I'm standing by the window of our chalet, thinking about the strange look that comes over people's faces when you mention the Isle of Wight. Their eyes light up, their features soften. "Ah yes," they say, as though savouring the taste of something comforting (let's say honey for tea). "Rock pools, sandy beaches, buckets and spades, starfish, fossils, cliff tops, mum and dad, paddling, those were the days ..."
Just the name seems to conjure up the thought of idyllic childhood summer holidays scripted by Enid Blyton. Then you ask how old they were when they last went. "Oh," they say. "Ah. Never actually been, really. Our parents took us to Mallorca."
Those of us who have done our childhood time at the great British seaside and beyond (16 consecutive summers yomping through rainstorms in Wales, since you ask) are less misty-eyed. We remember wasps and stinging nettles, sand rash and frostbite. But still, the Isle of Wight has this happy aura, this suggestion of a world otherwise long past, that is tempting. It's trendy, too, isn't it? Or was that last year?
Anyway, we're here. We queued for a very long time at Portsmouth. It is no fun, trying to explain to a seven-year-old and three three-year-olds why they can't get on the big boat and go on their holidays but have to sit in the car for another hour.
Sorry? Oh yes, three three-year-olds. I forgot to mention the triplets. They are the other reason why we are here. My father thought it would be great to take the whole family away to somewhere hot, and since he was generous enough to offer to pay we thought, "Yeah, why not." Then we thought about it. Three of them. Three years old. Wriggling, fighting, screaming, fretting, sobbing. For hours. Not to mention a seven-year-old, sulking because he can't use his Gameboy. Not even a free holiday could make that scenario bearable. They're great, Ruby, Joshua and Grace, don't get me wrong. And Jacob, their big brother, copes with a patience he can only have learned from his mother. But the prospect of putting them all on a flight made us think, "Hey, why not this country?"
Lots of people think the same, apparently. We saw them sitting in their packed cars at the quayside, shouting noiselessly at their blank-eyed young children behind rolled-up windows. They could have been heading for the Med instead. But no. It was Shanklin for them, and us. What fun.
We drove down tight, busy roads, past candy-floss shops and playgrounds, then turned right at Shanklin, went inland a bit and got to Landguard. It obviously used to be a dozen or so caravans and a clubhouse, then they added a take-away, and a shop, and a lot more caravans in rows, and a swimming pool. And now they're offering wooden chalets. These are very nice, it must be said. They sit in a leafy corner, by a little playground, and are just far enough away from each other to be relaxing. There are bunks and beds for all our babes, and a double for us, and a couple of tellies and a decent kitchen. This is a pleasant, well-run place to stay, with fantastically helpful staff, and it is relatively quiet.
It was raining on the first day, obviously. We were expecting that. There are lots of really stimulating places adults can while away free days on this island: watching the yachts at Cowes, pretending to be royalty at Osborne House, becoming mutually unattractive at the Newchurch Garlic Farm, for example. But we're not just grown-ups. We're a family. So we have to do what every family that comes to the Isle of Wight does: go to Blackgang Chine. It's a rule. It's a theme park. But listen, it's the most idiosyncratic, charming and English theme park you will ever come across.
Oh Blackgang, I could spend a thousand words on how charming it is to find a place that contains a working steam engine for a sawmill, a roller-coaster, a water flume, a cowboy town, a princess palace, some big fibre-glass toadstools with gnomes underneath them, the shoe that the old woman lived in, a replica space shuttle, a place where you can make music by dancing on the floor, a really scary ghost house, and more, so much higgledy-piggledy-seemingly-random more. There is no hassle, you just wander round and stumble across stuff. Everyone should go there. We went twice, because if you go once you get tickets for another day free.
Playing I-spy with the little ones on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, where every brass plate gleams, was a blast. The beach at Ventnor is all you could want from an English seaside resort: neat, quiet, sandy, with great chips. I felt like my grandad, lying in a blue-and-white striped deckchair from Blakes the Shoremen (Est 1830).
But what I really want to tell you about is the thing we did earlier today, our last day. My oldest son and I went fossil hunting. We signed up for it at the shop next door to Blackgang Chine, where Jake bought an ammonite and I admired the geologist. Her name is Debbie and she met us down at Brook Chine, a beach on the south of the island. Jacob wants to be Indiana Jones, so he wore my Panama, slung a bag across his shoulder and listened to every word Debbie said about the fool's gold in one strata of rock and the mammoth teeth that might be found in another. We got on our knees and filled the bag with lumps of glittering rock, and fossilised tree, and the sun began to set on this perfect English beach, a long stretch of sand with the tide far out. We worked together, my son and I, and for a while I forgot what a grumpy, knackered, ungenerous father I had been all week. I had been feeling a bit of a failure, and he had been wary of me, but here we were, talking pterodactyls in a place where big beasts roamed.
The Moreton boys were growing more devoted by the moment, but the clincher for Jacob was when Debbie took us out to the edge of the tide, to see something special. There in the rock were the footprints of an iguanodon. Suddenly, he had a sense of the scale of this huge thing, and could almost imagine it there. He was buzzing, he was beautifully alive. He's asleep now, with some crumbly lumps to remind him of the day. I just know that next time someone mentions the Isle of Wight I'm going to remember the triplets on the steam train and Jacob on the beach and have a bloody great nostalgic smile on my face. I hope one day they all do the same.
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Cole Moreton travelled as a guest of Wightlink Holidays (0870 582 0202 www.wightlink.co.uk), which offers a range of b&b, hotel and self-catering accommodation on the Isle of Wight. For example, seven nights in a Spruce Lodge, which sleeps up to six people, at the Landguard Holiday Park costs from £523 to £1,300 per week. The price includes return ferry crossings from Portsmouth or Lymington.
Isle of Wight Tourism (01983 813 800; www.islandbreaks.co.uk).Reuse content