Nicola here. A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days on the Isle of Wight in a cottage that is situated on the Osborne House estate. Although I knew that Queen Victoria had built Osborne as a summer holiday home (more on that later!) I knew very little about it or its history so it was a fascinating trip. When I say that we stayed in a cottage, it was actually the gatehouse to the estate, known as Sovereign’s Gate, which was the entrance through which Queen Victoria and her family would have approached the house back in the day. Now transformed into a holiday home over three levels, it’s a fabulous place to stay. These days the Sovereign’s Gate is locked but Angus was happy to pose for a photo to show it off! Inside the gatehouse has many of its original 19th century features, including these fabulous windows with movable sashes on a pulley system.
As the house and grounds were closed, we had the place largely to ourselves. This was an enormous privilege enabling us to explore
the acres of gardens, park and beach (as long as we told the security detail that we were going out – it was rather like having bodyguards!). It also meant that I got a personalised tour of Osborne House itself, which was brilliant. I was allowed to use the “ministers’ door”; there were five different entrances at Osborne, one reserved for the monarch only, the second for the royal family, the third for ministers, the fourth for titled visitors and members of the court and the one round the back for the servants and tradesmen!
The first thing I learned on my tour of the house was not to refer to it as Queen Victoria’s “holiday” home! Not only did she undertake plenty of work when she was staying there – I was shown the Cabinet Room where she met with ministers to prove it – she was also at Osborne at various different times of the year, not just for the summer holidays. But it was also a very happy family home.
The original Osborne House was a Georgian mansion that the family occupied for a while to see if they liked the situation. Prince Albert then decided to knock down the original house and design and build his own creation, which is one of the reasons that Osborne is unique and gives its name to a style of architecture. It was totally Albert’s vision, with Germanic and Italianate features mixed with classical styles. It was also very modern; Albert designed both a top of the range central heating system and electric lighting. Part of the original house was preserved and incorporated into the new palace; the main entrance became the doorway into the walled garden!
Inside, the palace is as opulent as one might expect, with extravagant decoration and furnishings. However a closer look shows where Prince Albert “economised” in order to have more money to spend on the things he really wanted to splash out on! So, for example, he ordered a set of 24 sculptures cheaply from a French shopping catalogue so that he could spend the money he had “saved” on commissioning items such as a painting for the billiard room!
The layout of the rooms was also interesting in that the billiard room and drawing room were designed to be next to each other in an open L shape, so that there was no division between the ladies’ post-dinner entertainments and those of the gentlemen. This is very different from most Victorian houses, of course, where the two rooms are entirely separate. Victoria and her ladies were apparently very keen on a game of billiards!
Other parts of the estate that we were able to explore were the private beach, where Victoria kept her bathing carriage, and the Swiss Cottage, which was the royal children’s playground. I blogged about the fashion for swiss cottages in England recently; mostly they were designed to enhance the picturesque qualities of a garden but at Osborne they were intended to be a private world. The princes built a miniature fort there and all the children grew fruit and vegetables in the garden. They were also avid collectors of fossils and shells and all sorts of natural history items which are now in the museum at the cottage.
My favourite bit of the estate was the stunning parkland and gardens that sweep down to the sea. Full of beautiful mature trees and flowering bulbs at this time of year, they are absolutely gorgeous. We discovered an ice house tucked away in the woods; Queen Victoria was evidently very choosy about the quality of ice she used in drinks and desserts as, having sampled the locally made ice, she decided she didn’t like the taste and so had it shipped in from Canada! Ice was also used to cool Queen Victoria’s bedroom in summer.
The thing I loved most about the visit to Osborne, apart from staying in the gatehouse and having such wonderful access to the grounds, was all the quirky little details that I learned about Victoria and her family. The tour really brought them all alive as people, and it was fascinating to see how privileged their lifestyle was whilst at the same time seeing them as a family with all their little quirks of character. "It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot," Queen Victoria said of Osborne House and although the view across the Solent probably wouldn’t remind Prince Albert of the Bay of Naples any more, it’s still a wonderful location and a fascinating place to visit.
Are you a fan of the Victorian era, of the clothes and furnishings, or of Queen Victoria and her family? Do you have any favourite books or TV shows set in the period?