Until just 200 years ago the area now known as Ventnor consisted of just a few fishermen’s cottages and a mill, but the seaside location, isolation and mild temperatures have promoted as a place for health and development as a seaside resort began in earnest from about 1830. Shortly thereafter the Isle of Wight town was called Mayfair-by-the Sea, with millionaires who hovered around hotels that boasted the new wonders of the day such as hydraulic lifts and palm trees.
Today, the city is divided, very roughly, into three distinct zones: the terraces of the houses look from above; the next level comprises the town centre, with a one-way road network centered on the main street with its array of independent shops; below here, Shore Hill steeply zigzags past the Winter Gardens and Waterfall Garden to the Esplanade and Beach.
Here and there you’ll see grand mansions, classic Victorian townhouses, Mediterranean palm trees and other Italianate elements. The properties are built mainly in the local greensand stone, but there are many in brick and flint (in Victorian times flint was considered second rate but it was cheaper; you will notice that many houses have sandstone facades, but their backs and sides are pockmarked with pieces of flint). The sea constantly imposes its presence on the city and, in an attempt to resist erosion, 30,000 tons of Mendip limestone have been deposited along the shore, starting west of the city and extending to a kilometer long dyke to the east. .
Before heading to the Esplanade, it’s definitely worth a visit to the Ventnor and District Local History Museum, which is another one of those little gems, filled with nuggets of information about the town’s past. You’ll see how much the town has changed over the years as its development is captured by the works of local artists on display. Shipwreck tales also abound – spare a thought for one of the unluckiest (or reckless) victims, Richard Tatton-Groves, who drowned after returning to the victims Sousley in 1871 to retrieve a pet bird. The other 30 passengers and crew survived.
The town beach sand is soft and there are several cafes and restaurants nearby to take a break. The 6-foot needle standing by the beach is a gnomon, the arrow that casts a shadow on a sundial. It was donated to the city by Sir Thomas Brisbane (a Governor of New South Wales after whom the eponymous Australian city is named). A marker stood on the other side of the Esplanade, and at noon the gnomon cast a shadow there.
A little further west along the Esplanade is a resin-covered beach hut, the original hut built by the Blake family, who made their money from the 1830s by renting chairs beach and bathing machines. These machines were marvels and were deployed in rows along the water’s edge in Victorian times. Emotionally rigid visitors of the time would have been outraged at the sight of anyone exposing flesh or, heaven forbid, swimming in water. Instead, single-sex machines had to be hired, along with an attendant.
Every July, the city holds its mini-version of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Ventnor Fringe Festival, which features an eclectic range of entertainment from pop-up street comedy to puppet shows in a launderette. Over a hundred shows take place over six days and several acts then head to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. Ventnor also holds a carnival each September. Stay a while and you might hear a local mantra: “Keep Ventnor Weird”. This shouldn’t be taken too literally; it simply means that those who tap into Ventnor’s artistic vein want the town to resist any attempt at gentrification.
Watch out while you’re here for the wall lizards of Ventnor, which are considered another introduction by the Victorians. The species is extremely rare in Britain, although common in the Channel Islands. If you want to spot them (they tend to be green in Ventnor), pick a warm, sunny afternoon and explore the town’s south-facing ancient stone walls. The La Falaise public car park, west of the Esplanade, is an easily accessible site for lizards.
Although small in size, Ventnor Park, located just west of the town, is perhaps less advertised than the adjacent botanic garden, but the land regularly wins Britain’s national and regional awards in bloom and is a dizzying collage of exotic Mediterranean pines and sturdy British specimens. A magnificent oak resembles a candelabra, with branches extending upward like pleading fingers from the palm of a hand.
The descent to Steephill Cove is a zigzag of uneven steps, but worth the perseverance (the only other way to access the cove is by boat). You can easily spend a day here – some people vacation at the cove all their vacations, and given its seclusion and the fact that everything you need is close at hand, it’s easy to see why. At sea level and just above the sloping sandy beach dotted with pebbles and breakwater rocks which are somehow cobbled together to form a gently curving promenade, you will find fishermen, a handful of cottages, brightly colored canopy loungers, beach huts and lobster traps.
There will be no slot machine, car or burger in sight. Resident fishermen have practiced their tradition since the 1400s and still bring fresh crab and lobster ashore daily (weather permitting); the legacy is a handful of good dining options that can save you from lugging your own food up the steep bay steps.
Don’t leave Ventnor without admiring the stunning spray-painted mural on the High Street near the eastern outskirts of the town, which depicts a sea creature transforming into the Isle of Wight with the Needles at its feet. The three-storey work was created by Phlegm, a world-renowned painter in the street art scene. It’s an unforgettable sight and should finally dispel any lingering misconceptions you may have that Ventnor is simply a place people go to retire.