M&C visited the Priory Bay Hotel for the first time in September 2011. Unexpectedly, their conclusion back then was a less than ringing endorsement. They said "The meal satisfied the tongue, but didn?t stimulate the imagination. And when dining at this level - and at this cost - one should not be afraid to expect to come away amazed and intrigued."
Since then, there have been big changes behind the scenes. A new kid has appeared on the block - local man and ex-Noma alumnus Oliver Stephens - who is creating quite a buzz with his lively advocacy of foraged food and hyper-local ingredients. He has a flamboyant cooking style which Matt and Cat witnessed at a Red Funnel food show. As well as tempting the food theatre?s audience with his own pickled whelks, Stephens also cooked some locally-shot duck by pan-frying it, covering it in hay and bits of Christmas tree before setting light to the lot with a blowtorch. Judging by his impressively theatrical performance, Matt and Cat were keen to see if he'd ignited a fire under the Priory.
Matt and Cat love the Isle of Wight. They 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.
Cat was born in Essex. Not quite within the sound of Bow Bells, but surely it makes her more of a Cockney than Sussex lad Matt?
Yet it?s been a while since she cavorted in the streets of Dagenham - Cat is now a confirmed Wightophile. But they say that you can?t take Essex out of the girl so Cat, in an attempt to introduce Matt to a bit of estuary culture, took him by the hand and led him on a mystery tour which started with a walk along Ryde seafront. There they admired the expanse of flat sands, home to a variety of edible shellfish, including the saucy-looking razor clam.
Onwards they went to Ryde Esplanade station. Here they could have swerved northwards and caught a ferry then a train to Rainham and purchased a punnet of cockles from a chirpy street vendor. But there is more to East End cliché than salty molluscs and pearly royalty.
Instead Matt and Cat climbed aboard the ex-London tube train and enjoyed a rattling journey southwards to Sandown station. By now Matt was seriously intrigued. The seaside town was his childhood home but he has no memories of eating winkles and jellied eels in the vicarage. These days one could be forgiven for imagining that Sandown's eating-out firmament is illuminated only by the singular but impossibly bright magnificence of the constant stream of celebrities and government ministers enjoying the facilities of Rapanui's eponymous coffee shop. But far from it. Sandown still has plenty else to offer, and in 2012 the new café at Sandown railway station was awarded an impressive third prize in the national Community Rail Awards Best Station/Train Retail Awards. So suddenly, the reason for Matt and Cat's culinary journey became clear. As the metaphorical steam from the engine cleared away, they spotted the sign for refreshments and Matt finally knew he?d been brought to the Larder and Pie House.
In the distant past, when this website was all fields, Matt and Cat had separate but enthusiastic interests in other people's cast-offs. Matt, in his role as vicar's son, would be enlisted by the vicar's wife - who he impudently referred to as 'mum' - to help out at the church jumble sale. Cat, who at about the same time was living the life of an impoverished art student, would also spend her Saturdays picking through old clothes and bric-a-brac to eke out her modest grant (yes, a student grant - ask your nan).
And so it was that Matt and Cat spent their weekends on either side of a bulging trestle table in a dank church hall, exchanging old goods for new money, all in aid of some Good Cause. These days, with eBay, bootsales and Cash in the Attic hinting at the promise of a decent return on your pre-loved possessions, most people find other ways to dispose of their unwanted stuff. Some benevolent folks donate their surplus property to the Island's Earl Mountbatten Hospice and this selfless generosity - plus a massive bequest from former Brighstone resident John Cheverton and also a hefty capital investment by the NHS - enabled the John Cheverton Centre to be built. The centre has been designed as a hub for the hospice and the wider community and includes a café, which before long was on Matt and Cat's radar.
Unless it?s in the resort of Ryde, Sandown or Shanklin, any beach on the Isle of Wight usually earns the title of Locals? Secret Location. This sobriquet is bandied around so often that one could assume that the majority of the Island?s coastline is a hidden gem. Which, to be honest, it probably is.
Matt and Cat have read national reviews of the "locals? secret" Boathouse restaurant at Steephill Cove, they?ve eaten at The Priory Bay Hotel, with its secret private beach, and even well-publicised Barefoot on the Beach requires the surefootedness of a native guide as it's certainly tricky to find of an evening.
And so to locals? secret location Bembridge Forelands. Last century, this wonderful place was the backdrop to childhood family trips on endless hot summer days for Matt and so many others. After filling his metal pail with rockpool treasures, he and his sandy-fingered siblings ate ice lollies bought from the beachside kiosk. Fast forward forty years and the pleasures of Bembridge Ledges remain as delightfully unsophisticated. In order to get the true locals? off-season experience Matt and Cat made it their mission to spend a bracing November morning playing along the beautiful beach collecting fossils and a progress-inhibiting amount of clay on their wellies, before seeking lunch at the beach kiosk's successor: the Beach Hut.