It was the end of June 1977. I stood on the deck of the ferry to the Isle of Wight headed across the Solent for the coastal town of Ryde. By my side was a very large case, filled with many different outfits, many pairs of shoes. How different from today, when my Trundler’s mantra is ‘always travel light.’
I was 17, however and this was long, long before I became a Trundler. I scorned luggage with wheels in those days, preferring to lug my heavy case no matter how loaded with my teenage wardrobe.
On that day I was wearing white jeans, a pink and white striped t-shirt, pink espadrilles and a grey twill 1940’s fitted jacket to which I had pinned a pink fabric carnation.
I had just finished my A levels and was on my way to start a summer season waitressing job in a seaside hotel in Shanklin, where I had previously stayed as a guest with my grandma. It was one of her favourite places and she and my grandpa regarded visiting the island as going abroad. They loved to ‘hoover over’ as they called it, on the high-speed hovercraft.
I was leaving home for the first time and I felt very excited indeed. I slept in a hut in the hotel garden and tried to wash my grubby uniform blouse in its small sink. I didn’t make many friends with the other staff who regularly worked there from April to October, then returned to the North and the Midlands to sign on for the winter or work in factories. I made the mistake of telling them early on that I was having a ‘year off’ as a gap year was then known.
I was taking a break between school and university and had already enrolled in a month’s course at the Lucy Clayton School of Modelling in South Kensington. By talking about my future plans, I set myself apart from my workmates early on and with the exception of a giggly girl from Norwich and a morose gardener from Maidenhead, I made enemies rather than allies. When they found out that I was in fact 17, not 18 as I had stated on my application form, I became known as a liar as well as a snob.
I was a dreadful waitress, spilling and dropping things at every meal. The hotel manager kindly told me he wondered if I was actually ‘allright upstairs’ which was a fair comment considering how much I daydreamed my way around the dining room, trying and failing to carry the food without losing it on the way.
My boyfriend wrote me a letter telling me about how much he loathed his job, working as a farm labourer in Scotland. He described how he had seen mime artists performing in Paris outside the Pompidou Centre, buskers earning a lot of money. He suggested we did the same, rather than endure the misery of our tedious temporary occupations. I was quickly caught up in the magic of the scene he painted and waited for another letter asking me to join him in Edinburgh, where he lived and where we would prepare for our grand mime tour.
A few days after my 18th birthday, I was steeped in unhappiness, mainly because I hadn’t received a card from my boyfriend, let alone a present. I was getting worse at the job and bullied by the other waitresses. The gardener from Maidenhead told me that there was a phone call for me in the manager’s office so off I went to receive it. I hoped it would be my boyfriend, guessed it would be my mum.
In the manager’s office stood a tall young man in a long black coat. My boyfriend turned up to surprise me. I can still feel that sheer rush of joy and relief at seeing him standing there, come to rescue me and whisk me off to an exciting world of mime and money.
That night we stayed together in the little hut and made plans to leave. There was no need to tell anyone, he said. Just to get up very early and drag my huge case to the small station. From there we took the train to Ryde, then the ferry to Portsmouth.
We bought some snacks in Marks and Spencer and three small cartons of pineapple juice. I drank most of my share within the first hour of the train to Edinburgh but I was too happy to care. I had escaped. There was no need to be a miserable waitress. Better things were in store. I called my parents from a phone box the next day and told them I was living in Edinburgh with my boyfriend. I was 18 and I felt very pleased with myself indeed, although they were less enthusiastic.
Despite problems at the Shanklin hotel, I had enjoyed my time on the Isle of Wight and had revelled in its coastal scenery. Over the years I have returned there many times. It’s one of my favourite places in Britain and I have travelled all over the island, by bus, train, bike, car or on foot.
I’ve stayed in Cowes in a seedy b and b, where there were optics on the breakfast table instead of condiments. I’ve rented a charming wooden chalet in the hopefully still unspoilt bay of Steephill Cove. I’ve stayed in the wonderful Hambrough Hotel at Ventnor which has done so much to put the Island on the style map. I’ve relished a solitary trip to the Hideaway at Bonchurch, enjoyed the classic luxury of The Royal, also in Ventnor and the gourmet delights of The George in Yarmouth. I’ve eaten cream teas in thatched cottage cafes, crab sandwiches by the sea and memorable pork pies as well as home-grown garlic and tomatoes and many scoops of Minghella’s famous ice-cream. I’ve even thought about buying a bungalow on this diamond-shaped gem which holds a special place in my heart.
If anyone asks me where I went when I first left home I will always tell them ‘The Isle of Wight’ even though I only lasted three weeks before I ran away. I have run back again and again, always loved its retro charms which are now mixed with foodie trails and snazzy places to stay. I have had so many happy times there and hope I always will find a way to cross the Solent once again.