If I have a favourite spot it is Cowes, or more precisely five acres overlooking the Solent, the strait which separates the Isle of Wight from the English mainland. I lived there aged thirteen for a year; and again at seventeen, at a different house nearby. Each was a front-row seat at a non-stop theatre of marine activity. You could watch the ceaseless comings
and goings, where commerce and leisure ploughed the water known as Cowes Roads as they had done for centuries, whether sail or motor, speed or serenity, racing or aimless wayfaring. But why do I love the place so?
Queen Victoria, happily married to Albert, brought their children to Osborne, at East Cowes, as a holiday home; and in her long years of widowhood, she stayed here whenever her duties permitted. Her son Edward VII and grandson George V raced at Cowes, together with kings and princes too numerous to mention from around the globe. The famed regatta, known as Cowes Week, started when George IV was still Prince Regent. I’ve never taken any interest in royalty, nor have I ever sailed. Even when I lived there, I never stepped on a boat, other than the ferry to Portsmouth. We had no funds for such frivolities.
It’s not that I was unhappy there as a teenager, nor specially happy either I’ve written a series of posts about Norfolk House, where I lived at age 13, listed in “All Actual Life is Encounter“.
I haven’t yet covered my time at the other place, Nubia House, because the consecutive stream of my memoirs is obstinately stuck at age fifteen. The house is gone, I don’t know when, its only memorial a little nest of modern dwellings called Nubia Close built over the site. Nothing remains of the grand crumbling mansion, covered in Virginia creeper, once home to Sir Godfrey Baring. There’s very little on the Web, but I found this, part of a letter to Winston Churchill from his future wife, on August 8th 1908:
I was so glad to get your delightful letter this morning—I retired with it into the garden, but for a long time before opening it I amused myself by wondering what would be inside—
. . .
We all went to the ball the next night which I hated—I was extremely odious to several young partners not on purpose, but because they would interrupt my train of thought with irrelevant patter about yachts, racing, the weather, Cowes gossip etc.—So I was obliged to feign deafness—
I was a school boarder there, but I scarcely appreciated the place or its history. I’d been uprooted too many times from places I’d begun to like, and scarce realized that Nubia House was only a short distance from Norfolk House where I’d lived at thirteen. Boarding-school was sequestered and inward-turned, like a monastery, or garrison in a foreign land.
In Cowes, a place of antique renown, attracting men and women of distinction, I once sojourned with the carelessness of youth. What was it all to me? Now I gaze at the same scene more eagerly. Cowes is a place for conspicuous display of wealth. One can only speculate in each case whether it has been gained from inheritance, crime or legitimate business. All I say is, “Fortune favours the fortunate”.
Last weekend we stayed two nights in a house on that fortune-favoured slope, built 180 years ago, recently restored to the condition of its heyday. Our balcony looked over the Solent and hung above a garden which our host was weeding as we arrived. He’s from the East End of London, with the direct honesty and down-to-earth manners of that tribe, and an entrepreneurial Midas touch which he happily admitted. He’d acquired the house in an auction, instantly seduced by its situation, its view. Before that, he’d sailed the world. His love of yachting was displayed in many small touches of the well-furnished house. In the dining-room is a large painting, finer than my photograph is able to capture, which he had commissioned from the artist, showing a scene from the days of King George V. Next to it, a battered whaler’s harpoon leaned carelessly, straight out of Moby Dick.
There was something about our host which in my limited experience of the world I couldn’t place. I felt a strange kinship with the man, as if discovering a long-lost brother on a parallel path. What I have only done in realms of fancy, he effortlessly carves out in the world’s gold which men covet, shaping it without owning it. I feel no envy, though it’s he, not I, who dwells in
this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
. . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm . . .
(In his famous deathbed speech, John of Gaunt is describing England in these words, but I like to apply them to the Isle of Wight and especially the corner in which we stayed.)
He has at his disposal an historic 56ft yacht. It belongs to the son of a retired statesman of international renown, who’s happy for him to keep it maintained at Cowes, so long as he can have the use of it now and again. A vessel like this needs a sizeable crew, and the boatyard labour of many hands. Instead of personal wealth, our host takes on volunteers for these tasks. He helps run a small Christian mission and uses the yacht to help men whose lives have hit crises, such as failed marriages or mental breakdowns.
Which may explain a mystery. When I went into the kitchen to settle the bill for our two nights’ stay, there on the table was an old Bible, open at the book of Jeremiah; with a pen and notebook alongside. It was only after we had come back home that my curiosity led me to look up his name, and the yacht’s name, and discover a few facts which I then pieced together; for he had given no hint of the religious basis for his activities in our conversations.
I ponder destiny and free-will, the paths we take through life, why I am me and you are you. I give thanks for that blest plot in Cowes and to my host who lives there. For if you want to see the blessedness of everywhere and everyone, it helps to start with some defined spot and one particular specimen.