Holiday like a queen on the Isle of Wight, star of new film Victoria & Abdul

20th Sep 17 | Lifestyle

Judi Dench's royal role in new film Victoria & Abdul has inspired a visitor trail in the Isle of Wight. Sarah Marshall explores the key locations.

Osborne, Isle of Wight

The table is elaborately laid as it would have been more than a century ago, when guests of Britain’s reigning monarch were served a marathon meal of soups, game and seafood – and generally forced to eat at a sprinter’s pace.

But the truth is, Queen Victoria, well known for her fast-paced feasting, would probably have preferred a supper more suited to the Indian decor of the grandiose Durbar room at her Isle of Wight retreat, Osborne House.

The Durbar dining room at Osborne House (English Heritage/PA)
The Durbar dining room at Osborne House (English Heritage/PA)

According to historians, Her Royal Highness was rather partial to a plate of curry. “She usually had them on Sunday lunchtime,” says Michael Hunter, English Heritage curator at Osborne. “We have kitchen ledgers that list chicken curry and daal as dishes she would have.”

Queen Victoria’s penchant for the spicy dish was all part of her fascination with India, a subject brought to life in new film Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard.

The close – and controversial – relationship between the elderly queen and her treasured Munshi (teacher), Abdul Karim, is celebrated at Osborne House where many of the scenes were filmed.

Judy Dench filming at Osborne House (Universal Pictures/PA)
Judi Dench filming at Osborne House (Universal Pictures/PA)

Presided over by an enormous peacock, with an ostentatious ceiling reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, the Durbar room plays a prominent role in the heart-warming epic, and is currently filled with mannequins wearing costumes worn by the cast, on display until the end of the month.

Costumes on display at the Durbar room (English Heritage/PA)
Costumes on display at the Durbar room (English Heritage/PA)

Walking through the showpiece designed by John Lockwood Kipling, father of the author Rudyard, I’m struck by cabinets filled with glittering curios such as a sequin-studded pouch presented by her ‘Loyal Subjects of Hyderabad’ and a backscratcher carved from ivory in the form of a human hand.

The newest exhibit is Queen Victoria’s Hindustani diary, borrowed from the Royal Archives and on public display for the first time.

Curling inky script shows both English, Hindustani and Urdu characters, with the Queen’s entries becoming gradually more sophisticated under direction from her Munshi.

A diary showing how Queen Victoria learned to write Hindustani (English Heritage/PA)
A diary showing how Queen Victoria learned to write Hindustani (English Heritage/PA)

In 1887, 11 years after she was named Empress of India, Queen Victoria began employing Indian servants and 24-year-old Abdul from Agra quickly advanced through the ranks, accompanying her overseas on visits and taking part in tableaux vivants (motionless re-enactments of famous historical scenes) staged in the Durbar room at Christmas time.

Ironically, she was never able to visit her Asian Empire, so Abdul provided a window on this exotic and entrancing world.

Most importantly, he gave companionship to the grieving widow, following the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and her Scottish personal attendant John Brown in 1883.

Abdul Karim (English Heritage/PA)
Abdul Karim (English Heritage/PA)

Four portraits of Abdul, commissioned by the queen, hang on the walls of the Durbar Corridor at Osborne. “In one he’s wearing a gold turban and looks more like a maharaja,” says Michael Hunter. “It’s an indication of how Victoria viewed him – a breath of fresh air. Introducing this creature into the household and the consternation it caused must have given her some sort of excitement in her last decade, when things were getting dull.”

Incredibly the relationship was a mystery for many years, kept secret by an embarrassed royal court until author Shrabani Basu unearthed Abdul’s private diary in 2010 while writing her book, on which the new film is based.

It’s fitting that much of their friendship blossomed at Osborne House, purchased by Victoria and Albert in 1845 as an escape from court life in London and Windsor, and a tour of the property is one of the best ways to discover the more affectionate and human side of a monarch often depicted as cantankerous and austere.

Walking through the grounds, filled with gnarled, ancient oak trees, I imagine how much freedom the place must have afforded. Family holidays were often spent on a private forest-fringed, sandy beach, where a bathing machine – a wooden changing cubicle with cart wheels – allowed Victoria to preserve her modesty.

Queen Victoria's bathing machine (English Heritage/PA)
Queen Victoria’s bathing machine (English Heritage/PA)

Today, sailing boats slice through gentle white caps on The Solent, and although the mainland seems within arm’s reach, it’s also a million miles away.

Safe from prying eyes, there’s a sense anything is possible in this small, sea-lapped haven – even an unlikely alliance between a revered member of royalty and a lowly Indian servant more than 40 years her junior.

Four more places to visit on Victoria’s Island Trail

1. Egypt Point, West Cowes

(Isle of Wight Tourism/PA)
(Isle of Wight Tourism/PA)

It may come as a surprise to many, but Victoria was a real romantic and enjoyed watching sunsets over The Solent. Her favourite viewpoint was this promenade, lying between Cowes and the village of Gurnard. It’s now a popular vantage point for watching the Round the Island yacht race.

2. Ventnor Botanic Garden, St Lawrence

Numerous Victorians came to the island in search of curative sea air, leading to the establishment of the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest in 1868. Chusan Palms presented to Queen Victoria were planted in the grounds, now a horticultural heaven. Entry £9.50. Visit botanic.co.uk

3. Carisbrooke Castle, Newport

Carisbrooke Castle
(Sarah Marshall/PA)

King Charles I was imprisoned here following the English Civil War, and famously got his head stuck in a window trying to escape. Centuries later, in 1912, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Beatrice moved in. A walk around the ramparts promises panoramic views of the island, and resident donkeys are still used for demonstrations of the castle’s water wheel. Entry £8.80. Visit english-heritage.org.uk

4. Blackgang Chine, near Ventnor

The Queen visited this seaside amusement park in 1853 to see the skeleton of a fin whale that had washed up near the Needles. The exhibit is still on display today, and even if you’re not a fan of rollercoasters and slides, the view of the island’s famous chalk stacks is beautiful from here. Entry from £19.50. Visit blackgangchine.com

Where to stay: The George Hotel, Yarmouth

The George Hotel exterior
(The George/PA)

Continue the royal theme by staying at this historic harbourside hotel in the island’s oldest town and seaport. The current building once belonged to the Governor and dates back to the late 17th century, although the site has been occupied since the 1200s. Stay in room 12, at the top of a grand wooden stairwell, where King Charles II once slept.

Modern additions have since been made, such as a glass dining room spilling onto the waterfront, but inviting fireplaces and warped floorboards tilted by age remain. At times the sensation is a bit like walking on a swaying ship – although that could be the effects of too much time spent in the convivial bar.

How to get there
Double rooms at The George start from £140 per night with breakfast. Visit thegeorge.co.uk

Red Funnel operates ferries between Southampton and Cowes from £56 for a short-stay return with a vehicle and up to seven passengers. Visit redfunnel.co.uk

Entry to Oborne House costs from £16.20. Visit english-heritage.org.uk. For more information on the destination, see visitisleofwight.co.uk

© Press Association 2017

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