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Isle of Wight: Isle be back

We travelled back in time to find that the past is another country, even if the Isle of Wight is not

Shanklin seafront
Shanklin seafront

'Children are welcome" says the door sign of Romeo's Boutique. Underneath is another note, handwritten, advertising "assorted leggings and sweaters". Across the road, you can tuck into "French cakes, knickerbocker glory, sorbets and sundaes" at Pearly Boise. And two doors down, Not Just Travel has decorated its shop window with leaflets of its holidays to foreign parts.

It all reminded me of my childhood years spent here. My seven-year-old, Aaron, thought he already was in foreign parts. "You didn't say we were going abroad, Mummy!" he said excitedly in the car-queue to cross the Solent, the strait that separates mainland England from its largest island. "We are not, darling. It just feels like it because you need a ferry to get to the Isle of Wight."

Taking in the main street in Shanklin, a seaside resort on the east coast, the next morning, it dawns on me that it isn't just 20 miles of sea water that can make this island feel like a distant land. To quote LP Hartley's opening line of his novel The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country." And I really did feel as if I had time-travelled back to my 1970s childhood. Had my dad's old Mark III Cortina pulled up outside Groovy Records (yes, really), my younger self might have jumped in. It all made me feel pleasantly omniscient. When I holiday with my kids, I am usually glued to a guide book so I can answer their constant questions about where we are and what such and such means. Here it was different. What is a crabbing bucket, Mum? A tea cosy? A Conservative club? I had all the answers about the shops and sights of Shanklin High Street in my memory bank. I felt surprisingly authoritative.

In truth, I should have been less surprised. Of course it was familiar: the soil of this scepter'd, green and pleasant land is soaked in English culture and history. Lord Tennyson, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll all made the Isle of Wight their home. Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin lived here for extended periods, and Dickens, Thackeray and Keats penned works here. And "England in miniature", as it has been dubbed, was a favourite holiday destination for well-heeled Victorians. This island is about as foreign as a cup of tea (with the milk poured in first).

For one particularly well-heeled Victorian, the island was more than a favourite holiday spot: after the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria made Osborne House, her Isle of Wight residence, her main home. Why? Because, she said: "I can walk anywhere without being followed or mobbed."

Getting there

Sail Ferries to the Isle of Wight can be caught from Lymington, Southampton and Portsmouth, www.wightlink.co.uk

The monarch also described Osborne House as having "un-palacelike rooms...a place of one's own".

Those were not the words that sprang to my mind as I wended my way through the ornately embellished drawing and dining rooms and formal Italianate gardens of this royal household, but things are always relative. What is sure, however, is that Osborne House is a must-see, particularly the richly decorated Durbar Room which celebrates Queen Victoria's role as Empress of India; the carpet, woven in Agra, is stand-out beautiful.

The former royal household is in East Cowes, on the northern tip of the island. Less than an hour later, we were marvelling at The Needles, a row of three stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea off the western extremity of this small island. The Needles Lighthouse, built in 1859, stands at the outer end of the formation and the four structures have become icons, endlessly depicted on tea towels and snow globes.

We were contemplating the impressive stacks from the Needles Old Battery, a Victorian fort built in 1862 and used throughout both World Wars. Two enormous original guns remain on the parade ground and further up the headland there is a small exhibition in the underground rooms of The New Battery, which tells the story of Britain's Cold War "race for space", when rockets were tested here.

What we did visit, though, was a tea room on the top floor of a former signal station on the headland. It hardly needs stating that the National Trust excels at breathing new life into old structures. But serving clotted cream teas on vintage crockery from a bleak look-out tower, built in the Second World War to monitor ships in the Solent, must count among its more original regenerations.

Equally pleasing, the interior of a 1940s-inspired tea room - flying ducks above the fireplace, wartime music on the wireless - triggered a question from my 13-year-old, Leah, which I was able to answer with conviction. "What did the lady behind the till mean when she said that all cakes on sale are made from 'one cupboard'?" A lesson in the baking practices of yesteryear ensued.

You might expect to find a tasty Victoria sponge on the Isle of Wight, but few, I imagine, would associate the place with garlic. In fact, Great Britain's sunniest county is also its biggest producer of the pungent bulb and down on The Garlic Farm shop, in Newchurch, you can see and smell its many varieties and taste it in myriad concoctions, too. Garlic beer, anyone?

I didn't fancy it either, but I did buy the kids a tub of black garlic-flavoured ice cream. It was a bit avant-garde for their tastes. They preferred the knickerbocker glory at Pearly Boise on Shanklin High Street.

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