Saturday, September 23, 2017

Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and the Isle of Wight

When I visited Portsmouth and Southsea earlier this year, I thought about extending my explorations to another, nearby, seaside town - Ryde on the Isle of Wight. After walking around Southsea looking at places of interest, I didn’t have enough energy or inclination left, so I decided to leave it for another day. I had hoped to go much sooner, but I have finally made the trip.

Significant dates
Geoffrey Stavert, the author of A Study in Southsea: The Unrevealed Life of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, did some detective work and was reasonably confident that Conan Doyle arrived at Clarence Pier in Southsea on Saturday, June 24th 1882.

By coincidence, June 24th 2017 was a Saturday too, and I first intended to visit the island on that day; it seemed fitting that I would leave Clarence Pier on the same day and date that Conan Doyle arrived. However, it was a day when the weather was not very good and I didn’t feel like going anywhere.

I kept postponing this trip in favour of other things, until I realised that autumn was upon us. September 22nd was the day of the Autumn Equinox, so I thought that would be a good day to go.

Journey to Ryde on the Isle of Wight
I returned to Southsea, then travelled by Hovercraft over the Solent to Ryde.

I have made this journey before, but on those occasions Kipling and Doyle were not involved. I lived in Ryde for a short time when I was four years old, and I went back there just for personal reasons. This time, I was aware of some relevant associations.

Unseen influences on the Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight has a bad reputation. There are allegations of Satanism, black magic and mysterious goings on. Freemasons in business and local government are alleged to have inordinate influence on the island’s affairs. David Icke, who lives in Ryde, is one of the many people who have written about this.

I will never know why my family moved to Ryde – and some other places with interesting and sinister connections. I suspect that someone was following some kind of psychic trail.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Isle of Wight
Conan Doyle knew the Isle of Wight well. He liked it very much and often took people there for the day, including his sisters and their friend.

His first wife’s family, the Hawkins, moved there.

Rudyard Kipling and the Isle of Wight
Rudyard Kipling also knew the Isle of Wight well.

Kipling's poem A Centurion's Song is about a hero who had 'Served in Britain forty years from Vectis to the Wall', Vectis being the Roman name for the Isle of Wight.

His father Lockwood Kipling, the director of the Lahore School of Art, designed and created Osborne House's Durbar Wing. Rudyard Kipling himself often visited the island, and he took some leather wall coverings from the original Osborne House that was demolished to make way for Queen Victoria's Italianate palace to his home at Batemans.

Kipling’s wife’s family, the Balestiers, had a holiday cottage on the Isle of Wight and he often visited them at their home on the island.

Arrivals and departures
The Hoverport is next to Southsea’s Clarence Pier, which is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle disembarked near the end of June in 1882 after travelling from Plymouth on a coastal steamer. He was 23 years old; he had no job, nowhere to live, no plans and little more than £10 in his pocket.

The twin-funnelled steamer Victoria arriving at Clarence Pier in the 1880s:

A Hovercraft leaving the terminal at Clarence Pier, Southsea:

Kipling and Conan Doyle travelled to the Isle of Wight by steamer; I wonder what they would have thought of the Hovercraft.

A Day on the Island – then and now
It was only earlier this year that I learned that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had lived in Southsea.  He is the gift that keeps on giving: after discovering his fascinating short novel The Parasite I was even more surprised and delighted to come across a very relevant article called A Day on “The Island” that he wrote in 1884 for a photography journal.

He describes a day trip he made together with a photographer friend of his who came down from London for the occasion. It was written to encourage other photographers to make the same trip, and to inform them of what it involved.

He goes into enough detail for me to make a point by point comparison of many elements of our two journeys. Here is an extract:

To my friend Johnson, of London, the path to the Isle of Wight lies through the Waterloo Station. Behold him there at an early hour of the morning, clad in a fearful and wonderful Ulster, and the slouched hat dear to the artistic and Bohemian mind. No need to inquire the object of his mission, for under his arm is his folded stand, and in his one hand he bears the most compressible of cameras, while the other is occupied with a handy deal box containing plates and necessaries. Johnson goes through the formality of paying fifteen shillings and receiving a return ticket to Ryde in exchange; and then, with a feeling that come what may his retreat is secured, is whirled off in a third-class carriage.

The journey to Portsmouth occupies about two hours and a-half, and the traveller is eventually deposited upon the harbour pier, alongside which the fine, roomy "Victoria" is snorting impatiently out of its two funnels, and in full readiness for its short voyage...”

From A Day on “The Island” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

My journey too began at London’s Waterloo Station. I started much later than Mr Johnson did, as very long days out are just too tiring for me. He bought a through return ticket; I bought a return ticket to Portsmouth Harbour only: I wanted to give myself the freedom and flexibility to break my journey and not be restricted to specific times for the trains and hovercraft. Splitting the tickets cost me less too, but I still paid a lot more than 15 shillings!

We no longer have third class carriages, so I went in second.

He wore a heavy coat and brought a lot of equipment and supplies with him; I wore light clothes and took just a small camera and a few other items.

Mr Johnson’s train journey took around two and a half hours; mine took one hour 33 minutes.

He arrived at Portsmouth Harbour Station where Conan Doyle and the old faithful steamer Victoria were impatiently waiting for him; I took a bus from the station to the Hoverport. I was on my own, but felt that the two great authors were with me in spirit.

Their sea crossing took 25 minutes; mine took 10 minutes.

The article describes the spectacular views from the steamer very well; the hovercraft is low in the water even when inflated and the windows are covered in sea spray, so they had a better view than I did.

Conan Doyle has this to say about Ryde:

Ryde pier is a very long one. As Johnson remarked, if it were a little longer there would be no need for any steamers at all. Happily there is a steam tramway which runs down it, and saves the necessity of trudging over half-a-mile of planking. The town itself is a decidedly hilly one.

As I arrived by Hovercraft, I didn't need to traverse the long pier as they come right up on the land.

The article describes the long tour that the two men took of the island; they hired a horse and carriage with driver to get around. I could have taken a bus tour but I stayed in Ryde and walked. Ryde certainly does have some steep streets. I remembered taking a tour of Ryde on a little street train some years ago, but it was no longer running.

They wanted to get an assortment of pictures; I am not interested in photography for its own sake so I just took pictures of a few attractive buildings.

They had a lunch of excellent quality in a good hotel; I bought takeaway fish & chips of passable quality and ate my lunch on the sea front while enjoying the view of all the yachts that were sailing around the Solent.

They didn’t want to stay out too late. Doctor Doyle was back with his patients by seven in the evening; Mr Johnson was back at Waterloo Station by nine, with a good collection of photographs and feeling the benefits that getting out of London into the sea air had on his lungs; I was home by eight, completely exhausted.

Summing up
Conan Doyle says that the island is never at any time an economical spot, and that his friend was out of pocket by £2 in total but considered it well spent. This suggests that £2 was a considerable sum of money in those days.

My trip cost me around £44 in total. I have mixed feelings about whether or not it was worth it. The change of scenery was beneficial. The views from the train were good. The air was fresh, the sea was blue and the weather was fine. The town seemed smaller and shabbier than I remembered it, and a good cafĂ© and an old pharmacy I wanted to revisit were no longer there.

Conan Doyle wrote this in his article:

"If there be any one of my readers whose attention is drawn by this short article to the magnificent field of outdoor work presented by the Isle of Wight, then I have not written in vain.

I think it very likely that his description of the delights of the Isle of Wight would have inspired people to take a trip there and make the same tour.

Where the modern day Isle of Wight is concerned, the journey would be good for people who would like to experience travel by Hovercraft. Perhaps a bus tour of the entire island is the best way to see the attractions. Staying in a hotel would be best for people with less stamina and energy than Conan Doyle and his friend Mr Johnson (and the horse) had.

I would like to spend some time looking round Osborne House, where Queen Victoria received many eminent Victorians including Benjamin Disraeli. This is not far from Ryde, but as travelling is very tiring, perhaps an overnight stay would be best for this. I have another incentive to make a return visit:

A new ticket to Ryde
When I disembarked from the Hovercraft at Ryde, I noticed two others parked nearby on the slipway that looked bigger and better than the one I arrived on. The paint was brighter and they looked newer. I wondered what it would be like to go on a better class of Hovercraft. I noticed them again when I was boarding for the return journey, as the craft was even shabbier looking than the one I came out on.

There was a delay, then the captain announced that there was a problem with the engine that they were trying to fix. A little later, he said that the Hovercraft would not be going anywhere.

We had to get off, and after a short delay we were escorted to one of the new models. It was exactly the same on the inside as the older ones!

Not only did I get to travel on a new model, but I also got a ticket for one free Hovercraft ride as compensation for the inconvenience. As it is a single ticket, I might try the ferry for the other journey over the water.

The ticket expires one year’s time

These are the smart new Hovercraft I saw. Ryde’s long pier is in the background: