Victorian Ventnor

By Mark Fox.

For me Ventnor is one of the great towns of the Island. With its own climate, a vibrant community, good places to eat, a lively arts scene and wonderful coast the town has much to offer. It is a twinkling jewel nestling on the south-east coast of the Island. Charles Dickens once wrote: “The views from the top of the Downs are only equalled by shores found in the Mediterranean.”

I’ve enjoyed visiting Ventnor and this part of the Island all my life. And I have had great pleasure in introducing my children to its charms. We are not the first of course to be drawn here; over the decades many people have visited and enjoyed all that the town has to offer. Some came simply for fun, rest and enjoyment, and others for health and restorative reasons. But all came to enjoy the mild climate and fresh sea air that was and remains the principal attraction.

The town first came to national prominence in the 19th century when great literary and artistic figures came to visit and some to stay. And for some time the town enjoyed a non-stop train service to and from Ryde and its transport links to the mainland. But rail, whose journey time could sometimes take as little as 20 minutes, and road were not the only ways our predecessors reached this part of the Island. Many can still remember with great fondness the steam packets that ran between the town’s pier and Southsea. And it is worth pausing to think that if a similar passenger service was running today from the mainland to this part of the Island how that might boost the local economy.

The town is defined by its surroundings. The mild climate which has attracted so many over the years is a result of the unique climate caused by the relation of the surroundings hills and the sea. The predominance of clay causes its own challenges, something many on the Island have to live with one way and another! And landslips cause disruptions at various times. The Graben is the name given to the geological ‘fault’ which sits above the town. It moves regularly and the results are part and parcel of life in the town.

That great chronicler of England, Nikolaus Pevsner, however, is quite tough on the appearance of the town, although lyrical about its setting. He wrote: “Ventnor is disappointing architecturally, but its site is dramatic. It is built on a very irregular path of the Undercliff, where steep hillsides alternate with shallow hollows, legacies of the cataclysmic landslides over several thousand years ago. In the background are the steep slopes which characterise the inland side of the Undercliff…the site could have offered great opportunities, for sensitively designed layouts, relating buildings to rugged landscapes, but this happened only in a few places.

“Most of the town was developed piecemeal, providing accidental relationships between buildings and broken land-form which are sometimes striking but too often seem simply awkward. Demolitions and replacements over the last eight years (there was some war-time bombing) have added to the disjointed effects.”

It would be fair to say that Ventnor, like much of the Island, has been challenged by what might be thought to be aesthetically desirable and what has been economically practical. And so I think that Pevsner’s view, which is always worth knowing, can seem somewhat harsh to those to know and love the town.

One of the great attractions of Ventnor is that it is smaller and has a more intimate feel than its larger neighbours of Sandown and Shanklin. It retains a warm and village-like atmosphere and it is nearly impossible to walk along the seafront and around the town without running into people you know. Nationally, as well as locally, famous are the Ventnor Botanic Gardens. They are a pleasing product of the uniquely benign climate with which Ventnor is blessed. This has enabled a large variety of exotic plants to prosper and is a wonderful visit for old and young alike.

But Ventnor is not just a tourist or cultural destination; it played a distinguished role during the Second World War, when the hills above the town played host to one of the RAFs key early radar stations. Because of its position on the south coast of the Island, the station was regularly one of those which gave the earliest warnings of attacks by the Luftwaffe, and indeed was referenced in the famous film the Battle of Britain. Near the site of this long decommissioned RAF facility is an early example of a nuclear strike Cold War bunker proving that Ventnor stayed in the front line of defending the Nation from attack up until relatively recently.

Originally a small fishing village, the town grew on the back of improved transport and the love of the Victorian’s for new and fresh seaside holidays. However, before the Victorian era, the area was completely unrecognisable from how it is today. Local history guides suggest that the area that is now occupied by the town was originally farmland that could only be reached by a couple of unmade tracks. As is the case today, in this predevelopment time, the sea provided much of the income and food for locals, mainly revolving around crab and lobster. If you had been standing on the seafront in the early 1800s you were likely to have been able to have seen fisherman’s cottages with thatched roofs and a mill above the bay on the site that is now taken by the Winter Gardens. Indeed, echoes of this earlier age can still be seen by the stream that once powered the mill but which today forms the base of the famous Cascade.

In common with other towns like Bath and Harrogate, Ventnor was marked, in the mid 1800s as a place that was suitable for people needing a mild climate and healthy environment. And it was as a spa and health resort that modern Ventnor came to be established. Then, as now, the popularity of this welcoming natural environment encouraged many to visit the town.

The quick growth of the town is marked by the fact that it has not one but two churches: Holy Trinity and St. Catherine’s, which both date from the mid-Victorian era. The presence of churches always indicates a growing and healthy population. But it is not just to the sea and to the climate that those who visit Ventnor must look; the highest point of the town, St. Boniface’s Down, rises high. And there are the most enjoyable walks to be had by going up it. And the nearby villages of St. Lawrence and Bonchurch are also good places to visit.

For many, however, it is the cultural activities that draw people, with the Isle of Wight’s Arts Festival and Ventnor Fringe being but two examples of the renaissance of such activity in the area. In much of the tourist literature about the town the word ‘traditional’ is used – Ventnor is a ‘traditional seaside town’ or ‘Ventnor offers a traditional bucket and spade holiday’. I don’t think that that word, or those descriptions, do justice to contemporary Ventnor with its fine eating places, its glorious outlook, and its happy atmosphere.

One particularly pleasing feature of the town is that it has, on and off, had its own brewery dating from the 1840s. Burt’s Brewery closed in the 1980s, re-opening in 1996 but closing again in 2009. The water to make the beer being drawn from St. Boniface’s Well, which of course still exists. It is to be hoped someone with an entrepreneurial spirit has another crack at brewing in this area.

Modern Ventnor has its roots embedded in fashionable Victorian society when, along with so much of the rest of the Island, it prospered with Queen Victoria’s presence at Osborne. For example, the first Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, the Rev. Arthur Peile, was also an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen. And much of the architecture of the town can be traced to this period.

All through the late 19th and early 20th century, Ventnor continued to prosper and grow. But as with so many other places, World War II brought an end to holidays for all but a lucky few, adding to the problem for Ventnor, was the fact that it was the site of a key radar installation which made it a prime target for German bombing raids. The austerity of the post-War years and the closing of the railway line in 1966 presented further challenges for Ventnor.

Throughout its history, the town has worked hard to make the most of its coastal location and it is only in relatively recent times that it has been without either a harbour or a pier. As early as 1862 local people had constructed a harbour which had pretty swiftly collapsed. Undeterred, in 1871, a second harbour was begun. But in 1881 before it was completed it fell victim to a storm. So in 1887 the Royal Victoria Pier was opened, and at 650 feet, it must have been a magnificent sight with its Concert Hall and later the famous Pavilion. And as already mentioned, becoming a key way to visit the town when the South Steam Packet Company started services to the Pier in 1888. In one way or another the Pier survived up until 1993, and I remember visiting it with my parents and grandparents.

But the resilience and the indefatigable spirit of the townsfolk clearly endures from one generation to the next. Because a new venue has been built on the site and Ventnor Haven Harbour have both been built in recent times, which is an immensely encouraging development. Isn’t what we now need the reintroduction of a mainland to Ventnor passenger ferry? One of the most fantastic places to visit, not just in Ventnor, but the Island as a whole, are the Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Although they were ravaged in the great storm of 1987, they have recovered magnificently and are a must visit for anybody who either lives or is visiting the town. They are located on the site of the old Royal National Hospital which opened in 1867 but closed in 1969. This hospital was dedicated to the care and recovery of those who suffered with tuberculosis and other chest diseases. And I have met several people who speak very movingly about the care they received at the hospital and how the beauty of the area and the mild climate effectively saved their lives.

Ventnor’s history is one of looking forward, responding to changing circumstances and embracing change, whilst at the same time not losing what is best about its history. The town prospered even after the Island fell out of favour with the Royal family, when King Edward VII ascended the throne. And it reached a high point of popularity in the years between the first and second World Wars; a popularity Doctor Beeching did so much to damage when, along with so many other beautiful branch lines, he axed the service that had made the town so readily accessible. But Ventnor today is one of those places that has re-energised itself. So much so, in fact, that it was only in 2013 that the Daily Mail ran a feature saying Ventnor was a cool and chic place to visit. And there is no question that with all that there is on offer the town is emerging as a must visit destination.