a specific dog to scrawl into a box on page 4. Guides wait in each room ready to explain more than the single information panel by the door, or to direct overeager children towards the corner where the next answer might be. The corridors are almost institutional, save for the geometric frills, assorted sculptures and pristine Minton tiling. The art and ornaments are original, and impressive, and still the property of the (current) royal household. So many family portraits, so many busts of the Queen, and rather a lot of V&A monograms splashed everywhere you look.
Along the way you'll see the opulent state rooms where the family spent the day. You'll delve into the scullery where the gold-rimmed crockery was washed. You'll climb (steeply) to the top of the Pavilion Wing to the recreated royal nurseries. You'll enter the private apartments which were gated off for 50 years, to see Prince Albert's desk and the bed in which Victoria died. On quiet days this sombre chamber probably packs an emotional punch, but rather less so if you've been stuck in the doorway waiting for kids to be pulled from the foot of the four poster crying because they haven't been allowed to complete their wordsearch.
The final treat on the tour is the Durbar Room, recently renovated, which two ladies drawn here by the latest ITV Sunday night drama had been looking forward to seeing since they walked in. It's from the period after Albert's death when Victoria became Empress of India, and the decor (especially the intricate plaster work across the ceiling) reflects her increasingly subcontinental taste. Cabinets display some of the finer gifts she received for her later jubilees, and the corridor outside features more Hindu, Sikh and Muslim portraits than the most narrow-minded royalist would ever want to believe existed.
With the house duly ticked off, the remainder of the estate awaits. The rearterrace is splendid, all geometric beds and classical statues, plus a big fountain as a centrepiece. I was rewarded with bright sunshine for my visit, and was struck by the unnatural shade of the surrounding plasterwork, less virgin stucco, more Butterscotch Angel Delight. Stretching out in front of the terrace is a long path down towards the sea, initially quite formal, then dissolving into a meandering woodland. The sea's further away than it looks, and here you'll find Queen Victoria's privatebeach, a brief golden strand reopened to the public a few years back, now with deckchairs and cake.
The other prime spot in the woods is the Swiss Cottage. Prince Albert had this two-storey alpine chalet built to add a Germanic touch, and to act as a giant playroom for his nine children. Inside they learned cooking, housekeeping and etiquette, while outside it was gardening, building and playing at soldiers. He even built a separate chalet as a repository - a second Victoria and Albert museum - filled with rocks, stuffed birds, shells, fossils and all the ethnographic specimens a budding royal family might need to understand the world they would grow up to rule. It's a delight, despite its intended audience of nine.
Osborne House (and its surroundings) kept me occupied for rather longer than I was expecting, and that's without succumbing to a slice of cake, a light lunch or an afternoon tea. I can now more easily picture the happy family years enjoyed by the most powerful monarch on the planet, as well as one of the chief places she hid herself away for decades after her husband passed away. To understand Queen Victoria, there's no better place to visit than her favourite home, on the Isle of Wight.