Victoria’s Beach House
Beachfront mega mansions are the norm in many waterside locales. But few can rival Osborne House on the Isle of Wight—the palace designed for Queen Victoria by her devoted husband Prince Albert.
Looking for ornate? This royal residence does not disappoint. Osborne is layered with Victorian excess. But this was also a family home. Visiting here is like dropping into the set of Masterpiece’s Victoria. All that is missing are the actors. Or in this case, the very real people who governed, lived, and played here. It is impossible to explore Osborne House without imagining the domestic dramas of this fascinating royal family. You can almost hear the echoes of Victoria, Albert, and their lively retinue of children.
The Isle of Wight sits in the English Channel about 90 miles southwest of London. Channel ferries, cargo ships, and countless sailboats ply the busy waters off the bustling mainland harbour of Portsmouth and the little island port of Cowes. The view was largely the same in 1845 when Albert began designing an elaborate retreat for his family on the Isle of Wight.
And what a retreat he created. At its peak in the 19th century, the Osborne estate sprawled across 2,000 acres. Beyond the huge palace, the beauty of the surrounding landscape included Italianate gardens, a beach house, a children’s cottage, massive woodlands, and 21 miles of connecting pathways. Modern Osborne has shrunk a bit—a mere 342 acres remain—but you can easily spend an entire day exploring.
Of course, the palace itself is the highlight of a visit to Osborne. Even if you have visited dozens of palaces and great houses in Britain, Obsborne’s interiors are gawk-worthy. The State Rooms have been meticulously restored and teem with lavish art and over-the-top ornamentation. While you may associate Victorian decor with darkness and reserve, the brilliant yellow satin curtains and upholstery in the dining room and billiard room come as a surprise.
Contrast all that opulence with the human scale of Osborne’s nursery bedroom. Multiple cribs and cradles appear ready for Victoria and Albert’s many children. Toys lie scattered on the floor, just waiting for the eager hands of a young prince or princess.
Victoria and Albert’s personal possessions occupy every inch of Osborne, up to its gilded rafters. The artwork alone could fill a museum. Portraits of the royal couple and their growing family cover the walls in the dining room. Paintings and sculptures of nudes seem equally represented throughout the house. Victoria and Albert’s sexual chemistry is not hard to fathom looking at the art displayed at this royal retreat.
You may be familiar with the Victoria and Albert partnership. It was a remarkably true partnership in an era when women’s roles were generally corseted. Of course, being Queen, Victoria was hardly the typical Victorian woman. But Obsborne was Albert’s baby. The design and furnishings were largely the result of his intense focus on getting everything perfect. The couple purchased the property in 1845 and by1846 Albert had already overseen the design and construction of phase one—the Pavillion—a relatively modest building with rooms for the family.
It is always important to have enough space for the Royal retinue of servants and staff. So the Osborne Household Wing was added in 1848. But why stop there? With all those princesses and princes running about, Victoria and Albert eventually needed an addition. Albert had a new main wing complete by 1851.
The royal children got their own Osborne estate playhouse in 1853—a three-quarter scale Swiss Cottage, about a mile from the main house. The cottage was not built solely to get the children out from underfoot. The cottage was a learning lab where young royals honed practical skills like cooking, sewing, natural history, and gardening. Not content with all things domestic, young princes Bertie and Affie built a miniature fort in the garden near the cottage and acted out military battles with their father. Today, the remarkable Alpine cottage has been completely restored. You can almost hear the shouts and chatter of nine children who played and learned here.
Osborne has its own beach less than a mile downhill from the palatial house. Perfect for a seaside stroll. In her youth, Victoria was an active and athletic woman. But it was the Victorian Age, after all, and Victoria was the Queen of England. It wouldn’t do for her to suit up, grab a towel, and plunge into the gentle surf of Osborne Bay. Hence, the bathing machine—a cabana on wheels where Her Majesty could change, be rolled out into the water, and swim with dignity.
The restored bathing machine is permanently parked on the shoreline, conveniently near an ice cream and tea shop. Grab a cuppa and sit down in a lounge chair emblazoned with this quote from a letter that Victoria sent to her favorite, Lord Melbourne, in 1845:
“…it’s hard to imagine a prettier spot.”