We love the Isle of Wight. We love its history, geology, landscape and wildlife. And of course the food. All of these things make it a great place to live and to visit. Almost everywhere you go you’ll see something that adds to its fabulousness.
Take the West Wight for example. It’s got a long-standing reputation for history and culture thanks to its most famous former resident, Victorian poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. Then there’s some of the south coast’s most exciting geology: chines, landslips, chalk downland, coloured sands and the world famous Needles. Get up close and personal with the grassland on the heritage coast and you may be lucky enough to see a Glanville fritillary butterfly or a rare lichen. At night, once your eyes have adjusted to the spectacular dark skies, you can enjoy feeling insignificant as you gawp open-mouthed at the Milky Way. The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty really is a constant delight. It’s easy to see why the this corner of the Island is so popular with visitors – the holiday camps scattered along the clifftop pay testament to this.
But time moves on and the holiday camps’ heyday has waned. Some local camps are now used for other things – such as Isle of Wight Pearl, which is based in a faded 1930s building, once the thriving Chilton Holiday Camp. With its curvy glass windows, bold architecture and views across the English Channel to Dorset, it’s not hard to imagine what drew the ascetic citizens of inter-war years Britain to this remote spot to indulge their new enthusiasm for recreation, health and fitness.
But what we find harder to bring to mind is why pearlmongering is so successful here – as it clearly is. In this extraordinary part of the Island, just a few metres away from some of the most protected landscapes and habitats in the world, what is it that makes so many people feel the urge to look at… pearls? Do they imagine that they will be picking pearls out of the local clifftop oysters? Or that they will meet the descendants of generations of Island craftspeople hand-knurling pearls on their traditional pearlers? Or is it simply that in this remote spot it’s almost irrelevant what you’re selling if you have a large free car park, nice toilets, and a place to sit down and get a cup of tea?
It was particularly the sitting down and cup of tea aspect of the experience that drew us to make a rare foray into Isle of Wight Pearl. You may have guessed from the preamble that our interest in pearls is not great. But our interest in cafés and tea shops, by contrast, is acute. So much so that the thought of a nice cream tea overlooking the sparkling English Channel was enough for us to make the long trek west.
On arrival at Isle of Wight Pearl we stopped to admire a replica of Princess Diana’s ‘Elvis‘ dress. It was crusty with pearls. Then on to the pearlery. Like finding the bread in a supermarket, to reach the cream tea it was necessary to thread one’s way through batteries of counters displaying glistening pearls, staffed by polite ladies in smart uniforms. But once this was achieved, a spacious and bright café opened up before us. Families were finishing their lunches, children were playing on the grass outside, and through the big picture windows the sun dazzled from the lucent sea and the white cliffs off to the west.
Although there was a reasonable range of light lunches chalked on the board, we made a bee-line for the scones. We could have had coffee or any non-alcoholic drink but we’re old traditionalists so tea it was. The jolly chap at the counter couldn’t have been more accommodating as he prepared our cream tea for two. Twirling a fresh China cup like a gun-slinger, he stacked up our tray with the regulation trimmings: tea in a pot, extra hot water, and milk in a jug. A scone each – one plain, one fruit – soft butter, and little prepacked pots of cream and jam – one strawberry, one blackcurrant. Better still, he pointed out that if more jam, butter or cream was required, it was available. Bottomless clotted cream? Matt began to get excited.
Cream tea x 2 £11.90
Taking our tray out onto the little picnic benches outside, we logged into the Pearl’s wifi – the password offered as a matter of course. The grassy lawn of Isle of Wight Pearl is delightfully simple – the temptation to clutter it with bins, signs and play-structures has been admirably resisted insofar as is practical, and from our bench we had an unparalleled and unobstructed panoramic coastal view that you’d be hard pressed to equal anywhere in England.
The supply of tea was plentiful, and although sorely tempted, we didn’t in the end need any extra jam or cream. But it was reassuring to imagine that it was on hand if needed. Cat decided that the fruit scone was the better of the two; the sultanas and currants helped maintain an even and pleasingly moist texture. It was a satisfying cream tea which, if not a particularly original example of the genre – with its Rodda’s clotted cream and Tiptree jam – did not fall short. We followed it up with a stroll along the nearby coastal cliffs, and chased a few of those rare Glanville fritillaries as they cavorted among the bramble bushes.
Our conclusion: yes, there are pearls but the cafe is worth the trip alone. Even if you’ve got no interest in jewellery, the tea room with its top-notch service and, of course, that spectacular view across to Dorset, should be incentive enough to head way out west.
- The view. Did we mention the view!
- Fantastic service. Really unexpectedly good.
- Plenty of parking. And pearls.
- Cream tea a bit generic.
- Can be a bit gusty on the cliff edge.