Portchester and the Isle of Wight

After driving down from London to Portsmouth on Saturday, we spent the night on the car park at Port Solent. This is basically a collection of chain restaurants and a Wetherspoons pub next to a marina. The car park was large, quiet, and no-one seemed at all concerned about vehicles staying overnight.

Our ferry on Sunday wasn’t until 3pm, so we had plenty of time to visit nearby Portchester Castle before heading to the port (English Heritage, so more “savings”).

We’d highly recommend Portchester Castle. The outer wall is Roman and dates back to the 3rd century. Apparently it’s the most complete Roman fort North of the Alps – or at least that’s what English Heritage claim.

The fort was built by a chap called Marcus Aurelius Carausius who was in charge of the Roman naval forces in the English Channel. In 286 AD, Carausius rebelled against Rome, declared himself “Emperor of the North” (which included Britannia and part of Northern Gaul) and ruled for seven years until he was murdered by his own finance minister. Neither of us had ever heard of him or his rebellion…… As the exact date of construction of the fort isn’t known, no-one knows whether it was built to defend Roman rule in Britannia (ie pre-rebellion) or to keep the Romans out (post-rebellion).

The castle in one corner of the Roman fort is Norman, dating back to the 12th century.

Portchester Castle was in the thick of things throughout the Plantagenet era, with the French trying to invade and take the castle, and English kings using the castle as a base from which to gather their troops and supplies and set off to invade France. Edward III, for example, set out from Portchester in the 1340s for the campaign that included victory at the Battle of Crécy, and his great grandson Henry V similarly left from Portchester in 1415 en route to the Battle of Agincourt.

Richard II built himself a sumptuous palace at Portchester in the 1390s (battles weren’t really his thing):

By the 17th Century, Portchester had largely outlived its military role but it found new life in the 18th century as a jail for prisoners of war. We could still see the beams in the keep where extra floors were inserted during the Napoleonic Wars to accommodate more prisoners – up to 8000 in total at Portchester.

Displays in the keep tell the story of over 2000 black and mixed-race French soldiers captured in the Caribbean in 1796. The poor sods. From the Caribbean to a damp cold English castle at the end of a hellish five month journey…..

The audio guide was the best we’ve had from English Heritage thus far, voiced by actors playing an English soldier of the Napoleonic period and one of the French captives. The frenchman had a very comical accent that Mark likened to Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau and the whole thing was peppered with an extensive repertoire of insults delivered by one nation to the other.

We arrived at the port just after 2pm for our 3pm crossing (you have to check in 30-60 minutes before sailing for the Isle of Wight ferries) and made full use of the very good free wifi to download some TV from iplayer whilst waiting to board. We don’t have a TV in the van; we just download programmes from the internet as and when we have wifi and watch them later. It’s a good thing really that we’d established this way of doing things during our years in Kampington. SOK came with a TV bracket, but this has been adapted to provide Mark with a place to put his cup of tea. Why do motorhome manufacturers never seem to think about where you’re supposed to put your cup of tea in bed?

The crossing time to the Isle of Wight is only 40 minutes so were soon on our way to the small camp site we’d picked out (South Thorness Farm – a Caravan and Motorhome Club certified location).

Monday and Tuesday saw us visiting Cowes and Ryde respectively. Cowes is quite small, with shops clearly geared up for the arrival of the yachty crowd (and the “general” tourists who can be enticed to part with their money for nautical-themed clothing and homewares). Ryde was larger but more scruffy. There wasn’t much to take a photo of in either town. Here’s SOK by the beach in Ryde:

Parking thus far on the Isle of Wight has not been easy. This could well be the Pay and Display capital of the World. Having to pay for parking hasn’t been the main problem, though – the parking we’ve come across so far has been far from motorhome-friendly…

The council offers a pdf of motorhome-suitable car parks which we downloaded. We’ve been to two so far and there was no chance at all of us parking in any space in either of them (and SOK is under 6 metres long). Single spaces without any verge behind the spaces to “overhang”…. So we gave up on the council list and have just started looking out for parking when we get where we want to go. The next problem is that most of the parking seems to be policed by those private companies that you just know are eagerly looking out for any possible transgression so that they can issue a hefty parking ticket. It’s not good when you feel you have to take photos of your parked van and all the rules & regulations signs so that you can defend yourself if needs be……. grrrrr…..

We headed to Carisbrooke Castle,in the centre of the island, on a very wet and gloomy Wednesday morning.

Carisbrooke is a Norman castle (dating back to circa 1100) that has been, as usual, repeatedly modified over the centuries.

The defensive fortifications were upgraded during the reign of Elizabeth I in the late 16th century to better defend the Isle of Wight (standing, as it does, right in front of the naval dockyard at Portsmouth) from the Spanish.

Carisbrooke was the home of an imprisoned Charles I for ten months in the late 1640s. Initially he was allowed out and about on the island, until he tried to escape, after which he was confined to the castle. He doesn’t seem to have had too hard a time there – they even built a bowling green for him – but that didn’t stop him trying to escape another couple of times – on one occassion getting stuck as he tried to squeeze out through a window! Perhaps he had an inkling as to how his captivity was likely to end……

The on-duty donkey really wasn’t convinced that he wanted to demonstrate how water used to be raised from the well:

A later famous resident of Carisbrooke Castle was Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, which is probably why the fabric of the place is still in pretty good nick…..

Queen Victoria is one of our main reasons for visiting the Isle of Wight, her summer residence of Osborne House being near Cowes. That’s our planned destination tomorrow, if weather permits…..

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