A Day on "The Island"

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

A Day on "The Island" is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in The British Journal of Photography on 25 april 1884.

A Day in "The Island"

The British Journal of Photography
(25 april 1884, p. 268) © bjp-online.com.
The British Journal of Photography
(25 april 1884, p. 269) © bjp-online.com.

Perhaps there is no tract of land in the world which compresses into such a small space so many diversities of configuration as the Isle of Wight. It is a miniature of the great country from which it has been separated. There are moors and fells as bleak as those of Cumberland or the West Riding; chalk downs which recall Kent and Sussex; wooded undulating plains like those of Hampshire; and great stretches of rich arable land as fertile and as cultivated as any in Leicestershire. Amid such a variety of scenery, with the sea continually presenting itself as a background, and historical reminiscences upon every side, the amateur would be hard to please indeed who did not find subjects enough to gratify his photographic propensities.

In these days of rain and tempest, when outdoor photography is at a discount, and the ever-vigilant eye of the Astronomer-Royal fails to detect a ray of sunshine for weeks on end, there is a pleasure in recalling past campaigns with the camera, and hunting out from some secluded drawer batches of old prints of valley, fell, torrent and roadside inn, everyone of which recalls some pleasant companion or enjoyable excursion. But more profitable than these musings over bygone days is the pleasure of mapping out operations for the future. There must be many who are making preparations for the bright spring weather which will shortly be upon us, and to such a short sketch which may direct their attention to "fresh fields and pastures new" must be of interest. Let me endeavour, then, to give a brief description of what may he done within the limits of one day upon "The Island," as it is proudly called by its inhabitants, to the exclusion of all other islands upon the surface of the globe.

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. There the Doctor, with apparatus corded and strapped, has been stamping up and down for a-quarter of an hour waiting for the London train.

From the quarter-deck of the "Victoria" a magnificent view of the harbour was to be obtained. There was a-quarter of an hour yet before the steamer could get the baggage aboard, and our photographers spied their opportunity. There was a clattering of straps, a turning of keys, a fitting of joints, and two uncouth three-legged, one-eyed creatures sprang into being. It was one of those bright, breezy mornings on which mere existence is a pleasure, and which gladden the heart of the photographer. A few bystanders gather curiously round, but the operators are imperturbable. The carrier is slipped in, the slide is slipped out. the shortest of exposures allowed, and the deed is done. Surely, a more interesting view was never committed to gelatine. In the foreground lie three great three-deckers — the "Victory" (the old historical flagship of Nelson), the "Duke of Wellington," and the "St. Vincent." Beside these great floating monsters is moored tiny gunboat — a representative of the modern tendency of naval architecture as compared with the ancient. By the side of its companions it looks like a duckling among swans; yet in its very insignificance lies its strength, since it offers no target for an enemy's shot. Around and between these vessels a a swarm of steam launches, yachts, and shore boats fill in the scene, while behind it all the quaint little town of Gosport lines the water's edge and forms a background to the picture. Both plates were complete successes, giving as good an idea of the effect as can be produced without the blue of the sea, the grey of, the houses, and the fluttering, coloured pennons of the men-of-war, with the artistic dash of brilliant scarlet from the coats of the marines upon the quarter-decks.

And now the good ship "Victoria" gives a final snort of expostulation, and churns up the water impatiently with her paddles. "All aboard!" shouts the captain. The warps are thrown off, and the vessel steams slowly out of the harbour, passing under frowning batteries, where the black-mouthed cannon peep sullenly out, as though sulky at having no more honourable task than the firing of salutes for so many hundreds of years. The channel here seems to the uninitiated to lie dangerously near the shore, even the largest ships passing within a stone's throw of the beach. There is a story, indeed, that on the occasion of some great wooden man-of-war going out in the beginning of the century she ran her bowsprit through the coffee-room window of the Blue Posts Hotel, considerably to the astonishment of some gentlemen who were dining therein. How far this is legendary and how far true is for some local historian to decide.

After touching at Southsea Pier the steamer stood right across for "the Island." Finer views could hardly be obtained than those of receding Southsea, with its charming variety of colour, white and red alternating in the houses, and the long line of shingle with the waves breaking merrily against it, or of the approaching shores of the Isle of Wight, with its undulating wooded hills, and the towers of Osborne peeping above the trees on the extreme right. Both were transferred to the plates of the photographers, together with a beautiful seascape of the Solent, with a solitary man-of-war lying at anchor at Spithead, and the three marine forts which stand out of the water like so many gigantic cheese-boxes, and command the winding channel which leads to the harbour. As the light was somewhat glaring the sky-shade was used in taking these views.

The Solent is five miles broad between Portsmouth and Ryde, so that twenty-five minutes of steaming brings the travellers across. Johnson's train has landed him on the pier at ten o'clock, and it is now hardly eleven, so that our excursionists have still a long day before them. 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. It is not so steep as the side of a house, but considerably more so than the roof. If you slip anywhere within half-a-mile or so you run a chance of reaching the beach in a shorter time than ever you took to traverse the same distance before. This is when you do not happen to bump into an inhabitant. In that case it is the inhabitant who gyrates down to the shore. If balloons were substituted for cabs in this town it would allow some small degree of comfort during the short time which will elapse before the whole thing goes adrift and slides majestically into the sea. I could say several ill-natured things of Ryde, but I refrain. A sense of my duty to the public, however, compels me to warn all future photographic travellers against every form of spirits in the island; for malignancy and venom they transcend anything I have ever imbibed, except, perhaps, the trade rum of Africa, which drunk raw out of a broken cocoa-nut shell, tastes like a torchlight procession.

To follow our travellers, however: the first move after getting into the town of Ryde is to repair to a large horse-and-trap agency there, and to engage an open carriage for the clay — a matter which is not a very expensive one. Thus provided, the whole island is at their command. Should their tastes lie in the direction of Royalty, it is but six miles from the palace, where there are many beautiful views to he had; and just beyond lies the quaint old town of Cowes, with the many studies of the finest yachts in England which can be obtained there. If, however, the artist be of a historical and archaeological turn, then he should wend his way to the little town of Newport, the capital of the island, where, besides its many inherent beauties, there is the opportunity of viewing and photographing the venerable castle of Carisbrooke, in which Charles I was imprisoned before being taken to London and tried by the Parliament.

To confine myself to actual facts, however, the travellers, after a council of war with their driver, decided upon a somewhat more ambitious scheme than either of those indicated above. This was to drive right across the island, after first inspecting the Roman antiquities which have been lately unearthed at Brading. Brading is about four miles from Ryde, and as the road runs along the hills overlooking the sea the view was a beautiful one. Twice was the Doctor tempted out of the carriage and twice did splendid seascapes reward him; while Johnson, more improvident of plates and less accustomed to such scenery, excited the slumbering wrath of the driver by a long series of stoppages at the most inconvenient places — a wrath which showed itself in many mutterings and shruggings of shoulders, and was only eventually washed away by copious offerings of beer.

Brading is a pleasant little spot, and derives its principal importance from the magnificent specimen of a Roman villa which has been dug up in the immediate vicinity. From a short distance this interesting relic looks more like a quarry than anything else; and, alas! the operations of the photographer are confined to a distance, since the picturing of the tessellated pavement and other remains are a monopoly which the vagrant artist is not allowed to infringe upon. The tourists had to content themselves, therefore, with this general treatment of the subject, and then, after being divorced from their cameras, were led through the different chambers by a remorseless guide who explained the habits and customs of the "hancient Romans" in a manner which was more amusing than trustworthy.

The road from Brading leads to Newport, but there is a side road which opens into the highway between Ryde and Ventnor, and this was selected by the driver. This main road, which runs from north to south across the island, passes over a succession of undulating hills, from the summit of every one of which a magnificent view is to be obtained. Curious features on the scenery are the numerous monoliths — long perpendicular stones erected upon the summits of these hills, either as landmarks or for some other purpose. These abound in the Isle of Wight. A succession of little villages were passed through on the way, offering as fine a selection of rural "bits" as could be found anywhere — the little wayside cottage with thatched roof, diamond-paned windows, and clematis or Virginia creeper fringing the doorway; or, perhaps, the grizzled, round-shouldered proprietor, with his black pipe in his mouth, sitting "sub tegmine fagi," densely unconscious that he is about to be endowed with a franchise, and that the press of the country are clamouring about his wrongs. There is often more interest in a little scene of this sort, selected artistically and well worked out, than in the broadest and most ambitious rendering of the beauties of nature.

Ventnor is about twelve miles from Ryde. As you plunge into the heart of the country the sea disappears entirely, and you might imagine yourself in one of the midland counties of England. About three miles from Ventnor there is a large inn on one side of the road and a wicket gate on the other. Here the coach-man pulls up with decision. At first, knowing the habits and customs of coachmen, our travellers imagine the inn to be the reason of this peremptory halt; but the landlord quickly sets them right, and they learn that the wicket gate is the attraction. Passing through it, camera in hand, they pick their way down a winding path and then across a brawling torrent. From there the path runs down a thickly-wooded valley, the trees meeting overhead so as to hide the sky, and the stream gurgling among the bracken far beneath. This is the famous Shanklin Chine, and certainly a more beautiful or fairy-like scene could hardly be conceived. The Londoner did it justice, however, in the two plates which he expended over it — a proceeding very jealously watched by the custodian of the place, who derives his income largely from the sale of prints.

Leaving the Chine behind, the carriage rolled over it tolerably-level road a couple of miles in length, terminating in it steep hill, which was rather a pull for the tired horse. Up to this, its I have said, there were no signs of the sea, but on reaching the crest of the hill a Nv o nde r fu I view lay before the party. Almost directly, beneath was the ocean, stretching right away in every direction to the horizon. Coming so unexpectedly I know of no view in the world which gives such an idea of an infinite expanse. Here and there one looks straight down on the deck of some steamer or sailing ship, ploughing across to St. Maio or tacking along to Southampton. They look like toy vessels — mere specks in the enormous stretch of water around them. It is needless to say that cameras were once more in requisition, and this magnificent seascape packed away in our plate carriers.

When one leaves Ryde he fancies that he has seen the steepest town in the world, but his mind broadens when he comes to Ventnor. It is very much steeper, and gives the impression of being a little more than perpendicular. It is the fact of being built on the side of this hill that gives the place its great reputation as a resort for consumptives. No wind but the balmy south one can get near it. Still there are draw-backs, and when a consumptive falls out of his front door down the High-street and into the sea his language is just as virulent as that of any healthy man.

Commend me to the "Crab and Lobster" Hotel at Ventnor. Its situation is charming, its fare excellent, and its charges moderate; or, at least, moderate for the island, which is never at any time an economical spot. At one of the open windows which line the elegant coffee-room, and through which the summer breeze wafts the perfume of many a flower unknown in higher latitudes, there sat that day two pampered and enervated photographers who had solemnly packed away their cameras and delivered their whole minds up to the one idea of a comfortable dinner with a soothing pipe to follow. After all they had a right then to indulge in a little dolce farniente , since they had accumulated a finer variety of picturesque effects and interesting views than could have been taken in a week in a less-favoured locality.

It was necessary for the Doctor to be back in Southsea by nightfall, and the Londoner was also determined to be back in town by the evening train, so that after a climb over the curious little town the carriage was discarded and the train taken back to Ryde. Here the six o'clock boat was caught, and by seven the professional man was among his patients, and his friend within two hours was striding once more along the platform at Waterloo — a poorer man by some two pounds, but a richer one by the varied assortment of artistic pictures which he bore in his little deal box, as well as by the store of iodine and ozone which had renovated his lungs and oxidised the carbon of London.

In this little sketch I have simply attempted to give some idea of the pleasure and instruction which may be compressed into a single day by dint of' a little energy and enterprise. A few such excursions during the summer months would, without being any great drag upon his purse, teach him with a splendid series of pictures. 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.

A. C. Doyle, M.B., C.M.