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In Defense of the Isle of Wight

Stereotyped as inbred and backwards, "the Island" might be crappy, but it's a difficult bubble to leave.
05 March 2015, 6:25pm

The author and her sister at Bestival, on the Isle of Wight

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Bulbous hairy guts bounce over tight Speedos. Teenage girls leap around while dads on towel duty pretend not to be watching. A group of naked boys dick about making manginas and smoking under the pier. It could be any day in the summer on Ventnor Beach, on the Isle of Wight. Except it's not. It's Boxing Day.

Each year, at 9 AM, everyone runs into the sea. Don't ask me why. No one seems to have a definitive answer. One landlord claims it was originally a pub owner's tradition. He says they'd meet beforehand to drink the leftover Christmas whiskey in preparation for the plunge. One of my dad's friends says his family has been doing it for generations. In recent history, the swim has turned into something of a charity event and an excuse for a few laughs and Likes on Facebook.

I did it once. With a mate when I was younger and going through a chubby phase. I stuffed myself into my old Florence & Fred tankini like a sausage bursting from its casing. I remember standing awkwardly, anticipating the seismic effect of my feet slapping on the cold sand and discomfort of it on my thighs, when a smug woman next to me gave a horsey laugh and said, "Someone had their Christmas lunch early, eh?" Fuck doing it again after that.

When it reaches the time to enter the water, everyone faces the stretch of sand ahead. The view from the coastline in Ventnor is truly isolating. From Ryde, the glow of the ports and Spinnaker Tower seem impossibly close. From Cowes, clouds billow across from Southampton's visible factories. But Ventnor faces nothing. The sea stretches onto France with emptiness on the horizon.

Out of nowhere, a voice starts a countdown. Others chime in. "Three. Two. One!"

And everyone is off, at varying speeds. Thighs clap and flesh ripples. The frontrunners reach the sea, and the screams are electric as water hits bodies. As the southernmost point of England and with a small, aging population, the Isle of Wight is a very weird and folkloric place.

In the novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen wrote: "She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight and calls it 'the Island' as if there were no other island in the world." I haven't read much Austen, but she's got something right. When you live on the Island, it's the only thing that exists. You'll be asked by people whether you need a passport to visit and—although you might laugh at those asking—you may as well need one: It's completely cut off from the rest of British society, and for as long as you're living there, that's a fact and a feeling you won't forget.

The rest of the UK is branded (somewhat suspiciously, I've always thought) "the mainland." Sometimes now I'll talk to a mainlander and say something like, "Oh, I'm just going back to the Island this weekend." And they'll either look at me like I'm a posh wanker jet-setting back to a private getaway or tell me it sounds like something from the TV show Lost, before inevitably asking me if my brother is also my dad.

High Street, Shanklin, Isle of Wight. Image via

Everything is behind by about 20 years. In Ryde, my hometown, we have a cinema where you can go and watch any film, any day, for $5. Not long ago, it was $4. When it rains there, it leaks through the ceiling. In winter, we wear multiple jumpers because there's no heating. But that's all part of the cinema's charm; no one cares whether you smuggle in cheesy chips.

In some ways, the Isle of Wight is like any other isolated seaside resort. Cider-fueled and lively enough in the summer, but a ghost town in winter. A lot of the houses are abandoned until the spring because they're owned by what we call DFLs (Down From London) who have a second home here. We'd spend our summers off from school with DFL kids making out and learning about the dangerous, exciting mainland that some of us had never experienced.

For the most part, though, it's far more obscure than, say, Blackpool or Eastbourne because, you know, you're surrounded by sea on all sides, plagued by a dodgy phone signal, and lacking in branches of most UK chain restaurants and shops. The only way off the Island is by using one of the disgustingly pricey boat services. Local rumor cites the Solent as the most expensive stretch of water to cross, per mile, in the world. The entire world.

Recently people have been arguing about whether to get a tunnel built across to make it cheaper and somehow connect the Island to the Real World. It probably won't happen, though. Island Purists insist the Island must be kept in its un-infiltrated state.

Drunk teenagers on the Isle of Wight. Photo courtesy of the author

Because it's so expensive to leave, only the posh people do. Being a kid, I had a scholarship to a decent school and, by proxy of that, was surrounded by people whose parents were better off than my own. You'd go into school on a Monday, and some smug bastard would be recounting a story about going to Little Chef or a girl would be sporting a new hairband you knew hadn't come from an Island shop.

But there are quirks to all that isolation, just like the cheap-as-cheesy-chips cinema. We have red squirrels, for one. At school we learned how the gray squirrels were massive bullies and forced the poor red squirrels—much smaller and less aggressive—across the Island for safety. Sometimes when you're driving around, the car radio picks up a French radio station and you can have a laugh about that for a while. We had loads of dinosaurs here once upon a time, and now there's a rubbish tourist center in Sandown to tell you all about them. If you go to the west side of the Island you'll find colored sands. If you came here on a school trip—and let's face it, everyone did, and it's the one time you came and you're never going to come again—you probably sieved some of it into a plastic bear or Groovy Chick memento.

Actually, you should come and enjoy it all while you have the chance. Unfortunately, because it's made of soft rock, the land is eroding at a decent rate, especially on the south coast. There's a theme park called Blackgang Chine in Ventnor that has, in part, been lost to the hungry waves. At one point you could go down there and look at all the plastic figures and fencing falling over the cliffs.

Photo of the Three Needles by Dom Lewis

All these strange and wonderful things mean little when you're a young person living on the Isle of Wight. When my friends and I hit our angsty teenage years, we raged about getting out of our hometown. Regularly, between 50 to 150 of us in the throes of an emo phase would go down Ryde High Street with our tinnies and music, or drink down at Appley Beach. We could have chosen that spot because it was convenient and police-free and we wouldn't get told to move. I think it was actually because, when the sun went down and the Victorian lamps went on along the seafront, you could make out the mainland glaring across at us from the distance. The Spinnaker Tower had just opened in Portsmouth. A great big, ugly, metal structure shaped like a sail lit up in different colors across the Solent: a reminder that there was a real world out there. Sometimes when the tide went far out, it looked like you could almost walk across and reach it.

The older we got, the more obsessed with leaving we became. The only escape route became clear to everyone: university. It was almost like a competition of who could apply to the one farthest away. But when it came to it, people cracked. They deferred a year and reapplied to Portsmouth or Southampton—the nearest universities, just across the sea—and would commute every day. Some dropped out after their first term or became depressed. People who'd been popular and funny on the Island couldn't hack the mainland. It was obvious what had happened—we had lived in a bubble. When you follow a class of 30 all the way up to high school from nursery, in a way, you become socially stunted. A population of our own.

Something about the place draws everyone back eventually. There's something safe and warm about the Island: everyone knowing everyone from birth; no one ever really leaving; generations growing up, breeding, and dying. There aren't many places left in Britain that are genuinely like that.

For years, there's been a homeless man who sits on the High Street playing the accordion and asking for money to save up to go back to his home country. Everyone in town knew him well, because he pissed them off with his awful noise. One day, he had saved enough money and disappeared, much to everyone's delight. Then, a couple of months later, he came back. When I asked him why he'd returned, he shrugged and looked around, as if to say, I'm used to it here now. I feel the same way.

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