Nostalgia hasn’t had its day, and even the most mundane of places can become a home of many a special reflection. For me the Isle of Wight, as a child, was a place of magic, for it gave open season to all the simplest pleasures that growing up in 1970s afforded us.
Returning to the island, just for a short afternoon, gave platform to some of those cherished memories, even if the island afforded somewhat less appeal to me now.
I had put out a call to those this technological age attaches me to, and some very kind folk, who clearly have similar memories themselves, made some very helpful suggestions. I soon realised that my problem was that the restrictions on the usage of trains, and other considerations, meant that I eventually had little time to consider these well-meaning encouragements. But, rather than put the whole idea of visiting on the back burner and wait for more available time, I decided to head across the water for an afternoon in Shanklin, the epicentre of those 70s holidays, and re-trace some of my old steps.
I arrived in Portsmouth, that much maligned city, for the first time in many a year. It struck me how modern the harbour is-even drawing comparisons with my time spent in Sydney. The re-development has given the coastal area a cosmopolitan feel, and a general impression of real prospect.
Boarding the catamaran, I realised how many years ago the boat to the Island always seemed to be a longer journey than it was, but nowadays the crossing takes 20 minutes to reach the Ryde-Pier Head, striding the busy Solent with speed and ease.
The first thing I looked forward to was seeing the old underground train churning its way up the Pier to collect the new arrivals. Here nothing seems to have changed. The old seats and the wooden window frames provide the first indications of a place that cares little for its time-warped reputation. The journey to Shanklin taking 24 minutes, and offering little indication of an Island that wants to keep up with the Jones’s.
On arrival in Shanklin, I set out to re-trace some old steps. As I took a short walk to the old holiday house we used to rent a flat in, I wondered how the younger people on the Island saw their lot. The sense of the pace of life in the area does not make one feel at all engaging, everyone just seemed to be quietly doing their own thing, and there seemed to be a dearth of twenty to thirty somethings on my long walk through the town. A look at the Island demography suggests the it has a greater proportion of older residents (aged 65 plus) and fewer younger people (those aged 0-14 years) than anywhere else in England and Wales.
So, flushing in my comparative youth, I made my way and headed for the Old Village. Although I hadn’t been to the area since, I think, 1988, I instantly recognised some of the features. The old Methodist church we attended on Sundays, the winding High Street, and then eventually the Old Village itself that looks as if it has been fully extracted and re-produced in physical illustration from Hansel and Gretel-some of the cottages looking like novelty creations from Forfars.
Before I made my way down through the Chime, a somewhat over-hyped creation with exotic plant infusions added to a natural gorge and waterfall, I headed further on to the recreation ground we used to frequent in the evenings, for a pleasant journeys rest. This large area of green was beautifully vacant and felt as though it had been specially cordoned off for my visit. It didn’t seem any smaller than it did in my childhood, as places re-visited often do, and the warm afternoon left me comfortably alone with the philosophical thoughts that the daily grind leaves us such little time to entertain. After about half an hour, wanting a walk along the beach I headed towards the Chime.
Now as unkind as my previous analogy concerning the Chine may have sounded, I have known less appealing features, and the location is well maintained and provides a distracting alternative to the standard and quintessentially English promenade that waits below. Having taken a quick look at the gardens above, I paid the £4 due and took a stroll down the winding steps and through the pseudo-Amazonian creation below. There were few people on the walking trail, so once again Shanklin had unwittingly afforded me an elevated status.
Shanklin promenade could be a scene from many a provincial coastal settlement. I have little memories of days spent on the beach in the town, and there was nothing in sight that I recognised. I wondered whether this may have been because of the uneventful nature of the place, or perhaps my subsequent research that showed the pier, a once defining feature, was demolished over twenty years ago. The half mile or so walk was populated by an almost exclusively elderly clientele, most of which I assume were tourists, but in all consideration may have been locals too.
As I made my way back to the station I saw the town from my current perspective and humorously asserted in my thoughts that I was probably too young for the place. That said, being the seasoned rambler that I am, and having banished the happiness, and the disappointment, of nostalgia from my system, the thought of walking from one side of the Island to another gave much appeal. I sense I shall return soon-but Shanklin may have another long wait.