17 July 2012

Queen Victoria's private beach to open

Queen Victoria's private beach at Osborne, her seaside home on the Isle of Wight, will open to the public for the first time from Friday 27 July. "We have quite a charming beach to ourselves," Victoria wrote in 1845 and it was here that the Queen regularly bathed and where her children learned to swim.

Queen Victoria's Beach

Fit for a Queen, Osborne Beach on the Isle of Wight

English Heritage has returned to the beach the original wooden bathing machine which ran down a ramp into the sea and from which Victoria - her modesty preserved - would emerge in her swimming suit. English Heritage has also restored the small covered seat - The Queen's Alcove - where she sat and sketched the coastal views.

Queen Victoria's bathing machine

A room with a view - the royal bathing machine

Sea, sand and shells

It was at Osborne beach that Queen Victoria swam in the sea for the first time. "I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled," she wrote and visitors will also be able to paddle and take a dip in the Solent.

Throughout high summer there will be family entertainment similar to that enjoyed by the Queen and her own family, including a specially commissioned Royal Punch and Judy, and Victorian beach games like skittles and hoops-and-sticks. Visitors can relax by the sea in deck-chairs while the bathing pavilion, built when Osborne was a convalescent home for officers, will be transformed into a sea-side cafĂ©. 

"Queen Victoria is fixed in many people's minds as 'the Grandmother of Europe', a Queen who spent most of her reign in mourning for her husband," said Simon Thurley, English Heritage's Chief Executive. "Opening her beach at Osborne lets us show another side to her - this was a Queen who collected sea shells with her children, who sketched the changing sea, and who swam sometimes twice a day. Osborne was her seaside retreat from the formalities of Buckingham Palace, now people can visit that seaside."   

"It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot," Queen Victoria wrote after a visit to Osborne and Prince Albert likened the bay to that of Naples in Italy. The beach was a deciding factor behind their decision in 1845, to buy the seaside property as their private home. Osborne Bay was often used as a landing for both the royal family and visiting dignitaries while the royal children collected shells from the shore and learned to swim in the special floating bath (since destroyed) designed by their father, Prince Albert.

An alcove at Osborne

The Queen's Alcove from where Queen Victoria sketched the changing sea

Bathing machine returned and alcove restored

Queen Victoria's bathing machine is more ornate than those used by aristocratic ladies in the 19th century, though not that luxurious. It has a verandah at the front from which curtains were hung to conceal the Queen from view as she entered the water. Inside there is a changing room and even a plumbed-in WC. The machine was run into the sea from the beach along stone rails and then pulled back up using a wire rope and winch. After Victoria's death in 1901, the bathing machine was removed from the beach and later used as a chicken shed. It was saved in the early 1950s but is only now returning to the beach. 

Restored by English Heritage, the Queen's Alcove is a small but elegant semicircular stone shelter with a half-dome. It was completed in 1869 and Victoria personally agreed its interior decoration of large vibrant Minton blue tiles, decorated with small yellow starbursts. The timber bench is supported by cast iron dolphins on a mosaic floor. Paint research revealed that the lower half of the alcove's interior was originally painted in dynamic colours and the pink and blue colour scheme of Queen Victoria's later years has been reinstated.

A woman in a victorian bathing costume paddling at the beach at Osborne

Queen Victoria's Beach - Open from Friday 27 July

The beach after Victoria

In 1902, Edward VII gave Osborne to the nation as a memorial to Queen Victoria. Part of Osborne became a convalescent home for officers for whom the beach's original bathing pavilion was built.  During World War II, Osborne Bay was used to train soldiers ahead of the D-Day landings and during these exercises, the pavilion and both the bathing and landing piers were severely damaged.

In recent decades the bay was left undisturbed allowing vegetation to flourish and today it is an important wildlife site. The eelgrass beds in the bay's shallow water are of European importance while a narrow strip of vegetated shingle on the beach is a rare and fragile habitat that has been lost from many beaches on the Isle of Wight - as part of the beach's opening, a boardwalk and fence has been installed to protect this section. English Heritage is working closely with Natural England to ensure that these important natural sites are carefully maintained.    
Osborne came into English Heritage's care in 1986 and we have opened up more and more of the estate to the public - now the public can enjoy a royal beach where a Queen swam, sketched and played.

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