Wight Life

When the sun always shone!

by Angela Whitcombe

Drawing by Dulcie Headley

Drawing by Dulcie Headley

AS A SMALL CHILD, the most exciting event of the whole year was the annual removal of our household for two summer months to our home in the Island. I think removal is the word for it, though perhaps upheaval would be a better one! Baskets of linen were packed, mountains of luggage and even a box of silver. All the dogs came too, of course, and my mother's monkey, and on one or two occasions, my sisters' pet goat. Three or four maids were taken, our French nurse, and sometimes the groom, though why he came I do not know, as there were certainly no horses or even a car for him to look after. But I do remember that the silver was in his charge during the journey; in fact he had to sit with it on his knees the whole time. I also remember my mother saying 'We'd better take John for he keeps the maids happy', so perhaps that was the real reason why the groom came too!

What a cavalcade we must have been! My father, very wisely, never travelled with us, but went the day before or the day after, and so had a quiet and peaceful journey. I adored the journey from the moment that the private horse omnibus met us at Liverpool Street station and trundled us across London to Waterloo. The family, the servants and the animals went inside the bus, and the great mound of luggage was piled on top. 1 have a vivid recollection of the awful time the goat slipped his collar and went galloping madly around the station pursued by a pack of porters. When at last he was caught he did not want to enter the bus; we all pulled from inside, while the porters pushed behind and at last he shot in, nearly knocking over the fat cook, who promptly had hysterics. But it was all part of the fun.

The real magic began when the train ran into Portsmouth Harbour station and I got my first whiff of that lovely, indescribable smell of seaweed, tarred ropes and harbour mud, all sizzling together under a hot sun, for of course the sun always shone!

The little paddle steamer, called the 'Bembridge' ran directly to the small pier of our village; neither boat nor pier still exist, but if I shut my eyes I can see them still. The forty-five minute crossing over, the 'Bembridge' would manoeuvre alongside the pier with much clanging of bells and reversing of paddles. On disembarking, our whole party would clamber down a long flight of slippery, seaweedy steps, where three rowing-boats were waiting to take us to our own steps; one boat for the family, one for the servants, and one for the hand luggage. The heavy luggage was taken down the pier by a horse-and-cart and went round to the house by road. The boatmen were old friends and we all solemnly shook hands before starting on the last lap of our journey, half-a-mile by rowing boat.

Once arrived, the first thing to do was to get out of our tidy travelling clothes and tear off shoes and stockings; and the second, to go and buy a bucket and spade. It had to be a new bucket and spade every year, as one had always grown out of last year's. If there was time, we also went to the village shoe shop for new brown sand shoes; no pretty coloured sandals in those days.

How I loved those little village shops, and how good their owners were to us. Spades and buckets were bought at the Post Office, as were hundreds of other fascinating things, such as cricket balls and fishing tackle. The postmaster was a lovable but eccentric old man, and I do not think he would have made much money out of his shop unless he had had an eagle-eyed assistant. He was always giving away his goods to the children who came to the shop; I would come out with a 'tuppeny' ball for which I had paid, but also clasping a one-and-sixpenny sailing boat, which had been thrust into my willing hands. But the old postmaster's assistant in the shop was a rather severe spinster, and she would nip out of the door after me and forcibly remove the treasure trove. The little baker's shop was another favourite haunt; nowhere else were there such shiny currant buns or such beautiful doughnuts. The speciality was a large flat tea-cake called a Cornonation bun. I have often wondered which coronation it celebrated, as my father told me that he used to eat Coronation buns when he was a little boy, and he first went to the village in 1859. Was it Queen Victoria's coronation or an earlier one? We still buy Coronation buns for tea though, alas, that little shop has passed away and also the charming old lady who kept it.

A great delight to us as children was the barrel-organ pulled by an old grey donkey and complete with Italian organ-grinder, and a monkey wearing a little red coat who used to pick up pennies in his tiny black fingers. This barrel-organ toured the whole Island and would come to our village about once in three weeks. The old Italian had known us for years, and sometimes allowed us to turn the handle and grind out the old music-hall tunes. One day he handed it over to me and a small friend saying, 'Back soon ' and disappeared in the direction of the pub. We were delighted and felt very proud of ourselves in full charge of the barrel-organ. Our pitch was on the sea-front, and lots of our friends came past on their way home to lunch and gave us pennies. The monkey was kept busy taking off his little round cap to say thank you. We took it in turns to grind the organ. Eventually our arms began to ache, and we realised that it was lunch-time, but there was still no sign of the Italian. On we went, the handle turning slower and slower and then in erratic jerks as we grew more tired and more hungry. We could not leave the organ unattended, to say nothing of the monkey and a tin full of money, and we felt in honour-bound to go on grinding out the old tunes till the old man came back. At last he came swaggering down the street, very merry indeed, with his wide black hat on the side of his head, and singing 'Santa Lucia' at the top of his voice.

Our whole life in the Island was centred round the sea and boats; my eldest brother had a big tubby sailing boat into which he would pack his sisters and their friends; my other brother sailed a Redwing much more exclusively! Sometimes we would sail out to the Warner Light Ship, taking fruit, vegetables and newspapers for the crew. In those days the men would have to stay aboard for many weeks at a time and fresh supplies only came out at intervals; as there was no wireless, news was also scarce. We would sail round the lightship as close as we could and the men would hold out a net on the end of a long pole, rather like an outsize shrimping net whilst we threw in the things we had.brought. This was not as easy as it sounds, and sometimes we would have to 'come about' several times before getting into the right position; even then it was all too easy to miss the net. I remember a howl of woe when a lovely golden melon fell just short of the net and went bobbing down on the racing tide. One day when we went out, all the men crowded to the side of the lightship and they had got a megaphone into which someone was shouting; we sailed as near as we could and just made out the words, 'Who won the Derby? 'We had no megaphone, but on our next circuit of the ship the yacht's crew all yelled the horse's name together. We were sure that our message had been received, as one little sailor yvas bounding up and down like a rubber ball, and as we sailed away, short exultant blasts were blown lown on the foghorn. Had the little sailor won the Calcutta Sweep? We never heard.

The boatmen who kept their boats on the slipway and foreshore in front of our house all belonged to one family; the patriachs of the clan were three brothers, Albert, Edward and Peter; when not working they sat in a row on a wooden seat, gazing out to sea, wearing identical blue jerseys and yachting caps. There is a fascinating story told about these three old brothers, but I do not really know if it is true or not. Once a year when the visitors had gone and the boats were laid up for the winter the three brothers used to disappear from the village for a week and no one knew where they went. One day a summer visitor who lived in London was lunching at the Hotel Metropole and to his amazement he saw Albert and Peter walk into the hotel resplendent in frock coats, striped trousers and top-hats; on making enquiries he was told that for many years they had stayed in the hotel for a week every autumn, and the hall porter said, 'they lived like Books!'

It is well over a hundred years ago that my father first went to the Island; he used to tell me how very different sea-bathing was in those days; anyone who wished to bathe had to book the one horse-drawn bathing machine the day before. It would then arrive at the door, pick up the bathers, drive them down the village street, down the slipway and into the sea; there it reversed so that the door was facing out to sea, and the bathers, who on no account must be seen, crept down some steps hidden by a sort of canopy, and modestly slipped into the water. The bathe over, they crawled back into the machine, and dripping wet, were driven home.

We now live in the Island and for me it still holds its old enchantment. My children love it too, and my grandchildren tell me that it is their favourite place. The Warner lightship has gone and the little pier too. No longer does the old grey donkey pull the barrel-organ through the villages, but I am sure that my grand-children are storing up a new set of memories. Fifty years hence they will look back to their days on this enchanted Island and remember how the sun always shone ....