On the Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight is an interesting, and often contradictory, place.

On one hand, it’s untouched 1950s seaside working class holiday territory, all ice creams with flakes and Kiss Me Quick hats (and no, not a lazy writer’s stereotype – they’re for sale in the Delicious Cafe in Ryde).

On the other, it’s places like Cowes, where the streets are stuffed with the accents of the ruling class, posh girls in Oxford lacrosse team shirts, and the shops are all White Stuff, Joules and Fat Face. Of course, there are still some useful shops, especially if you have an expensive yacht in the harbour, like ship’s chandlers Pascall Atkey. And like every town on the island, there’s hardware store Hurst, with distinctive H-shaped doorhandles.

The island is undoubtedly beautiful, with great scenery and towns which have, on the whole, been untouched by the worst of late 20th century development. High streets are full of small, quirky shops with great display windows, curved glass, tiled doorsteps and original features. Walls carry the traces of old signwritten adverts. There are pockets of emptiness, like the top of Ryde which has been cut off by an unsympathetic traffic layout. But these are isolated and could, with a little political will, be reinvented as destinations in their own right. Arreton Old Village, for example, has played on its antiquity, proudly boasting to be ‘100 years behind the times’.

There is a wealth of creativity on the island, led by people like the Isle of Wight Makers Network, Quay Arts and clothing-company-and-cafe Rapanui. And the way that quirky, boutique shops have spread from obvious locations like Cowes towards more traditional towns like Ryde shows that there is a commercial drive, too. The island’s towns look great, have potential by the plastic bucketload, and aren’t in bad shape to start with. Vacancy rates are below the national average, for example, and there’s a strong pop up culture, with a tradition of shops (including high-end boutiques) opening for the summer season or to match local events. Of course, the place is also known for a string of festivals, creating whole pop up towns a few times a year.

But there’s one contradiction holding the island back. And that’s the attraction to and fear of ‘the mainland’.

From the northern side of the Solent, it’s easy to be envious of the islanders. They have a great lifestyle,  property at a reasonable price and a fantastic place to live.

From the island, though, things are different; there’s a feeling of isolation, a sense that problems faced are unique to the Isle of Wight, and a nagging belief that things must be better ‘over there’. But the truth is, the Solent is tiny and with fast Red Funnel connections, it’s easier to reach the bigger island to the north than ever before. And of course, social media enables even closer connections without getting on a boat. There are great partnerships to be built with arts, cultural and creative organisations that are a short ride away and organisations like the Isle of Wight Makers Network and Quay Arts are doing that.

An end to isolationist thinking and a simultaneous celebration of the island’s local distinctiveness show a great future for a special place.

Thanks to Sara at Isle of Wight Makers network, staff at Quay Arts and to Red Funnel for supporting my visit to the island.

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