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Simon Calder: A Jimi Hendrix experience on the Isle of Wight

The man who pays his way

The last time I drove down US Route 1, the highway along America's eastern seaboard, a radio station called Coast FM in Wilmington, North Carolina had a catchy slogan: "Less music by dead guys".

Leaving aside the observation that Classic FM isn't doing at all badly by broadcasting works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc, deceased musicians provide a rich source of inspiration for travellers. Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin and Jim Morrison vie for attention at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, while Strawberry Fields – the patch of Central Park just across from the Dakota Building in New York City where John Lennon was killed – is a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans. But for the last 10 days of August, it is appropriate to celebrate the man who inspired the biggest, and probably maddest, peacetime movement of people in Britain: Jimi Hendrix, who died in London shortly after playing the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival.

Forty years ago, the young American guitarist was among 600,000 people trying to figure out how to reach the Isle of Wight. At a captivating exhibition opening at London's Handel House Museum on Wednesday (25 August), you can see the notepaper bearing his travel instructions to a friend: "Car to Portsmouth. Time: three hours. Ferrie [sic] to Isle." He was billetted in the Seagrove Hotel in Sandown, nearly as far as it was possible to be from the festival site without falling off this green and very pleasant island.

For reasons that are lost in a purple haze of exotic smoke, the five-day 1970 pop festival on this chalky diamond to the south of the Solent rostered the greatest billing in the history of rock music; besides Hendrix, the Sunday programme included the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Leonard Cohen – following on from a Saturday line-up featuring Joni Mitchell, The Doors and The Who. All yours for £3 10s 0d (£3.50). But it also had an implausibly hard-to-reach location.

To understand just how inaccessible the venue was, make your own pilgrimage –with some retro touches. Take a Greyhound bus from London, then the hovercraft from Southsea to Ryde, and hop on a pensioned-off Tube train that comprises the island's rail service. Or aim for the pretty port of Yarmouth. The Island Breezer open-top bus meanders through country lanes towards the far south-west of Wight, then turns a corner as the commentary explains that the field in front of you held 600,000 people over that August bank holiday. Only South Georgia or Tristan da Cunha could be less suited to a gathering on such a scale.

Over the August bank holiday in 1970, the island's resident population was outnumbered by five to one. An annual festival that had begun two years earlier – bizarrely as a fund-raising exercise to pay for a local swimming pool – had somehow become the centre of the rock universe. Around 200,000 people were expected, but three times as many turned up. British Railways, the ferry operators and Southern Vectis buses somehow took everyone to the south-west corner of the island, and got them home. Everyone survived, even though by day five the latrines resembled a bio-chemical weapon of mass destruction.

ppp Parliament soon passed The Isle of Wight Act, banning overnight gatherings of more than 5,000 people. So today you can take an unobstructed road trip along the A3055. The island's south-coast road teeters on the chalk cliffs that are crumbling into the Channel. It runs all along the natural watchtowers that provide poetic views of the Downs – meadows which inspired Tennyson and hosted what the 1970 festival organisers (to use the term loosely) called "The Last Great Event".

How to get a Handel on a guitar genius

Why should a London museum dedicated to a departed Baroque composer be celebrating the life of a rock legend? Because for 18 months of his all-too-short life, Jimi Hendrix resided in the two top floors of 23 Brook Street in Mayfair, now the offices for the Handel House Museum (020-7495 1685; handelhouse.org). Tomorrow, the curators will strip out the current exhibition on "Handel and the Castrati" for something more cutting edge, with a feast of memorabilia.

On the Isle of Wight, there is little to see at the festival site itself; four decades of nature and agriculture have obliterated even the public-health menace posed by the latrines. But close by in Freshwater Bay, Dimbola Lodge (01983 756814; dimbola. co.uk) has a permanent exhibition on the event. In the garden, a statue of Hendrix provides a reminder of those rare, distant island days when rock was more than a sweet and minty souvenir.