For those who read my last blog, you will remember me talking about spending summer Saturdays at the cricket club. Well when we weren’t there, we were in a static caravan in Mablethorpe. Our family is pretty well versed in the tradition of the Great British summer beach holiday. If it involved a caravan, waltzers, buckets and spades, bingo or having sand rubbed vigorously from your feet by a grandad who doesn’t know his own strength, we were happy. Once I’d read Famous Five go off in a caravan they stopped being tiny spaces where your sister was under your feet and infuriating, they were magical places where tables miraculously turned into beds and cupboards at different times of day. We’d spend our days playing on the beach, and our evenings playing bingo and on the amusements, at the circus, on the rides, or just running around the campsite. They’re all happy memories, and I think every child of the 70s and 80s has a deep wired love of a British seaside holiday. Before Majorca and Tenerife there was Filey and Skegness, and we were more than fine with that.
When we were looking for somewhere to spend a week following a trip to Southampton to visit my brother at the end of June (more about that in my next blog), we were spoilt for choice with coastal options, but sprung for the Isle of Wight as that was Chris’s childhood Mablethorpe. I’d no background knowledge of the place but liked the words that were being used to describe it, as a quirky, quaint, old-fashioned seaside resort. My sister in law mentioned over the weekend that it was a “lush place when the sun was out, but, well, a bit grim when it’s not.” Having pitched up in marvellous sunshine on Cool Camping’s Ninham Country Holiday’s site, a beautifully located site in the middle of the countryside but a 20 minute walk from the beach, with a boot full of beers, sausages and sun cream, I’d forgotten what she said until the following morning when we woke up to grey skies.
As you tend to do on the first day of your holiday, we set off for a long walk into the resort and around, making our way first into Shanklin through acres of farming fields and neighbouring caravan parks, then along the promenade into Sandown. And to be honest, it did look a bit grim. The quaint coloured beach huts that you see in photos of Brighton that probably cost as much as a terraced house in East Lancashire were all closed with the exception of a pair of snoozing pensioners. The beach was all but empty and the sea looked slightly hostile. What must have once been a majestic row of stately Victorian hotels and guest houses looked in need of a lick of paint and some were shut down, and the piers that hadn’t been washed away and not replaced following storms, were home to endless slot machines, not bingo or dance floors. It made me quite sad to be honest. I thought about my grandparents and their frequent trips down to the Lincolnshire coast in their little Cinquecento, and how they loved to take us all playing bingo and on the 2p machines. It all just seemed so quiet and a bit forlorn. The British seaside holiday is something so anchored in our traditions, and something we should be proud of and it was sad to see it so diminished. Anyway I relayed a version of this self-indulgent monologue to Chris who told me to stop whining and being negative, reminded me I wasn’t at work, and took me for a pint. My mood lifted, the next day the sun came out, and it was like waking up on a different island.
Shanklin is split into three parts. The beach, which is a mixture of shops selling resort tat of the highest quality (I LOVE holiday tat), buckets and spades and some decent pubs with superb views, a bizarre choice of lagers and lengthy happy hours. It’s the first time in years I’ve seen anywhere sell ‘saucy’ postcards featuring cartoon blondes with massive comedy knockers. It was like stepping back in time. It’s also home to the finest mini-golf course I’ve played on, a fun pirate themed one next door to Jurassic Park (you can play both for £13).
There are sound effects and you’re right on the sea front. There’s the town centre, which we didn’t venture into but has an English/Polish restaurant with great reviews that is on the list if we were to return. Then there’s the old village, a small street of thatched roof pubs and tea rooms with picturesque gardens leading down to Shanklin Chine. Here you’ll find the Christmas shop, which was open, in June, and playing Christmas music (quirky, yes?). As the week went by and the sun got hotter, the place became busier and busier with young families and a lot of older couples and groups. The beaches filled up and it was difficult at times to get an outside table in a lot of the pubs. The resort came into itself, and I think if we’d have gone in a couple of weeks when the school holidays start then my first impressions would have been very different. I doubt they’d have been of a place that had had its heyday, but a place that was continuing to serve a large population of people that appreciate and love the British seaside. Across the resorts we visited, including nearby Ventnor you can see the beginning of the trendy ale and gin scene starting to creep in, with the occasional beach cafe/bar that could sell you a lovingly garnished G n T and a cappuccino without change from a tenner. Luckily for everyone’s pockets these are found alongside the beach hotel bars that have John Smiths on special offer, and we enjoyed both in equal measure.
Quirks and the contrast between old and new aside, the scenery is quite breathtaking. The coastal road from Ventnor to Alum Bay to visit the Needles was superb. As soon as you leave the village you’re high up on a cliff road with nothing but rolling green fields to your right and the sea to your left. Every so often a campsite would pop up, with caravans and tents seemingly metres away from falling into the ocean…but what a view to wake up to. A boat trip we took from Alum Bay felt like we could have been on the Mediterranean, with the blues of the water and the yachts bobbing about.
We only had five days there so we didn’t see the whole of the island, and from leaflets we saw I can see that there are a lot of attractions and activities for young families and coach trips alike. It has many of the elements required for great family seaside fun. Our reality as a young(ish) couple with no kids was mainly beach walks and bus rides to new villages, stopping frequently for an ice cream, a beer, or on one lovely pitstop, a sparkling afternoon tea. It was as it sounds and a great way to break up the day. I recommend Vernon Cottage on a sunny afternoon for just that, and they also have a ghost if you’re into that kind of thing. Having a campsite with electric hook up meant there were always cold beers and meat in the cool box, and we spent most evenings watching bats fly round the campsite after the few other campers had gone to bed. It was incredibly peaceful.
Would I go back to the Isle of Wight? I would, but ironically for someone without kids I’d probably want to go in school holidays so the place was full of life. I’d want to predict the weather and go in a scorching hot week like we’ve just had. And I’d be writing to the Mayor of Shanklin to plead that they get some lottery funding to open a vintage bingo hall. It’d just be a shame that Grandad Ray wouldn’t be there to help me call when I’d won a line but was too shy to shout. He’s the reason after all that my summers were always so well spent, and who I spent the majority of last week remembering and missing.
We stayed… Ninham Country Holidays in Lake, £200 for ferry and 6 nights 4* camping…and they even book your ferry
We drank… all over, but the Spyglass Inn, Ventor was a favourite of mine. A pint cost similar to home, it’s right on the sea front, had spectacular views and an interesting selection of lagers.
We ate… the standout meal was at the Happy Haddock, Shanklin Old Village. Fish and chips for two cooked in beef dripping with a can of pop and a buttered teacake (I’m salivating) for under £20.