Britain is an island nation, an unassailable fact of geography we rarely allow ourselves to forget. Adrift in gray seas, with malingering hordes of Europeans, old and new, perpetually massed for invasion, Napoleon’s arch dismissal of the British as a “nation of shopkeepers” doesn’t seem strong enough, his dig at our parochial vanity and inflated self-esteem omitting the rich streak of paranoia that runs through the national character. Post-empire, post-industry, post-everything else, there’s even more to be suspicious of, and every “island nation” mention taunts our perceived cultural and political isolationism, our apparent reticence at engaging with the world beyond the sludgy waters. Like all trans-national slander, it contains a slender grain of truth, a truth we deflect by turning it in on ourselves.
The British Isles comprise over 6,000 islands, although I suspect most residents would be hard-pressed to name more than five. Of these, the Isle of Wight is perhaps the best known, once used by Queen Victoria as her favorite royal retreat. Islands have a way of accentuating their marginal status, as if they’re the last place where ideals and traditions hold out, long past their sell-by date. The similarly sized Isle of Man only abolished court-sanctioned corporal punishment in 1993—under some duress—and held its last legal birching (the act of taking three or four flexible birch rods, lashed together and applied vigorously up to 12 times across a miscreant’s naked buttocks) in 1975. In an impressive display of independence, the Isle of Man manages to cling to an official language—Manx—and somewhere along the line forgot to impose speed limits on its country roads.
The Isle of Wight isn’t quite as exotic, although in meteorological terms it is one of the most clement places in the entire British Isles; palm trees and ferns are commonplace on its southern fringes, helping increase the sense of distance, both temporal and physical, from the mainland. Tucked away off the south coast of the mainland, the Isle of Wight is a diamond-shaped wedge that shelters the natural harbors at Portsmouth and Southampton, from where it’s just a 45-minute ferry trip (or 10 minutes by hovercraft). From raised ground many miles inland you can see the Isle on the horizon, its proximity appearing to erase the short stretch of water that distances it from the mainland. Yet it’s that thin sliver of English Channel that makes a world of difference.
For a Londoner, the Isle of Wight clearly drifts a few degrees off the standard pace of life. But is it really so strange? After a few years of infrequent day trips to visit an elderly family friend, my wife and I have booked a week’s holiday in the heart of the island, hoping its reputation for family-friendliness will keep our two-year-old entertained but not imperiled—imagining amusement parks, sandy beaches, and small towns lined with heaving thrift stores. Our trip starts inauspiciously: Within 30 seconds of boarding the ferry our son has distinguished himself by tripping heavily over a raised doorframe and violently head-butting the deck, leaving a neat imprint of diamond-patterned plastic safety matting emblazoned on his forehead, a criss-cross of tiny puncture wounds. The trip passes swiftly in a blur of playing hunt-the-first-aid-kit and legal-form-filling, but he seems unaffected by his misadventures and once we’ve signed away the ferry company’s liabilities, the employees are happy too.
It’s hard to imagine the Isle as a center of technological innovation. Instead, technology has been usurped by memory. Upon our arrival, we avoid the coast road and journey inland. The interior landscape feels expansive and endless, a lost world of cream teas, rolling hills, regular bus services, and enthusiasm for both miniature landscapes and model railways. The edges of the island seem to melt away, as do a couple of decades; the Isle of Wight feels older, but also more innocent, drifting apart from the mainland. That said, the island’s main city, Newport, is a rude awakening—a dismal agglomeration of chain stores set in the geographic center of the island, hemmed in by a bypass and a supermarket. A miserable new shopping center towers over the tight grid of small houses and shops in the old town, offering multiplexes and all-you-can-eat pizza for the island’s burgeoning population of bored youths and teenage mothers. There’s little here that tallies with the halcyon landscape of the model village, a world before ASBOs, hoodies, and teenage curfews—the unsavory ingredients that eventually turn up under every rug in the British Isles.
It used to be said that the world’s population could squeeze together onto the Isle of Wight, standing shoulder to shoulder throughout the 147 square miles of hills and beaches. Unsurprisingly, someone has recently spent time doing the math, and the exploding global population now rules out the island as the sole repository for all humanity. Crowds don’t appear to have ever been a problem. At season’s end, the island is pleasantly deserted, abandoned even. It’s hard to imagine the writhing, hellish mass of people that arrived for the legendary music festivals that ran from 1968 to 1970. The inaugural festival—the Great South Coast Bank holiday Pop Festivity, in the long-winded parlance of the time—took place barely half a mile away from where we are staying. Hosted by John Peel, barely one year into his national radio career, it drew 10,000 people from around the British Isles to the dourly named Hell Field at Ford Farm. Acts included Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Jefferson Airplane, all the way from the U.S. of A.
Two years on, the event had snowballed, with some 600,000 fans swarming onto the island to see Jimi Hendrix at his incendiary best. Trains and ferries were packed out with revelers, and eventually the fences came down, supplies failed to get through, and the audience’s mood soured. Three weeks later, Hendrix was dead, and the Sixties were well and truly finished. A few months after that, presumably once the island had been cleared of the last groups of straggling hippies, the Isle’s slow descent into technophobia began with the cancellation of Britain’s nascent space program. The country’s first—and only—satellite, which had been extensively tested at a spectacular curved concrete test site on the southwest corner of the island, was successfully launched from the barren Australian outback, then promptly had its budget pulled by a cash-strapped government. Britain’s failed foray into space is now a long-obliterated memory, a dead end that has attained almost mythical status amongst those who have never got over the nation’s talent for self-deprecation.
It’s hard to imagine the Isle as a center of technological innovation. Instead, technology has been usurped by memory. In particular, dinosaurs, both plastic and wood, are everywhere—propping up the gates to theme parks, standing watch by the side of the road, lurking in museums and botanical gardens—a legacy of the fortunate geology of the south coast, which helped preserve hundreds of important bones. The Isle of Wight played a key role in the early days of paleontology, with its crumbling cliffs revealing skeleton after skeleton to the horrified fascination of the gentlemen amateurs who fuelled this emerging science. Nowadays, there’s the family-baiting “Dinosaur Isle” appellation, and the gift shops bloat with fossils and plush plesiosaurs. We visit Amazon World, a collection of sweaty low-slung warehouses bustling with menageries of exotic animals, an acrid smell of animal urine combined with the luminous ferocity of signs that say “WE BITE.” Actually, it’s pretty good, and the desperate atmosphere usually conjured up by the small zoo is refreshingly absent. Plump, tame birds flock around our feet in the jungle enclosures, delighting our son. The gift shop—we’re rapidly becoming aficionados—is a major disappointment, all elaborate carved animal coffee tables and delicate porcelain reproductions of prides of lions.
“Yes, but a lot of those are the same type of animal. It’s not 100 different animals.” We learn to adjust our expectations. Next up is a small-farm-slash-theme park that promises something tantalizingly called a “goat-a-skelter.” It turns out to be a crude wooden structure in the goat pen, entirely ignored by the goats, who prefer to try and eat our shirts. The rest of the farm feels equally low-key, it’s the end of season and things are ready for a refresh. Three men are building a new children’s playground, swinging their chainsaws around with gay abandon. We don’t mind, but not everyone is happy. A tall man in baggy shorts complains about the poor value for money. His children are now bored, he says, and they’ve been there for barely three quarters of an hour. His children look on, silent and perhaps a little confused. Are they bored? They look as if they regret saying they were. We linger at the back of the gift shop, toying with plastic dinosaurs and listening intently. “We have over 100 animals here,” the manageress says, defensively. “Yes, but a lot of those are the same type of animal,” the complainant’s wife snaps. “It’s not 100 different animals.” This is an argument going nowhere. Aggrieved by the ongoing works to the playground and the fact that their expressionless children have clearly had their attention spans sorely tested by the rural environment, they agree to take a refund, but they’ve mislaid their receipt. The woman on the till is adamant; she gave them a receipt when they entered the park, but without it, no refund. “Thank you,” I say loudly as we leave, the argument still in progress, “we had a wonderful time.”
The island’s railway lines were long ago stripped to their bare essentials, victims of the savage cuts made in the nationwide network during the 1960s. Today, the remaining few miles of track are a popular tourist attraction, plowing a short route through just four stops right across the middle of the island, from nowhere to nowhere. The main attraction is, of course, the gift shop, stacked full of local history books, expensive toy trains, and humorous wall hangings. We see two grown men testing out the model lightsabers. “You can see why this one’s more expensive,” one says appreciatively, swishing the plastic tube around. Two teenage girls accompanying a young man create a momentary spike in the demographic; we initially can’t understand why they’re here. Suddenly the calm is shattered as the man begins howling, a guttural cry that suggests extreme mental unease. Everyone carries on their business as the girls take him outside and he sits down between them, rocking and moaning, oblivious to everything around him.
All islanders, we assume, are different. Islanders who choose to be isolated from what is, after all, a giant island, are perhaps more different still—two degrees of removal. The Isle of Wight occupies a strange place in the British collective memory, as a repository for how things used to be. The painstakingly crafted perfection of the model railway and village, all ordered and eternal, is undeniably at odds with national trends toward a more sprawl- and mall-based lifestyle. It’s tempting to perceive the Isle of Wight as clinging to its traditions, while modernity relentlessly assails it from the mainland, but there’s no evidence that islanders are desperate to repel the forces of change. In reality, any perceived eccentricity is nearly all in the mind of the visitor, lulled by the false sense of isolation created by the crossing, and confused by the diminished scale of the surroundings.
On our last day, we visit the island’s most famous model village, based on the properties and landscape of its immediate surroundings. Tiny figures nestle on neatly clipped lawns, mown with extraordinary care. Model trains puff around a rocky landscape, and Zeppelins and balloons sit atop poles above the perfect topiary. The Model Village also comes with a model village of the model village itself, and within that nestles a model village of the model village of the model village, a fractal vision of Little England, regressing ever inwards.