“Peregrinations at the most beautiful place on earth”: holidaying on the Isle of Wight

This week is the second of our two posts focusing on summertime and summer holidays in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight, located in the English Channel off the coast of Hampshire, has been a popular holiday destinations since Victorian times. The earliest record of a ferry service, transporting people the four miles across the stretch of water known as the Solent, is from 1420 when the Lord of the Manor in Ashey [Ryde] was responsible for boats crossing between Portsmouth and Ryde. A rota of Ryde fishermen had been established by the 17th century and in 1796 a purpose built sailing boat began a regular service from Portsmouth.

Illustration of Culver Down Cliff, Isle of Wight

Illustration of Culver Down Cliff, Isle of Wight

The Special Collections holds a manuscript “journal of seven weeks’ peregrinations at the most beautiful place on earth, namely the Isle of Wight”. It was written by Sarah Jane Gilham and dates from 1850.

Prior to the completion of Ryde Pier in 1814, passengers were carried or transported by horse or cart across the wide shallow sands to the town. By 1850, Sarah Jane would have had the option of travelling to the island by paddle steamer on one of three routes: Portsmouth-Ryde; Southampton-Cowes or Lymington-Yarmouth.

Entry for 2nd September:

[f.64] After walking up a hill, at a short distance on stood the little church, the smallest in England. The outside is covered with ivy, in a small turret is the bell which summons the villagers to church. An aged man showed us the inside: it contains six pews, and an altar piece with a colored pane of glass representing Christ’s ascension. It has lately been enlarged as formerly it contained only three pews.

We remounted and as we advanced every thing seemed to grow lovelier. Steephill Castle rose to view and its white turrets contrasted very prettily with the dark and luxuriant foliage of the trees by which it was surrounded. At last we arrived at the head of the Chine; dismounting, we passed through the bazaar and two boys conducted us down the path to the foot of the Chine. [f.65] At the first sight I and most of us were disappointed. We had expected a rush of water, but it fell only in a trickling stream somewhat resembling a showerbath. Some stationed themselves on the beautiful shingle, and others endeavored to find a cool place beneath the shelter of the rocks. On nearer view the Chine is decidedly grand, the fall about one hundred feet, the rocks rise on each side in bold grandeur, and though somewhat barren are quite in character with the scene. It seems altogether a place for a storm and shipwreck, etc. It would then be seen in all its awful grandeur and the spectator would be unable to resist admiring, though his admiration would be mingled with feelings of a very opposite nature.

[MS 6/8 A179]

Illustration of Shanklin Chine, Isle of Wight

Illustration of Shanklin Chine, Isle of Wight

In its quiet passages this work takes on a contemplative quality, reflecting the journey of religious self-examination Miss Gilham was taking alongside the journey around the Isle of Wight. It was not, however, written as a private journal for the sole pleasure of its author. This is a fair copy to be circulated and shared with others, as it glories in the discoveries made, both in terms of religion and places visited. Indeed, in its wish to discover nature and the way in which it makes this an ‘ideal’ landscape, the journal bears the hallmarks of picturesque tourism. While the scale of the adventure and the daily events are perhaps small, this in no way impacts on the curiosity of spirit or keenness of eye cast upon thoughts, places and events.

Sarah Jane married a London solicitor John Matthews Chamberlain in Lewisham in 1857.  They had two daughters: Bertha in 1861 and Ada in 1863.  Sarah died a year after the birth of their second daughter.

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