Cowes Sunset: Lowering the flag.
Returning to a place which holds fond childhood memories is always fraught with peril yet my trip, undertaken as I was approaching the end of my police career, proved both nostalgic and rewarding.
Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, was where most of my mum's side of the family lived and as a result was where we trekked three or four times a year for our holidays as young boys before they left en-masse for New Zealand. Their emigration was not as result of their disillusionment with the Isle of Wight's quality of life but rather an attempt to improve the employment prospects of our cousins.
It was with some apprehension that I stepped off the Red Funnel car ferry in east Cowes where I had opted to travel as a foot passenger rather than the speedier Red Jet which speeds across the Solent and into the heart of Cowes.
From east Cowes the main town of Cowes can be reached, whether on car or foot, by one of the few chain ferries in the world. The short journey across the mouth of the River Medina takes just minutes, is, at present, free for foot passengers and just part of the charm of Cowes.
A short walk from the chain ferry to the now part pedestrianised High Street brings into view the police station, now being sold off due to Theresa May's cuts. Actually walking down the quirky High Street after literally being absent for decades, was like taking a trip back in time. As a boy I was always intrigued at the glimpses of the Solent that were to be had between the shops on the seaward side and today, not only do they glimpses remain, but the High Street is mercifully shorn of the usual chain stores.
True, the banks thankfully remain together with a small Sainsbury's shortly to be joined by a Marks and Spark's food outlet which is replacing a much loved Co-operative supermarket. The remainder of the welcoming, friendly shops and stores are local; many not surprisingly with a nautical theme. Not a Costa Coffee or a Starbuck's in sight.
Foodies are spoilt for choice with a superb cross section of just about every food genre. Three curry houses, all with an excellent reputation can be found together with two old fashioned fish and chip shops. Al la carte, Italian, tapas and traditional English dishes all jostle for custom as do locally owned coffee bars and cafés.
The Coast, at the top of the High Street is quite unique in that it somehow manages to combine the attributes of a first class restaurant, bar and coffee house under one roof. My own personal favourite and habitual mid morning stopping off venue is Deckers where the jocular Eric gives a passable impression of a good natured Basil Fawlty.
Those who enjoy traditional English pubs will be spoilt for choice along the High Street. Each has its own character and unlike many resorts, ensures that the town doesn't go into hibernation during the winter months. Every weekend, the strong musical tradition of the Isle of Wight is illustrated with the plethora of musical talent performing in the aforementioned licensed establishments while during 'the season' local individuals or groups can be found showing their talents on weekdays as well as at the weekends.
At the west end of the High Street are two of my favourite 'watering holes;' the first was a clothes shop just three years ago before it was changed into a Victoriana themed bar known as Berties. Since then it has passed into the hands of those who own the busy Hut restaurant in Totland.
A speedy makeover has turned Berties into a minimalist but still popular establishment named The Rum Bar under the management of the mercurial Hannah. Next year sees it undergo a further metamorphosis but quite into what is a subject the owners are keeping close to their chests.
A little further along sees a right turn into a narrow alley known as Watchtower Lane where the historic Union Inn is situated. This is the pub that manages to be both an excellent food establishment and a local's bar in the traditional sense. It is also where I was made most welcome when I first arrived back on the island.
Its owner, Olivia, must be one of the youngest owner/licensees in the country and the Union also boasts of eight popular boutique en-suite bedrooms just yards from the sea. Olivia has also just become the owner of the iconic, sea front Globe building which will shortly become a fine dining establishment.
Those few steps from the Union's front door lead down to the vista of Cowes harbour and the Solent. The view however is made ever more absorbing by the constant flurry of activity. The constant movement of yachts, Red Funnel car ferries, Red jets, launches, rib boats, freighters, luxury liners and container ships all make for compelling viewing. No monotonous seascapes here.
A stroll along the sea front can only result in envious glances at the luxury apartments that sit comfortably with edifices of more historic nature. Cowes is generally regarded as the yachting capital of the world and its traditions are evident with venerable buildings housing world famous establishments such as the Royal London Yacht Club, The Island Sailing Club, The Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club.
The most obvious is Cowes Castle which is the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron complete with its 22 brass canons 'guarding' the sea front. It is from here that a canon signals the start of many yacht races including all that take place in the famous Cowes week. The RYS is celebrating its distinguished 200 year history this year and Prince Philip and Princess Anne have both already attended anniversary events.
A continuation of the stroll leads to the shingle beach and if a shingle beach isn't everyone's preference then it matters not as the Victorian architects created a gently sloping grassed area known as Prince's Green which runs parallel to the beach. The beach and the green are separated by an esplanade shared by pedestrians and well mannered cyclists.
The walk between Cowes and its delightful satellite seaside village of Gurnard takes about twenty five minutes and the reward is refreshment at the delightfully situated Water's Edge café or the Woodvale pub with its magnificent sea views from all the bar areas, tiered gardens or en-suite letting rooms. You might even run into legendary Cowes barman Jules and enjoy his encyclopaedic knowledge of alternative music.
If Cowes lacks one attribute it's that of a major chain hotel that would surely enjoy an all year round trade. The 26 room Best Western New Holmwood hotel situated again superbly on the seafront between Cowes and Gurnard bears the closest resemblance to a major hotel. There is however, in both Cowes and Gurnard, significant B & B, Guest House, small hotel and self catering accommodation.
Be warned however that accommodation during the ever popular Cowes week is booked up months in advance. This event is anticipated with all the enthusiasm of Christmas by the townspeople and with good reason. The party atmosphere happily doesn't follow the usual British tradition of gangs of drunken youths looking to fight each other. The occasional lone drunk is dealt with by the additional police on duty. Townsfolk, yachties, families all mingle amongst the marquees, food stalls and free musical concerts that occur both on the seafront and in the spacious yacht haven while all the pubs buzz with good natured frivolity.
Never re-visit fond child memories some say. I did and it was one of my best ever decisions.