Pretty much everything we automatically think of when it comes to the British seaside comes from Victorian times. Everything from playing in the sand to bathing in the sea has its roots in the seaside breaks the Victorians made fashionable.

And the Isle of Wight is the leader of them all. Why? Because it’s here Queen Victoria herself decided to come for her seaside holidays with the family. She built Osborne House, spent months of each year on the Island and even died here and openly loved the Isle of Wight. So. what did the Victorians know about wellness and chilling out on holiday?

Traditional seaside fun

If you have childhood memories of going to the seaside for your holidays or for a day trip, chances are they feature one or all of the following: buckets and spades, swimming costumes, sandcastles on the beach, fish and chips, carnivals, fairgrounds and nature. It seems our tastes haven’t changed all that much since the 1850s when the advent of train travel opened up the seaside to the working classes, who were following in the footsteps of the toffs who had already designated many English seaside towns as their own resorts.

Under the guise of health benefits, posh people had been visiting our seaside resorts since the mid -18th century, when the benefits of sea bathing (and even drinking sea water, although we definitely don’t recommend this!), were in vogue. Thought to cure all sorts or ailments, both physical and mental, the practice of ‘bathing’ was rather more regulated than it is today, and involved modesty and bathing machines, more of which later.

The Island’s Victorian legacy

While eating naughty food (fish and chips and ice cream) informally, sailing and bathing are recognisable seaside activities today, they’re just remnants of the glory days of Victorian seaside entertainment. This ranged from elaborate military parades to promenading in your best clothes along the front, fancy entertainment including mime artists and music hall and much more. On the Island you can easily see the legacy the Victorians left behind, and not just in the fabulous Osborne Estate.

Ryde and Ventnor are particularly fine examples of Victorian seaside resort towns. Look up at the architecture as you walk along the high streets and you’ll see lots of telltale signs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s legacy. Similarly, over on the West Wight in Freshwater you can see plenty of Victorian houses and monuments. These include Tennyson’s monument on the Downs (he loved the Island so much his friends thought it should be marked), and Dimbola Lodge. This is gorgeous old Victorian family home that was home to Julia Cameron, the pioneering and revolutionary female photographer.

The beauty of Osborne

Osborne House itself was chosen as a holiday home by Victoria and Albert in 1845 thanks to its spectacular Solent views and beautiful surroundings. Like many today, Queen Victoria was keen to spend time away from the stress of her everyday life. As it wasn’t quite fancy enough for the Royal family, they rebuilt the original home into the fine pile you can visit today. The family stayed at Osborne for a significant portion of each year, for the Queen’s birthday in May, Albert’s in July and just before Christmas.

Albert helped design the house and the grounds, which included a private beach where Queen Victoria herself had a bathing machine and bobbed about in the waters when it pleased her. Interestingly, many of our ideas for health, fitness and wellness today is echoed in the Royal parents’ treatment of their children. They encouraged outdoor play, exercise, nutritious food, fresh air and swimming and even taught their kids to cook, clean and grow vegetables. Granted, they were taught these ‘life skills’ in a specially imported Swiss Cottage kitted out with all the miniature luxuries they could desire, but the lessons are certainly still followed today.

Taking the cure

Bathing was part of the fashion for Victorian upper classes to ‘take the cure’, a pseudo-scientific practice that had begun around 100 years earlier and advocated full body immersion in sea water for health benefits. By Victorian times it’s extremely likely that people were doing it more for fun and relaxation than specific health cures. But the practice of using a modesty bathing machines endured, particularly for the upper classes. Covered completely, women would descend from the bathing machine that had been driven into the water, plunge under the water a few times and then go back inside and travel back to the beach.

Swimming costumes and swimming by people of lower classes also started to become more popular, although nude bathing had been legally outlawed by then. At the time of the Victorians, men and women had to bathe separately, a practice that wasn’t altered until the year Victoria died, 1901. And while we definitely aren’t promising any health cures if you come to the Isle of Wight, there is no doubt that our fabulous beaches, gorgeous countryside, endless activities available on and off the water, and fine local cuisine will give you a wellness break the Victorians would be proud of.

Why not find out more about what the Island offers and follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, with Victoria's Island Trail. 

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