Funny how you can live all your life without going somewhere fairly significant which is quite close. I am old enough to remember the Isle of Wight festivals, not the least the amazing 1970 one which featured Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen, but I am ashamed to say I only read about them, and until last week I had never set foot on the Isle of Wight.
It was with a certain heightened sense of anticipation, therefore, that I crossed the Solent on the high-speed ferry from Southampton and stepped ashore in Cowes. I was on the island to pursue the Glanville fritillary, below, the island's special butterfly which is found nowhere else in Britain, as part of our Great British Butterfly Hunt, and I found it, but I ended up finding a lot more than that.
For a start I discovered a place whose beauty, especially in its western side, away from the holiday beaches of Shanklin and Sandown, took me aback: the countryside is lush, green and as unspoiled as Dorset must have been 30 years ago. The short-cropped downland in particular is exquisite: I stood on Bonchurch Down above Ventnor and watched Adonis blue butterflies flutter about my feet, their wings of an electric blue so brilliant that they outshone the sunlit sea 500 feet below.
With the guidance of Robin Curtis, the Glanville fritillary expert, I saw 14 different butterfly species, including four that were completely new to me (the Glanville, the green hairstreak, the small blue and the large skipper), with a significant bonus. For the island doesn't only have its own special insect, it has its own special mammal, the red squirrel, now virtually gone from southern England, and its own special reptile, the wall lizard, found in Britain only here.
We saw the red squirrel in a nature reserve in Newtown, and the wall lizard, a conspicuous bright green, basking lazily on the wall of a Ventnor car park. Three out of three – or as my football-loving 12-year-old son has taken to saying – back of the net! (The exclamation mark is unfortunately obligatory).
A Victorian timewarp
I was also fascinated by the preponderance of Victorian architecture – Wight seems to be a Victorian island as much as Cardiff is a Victorian city (notably, Osborne House). Apart from trendy Cowes, which has some Art Deco and some post-modernist stuff, the only major architectural development since Victoria's day seems to be the bungalow, which is thick on the ground. It all adds to the feeling of being in a timewarp once the Solent is crossed, of being in an earlier, calmer England – the England of the red squirrel, perhaps.