One famous Los Angeles resident was provided the answer to this question in 1990. In a fan call to the late composer Frank Zappa, Pete Byrne explained "It's a tiny island hanging off the South coast of England". Frank Zappa never had the chance to visit the Isle of Wight but it has long been a haunt for poets, writers and musicians. A line that stretches from Tennyson to Hendrix and beyond Level 42.
The Island was put firmly on the international map by a week long visit from Bob Dylan, his wife Sara and The Band in August 1969. Dylan topped the bill at the second Isle of Wight Festival at Wootton. A performance that brought John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Keith Richard, Jane Fonda to the Island at the head of an army of press corps and fans that included Elton John.
Bob Dylan and Sara managed to slip a visit in to Queen Victoria's Osborne House but mostly stayed at Forelands Farm, Bembridge. George Harrison came to stay and the Dylans enjoyed the respite from Woodstock, New York State, a peaceful artists enclave overrun by the calamitous Woodstock Festival.
The following year, Tennyson's Freshwater suffered a similar, if not permanent fate. A half a million turned up for 1970 Afton Festival. Amongst the list of artists who performed were Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, The Doors, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Melanie, The Who, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, Sly and the Family Stone, John Sebastian, Tiny Tim, Miles Davis. Neil Young only made it as far as Yarmouth Quayside where he turned his Bentley around and caught the next ferry back after being harassed by police. The chaotic, hand to mouth, nature of the event is captured by Murray Lerner's film Message To Love.
None of these landmark events is even afforded a plague. No marker either for the hotel where Jimi Hendrix stayed. Instead a plethora of tourist brochures and books continue to highlight the Island's 'golden age' when Queen Victoria, Tennyson, Keats and Charles Dickens walked these shores.
One man with a foot in either camp is Dr. Brian Hinton. He is a member of the Tennyson Society and psychedelic music afficianado to boot. Latterday poet and author (Message to Love, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison biographies), Dr. Hinton works enthusiastically at Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater where the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron set up her studio in a chicken run. The Julia Margaret Cameron Trust has restored Dimbola opening it up as museum to the lady who photographed Tennyson and his many guests in Freshwater. Visitors and donators to the Trust have included Mr. and Mrs. Charlton Heston.
By comparison with the Tennyson steeped Freshwater or Queen Victoria's Osbourne House in East Cowes the remnants of Lewis Carroll, Dickens or Keats visits to the Island exist in largely literary rather than physical landmarks.
Charles Dickens wrote some of David Copperfield in old Shanklin which still pervades the charm of a gone world. It is said that Dicken's based Mr. Dick on a well known Shanklin lunatic. Lewis Carroll's summers in nearby Sandown inspired his Hunting of the Snark. Carroll was another famous early visitor to Dimbola Lodge where he purchased a Tennyson portrait from Julia Margaret Cameron.
Keats does, however, have a couple of physical landmarks dedicated to him. Keats Green and Keats Inn and the cottage where he stayed at Shanklin. Less well documented is the fact that Keats wrote his oft quoted lines "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" while gazing on the Island's Carisbrooke Castle. Set high above the Island's capital Newport, the donkeys still pull water from the well. Visitors visit in large numbers to see where Charles I lost his head.
Holidaymakers may not come in their droves as they once had done before the advent of the foreign package holiday but they come, nevertheless, because the Island has a charm all of its own. The beautiful beaches at Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor are but a short trip from mainland Britain. The annual Cowes Sailing Week every August is world renowned. This tiny town on the tip of the Island is a favoured haunt of sailors throughout the year.
Running against this influx of visitors, a mixture of corporate neglect and foul weather has seen off both Shanklin and Ventnor Piers. Shanklin Pier was home to the last of Britain's great pier divers Daredevil Leslie throughout the fifties. In 1972 English eccentric and songwriter the late Vivian Stanshall joined the Temperance Seven for an end of pier season there. He was inspired by the Pier to include some lines in his opus Rawlinson End. Later that same year, Vivian Stanshall returned to the Island with the Who's Keith Moon for the filming of the David Essex, Ringo Starr film That'll Be The Day. A movie that includes both footage of Shanklin Pier and the now burnt out edifice of the Rex Cinema at Ventnor.
Time moves on. The extensive railway system at full throttle when comedian Arthur Askey did summer seasons in Sandown or David Niven relaxed at his Bembridge retreat has been lost to a single link between Ryde, Sandown and Shanklin. Only the Havenstreet Steam Railway has managed to rescue a few precious miles of track for tourists. Beecham's axe has a lot to answer for.
Visitors no longer catch a paddle steamer from Portsmouth as they did when author Philip Norman was growing up around his father's Seagull Ballroom hung on the end of Ryde Pier. This is the era of the 'catamaran', hovercraft, the 'jet' with three car ferries serving Yarmouth, Cowes and Fishbourne. The railway still runs all the way down Ryde pier to Sandown but both the trams and the Seagull are long gone. Philip Norman recalls the Seagull in his magnificent biography of Buddy Holly. Also in greater detail in his autobiographical novel The Skater's Waltz.
John Hannam's Isle of Wight Radio chat show captures reminiscences of post war decades. Lovingly recalling the Island's first milkman to become a star Craig Douglas whose Only Sixteen topped the charts in 1959. Also Island milkman Mark King whose mega band Level 42 included fellow Islanders Boon and Phil Gould.
Cut off by that stretch of water the Island's music community has a fine cache of players in its midst including JC Grimshaw and Jake Rodriques who have been backing Midge Ure. Adam Kirk who is on tour with folk legend Joan Baez. Mike Jolliffe, who Anthony Minghella found inspirational, remains content to stay in his native Cowes. To these can be added two migrants who continue to inspire Island musicians. Original Rolling Stone and Pretty Thing Dick Taylor who lives at Ventnor; Pete Hogman who not only played harmonica on Millie's sixties hit My Boy Lollipop but is a bluesman who backed Chuck Berry, Chicago's Little Walter and Arkansas's Sonny Boy Williamson.
This is an Island to suit all tastes. Music by the pub full. Serenity abounding in cliff walks and nature trails. If Scott Walker failed in his visit to Quarr Abbey in 1968 to ward off the ravages and attention of pop stardom today's visitor will find it a haven of peace. At the other end of the spectrum are the summer holiday camps, chairlifts at Alum Bay plus resorts full of arcades and ice cream stands.
Tennyson's modern day equivalent may be the surrealist songwriter Robyn Hitchcock who continues to make regular summer visits. The performer has spotlighted the desolate beauty of Compton Beach in his song Airscape and the tangled charm of Ventnor's Undercliff in his story The Legend of the Glass Hotel. Every summer since 1995 he has brought a small gathering of friends and fans for music performances. In 1995 it was to Yarmouth Railway Station in a tribute to Jimi Hendrix's last UK appearance at the Afton Festival. 1996 a South Wight tour by double decker bus with music. 1997 a visit by boat to Yarmouth. 1998 who knows?
An original surrealist poet still lives at Northwood. David Gascoyne, now an Octogenarian, has been honoured by the French government and made a fellow of the Royal Society. On National Poetry Day, 1997 some of England's great poets came to share an evening with him at the newly restored Quay Arts Centre Theatre. The man who knew Picasso and Dali still in our midst giving an inspired reading of his works.
The Quay Arts Centre Theatre, benefiting from a Lottery grant, is now been named the Anthony Minghella Theatre. The Island born film director has been bestowed the Freedom of the Island by the local council. When he accepted the honour Anthony Minghella held his Oscar aloft in Ryde High Street to tumultuous applause. Another great day for the Isle of Wight.
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