The Isle of Wight has always been a haven for those with an unconventional frame of mind. The Brading Experience, for example, offered for...

The Isle of Wight has always been a haven for those with an unconventional frame of mind.

The Orrery, Union Street, Ryde: 2010

The Brading Experience, for example, offered for many years a fantastic journey though the dusty remnants of our imagined childhoods; mythical creatures rubbed shoulders with perpetual cyclist George Bernard Shaw, torturers shared space with wax princesses. The closure and asset-stripping of this ancient attraction, with the departure of the Island’s last unicorn, could have been a blow for local fantasists and romantics. But so far, it’s good to see there’s still no shortage of them. Plenty of Island eccentrics are still around offering alternatives to the norm. Some of the more notable include Ryde’s very own lizard-botherer David Icke, fairy hoteliers Rick and Maggie Hilton and globe-maker to the stars, James Bissell-Thomas. The latter has had a presence on Ryde’s Union Street for many years; his Greaves and Thomas globe workshop was a mysterious yet presumably productive asset to the Georgian town. In recent years he has made the unlikely transformation from globe artisan to café proprietor – making Matt and Cat sit up and take interest.

The Orrery, Union Street, Ryde

Way back in 2006, the front section of the globe workshop underwent a transformation. Curious items adorned the outside of the old Bravinger’s Arcade including a golden grasshopper and a giant orb ‘reflecting’ a waving Sir Patrick Moore. Rebranded as The Orrery, the quaint little café with an extraordinary and fantastical interior opened but intermittently; the periods between openings getting longer until it finally ground to a halt. Before then, Matt and Cat had a famous on-line tiff with the proprietor and despite a few close calls didn’t ever actually manage to review the food.

Time passed, and then in 2010, although the metaphorical shutters were down, there were hints of something going on behind the scenes. Teaser notices were posted, including one with the entreaty ‘Vicars Wanted‘, and a cement mixer was parked out front for months: was it an art installation or merely utilitarian? So again it was with bated breath that Matt and Cat tweeted the development of this landmark shop. With much ado, the café re-opened…

Matt and Cat’s bill
Panino £3.65
Falafel pitta £3.65
Tea £1.40
Cordial £1.65
Cake £2.50
Total £12.85

In the interregnum, Mr B-T had, in a stroke of genius, purchased the copyright to the Donald McGill postcard archive, using this extensive library to furnish a museum dedicated to the contentious seaside cartoonist. The postcards are in the old globe workshop at the back. The front half of The Orrery retains its stunning and delightful Alice in Wonderland Explores the Solar System theme, a sort of fusion of Professor Brian Cox’s passion and Grayson Perry’s frocks, as imagined by John Tenniel. Mirrored tables allow customers to gawp at the spectacular ceiling and its real, working clockwork orrery centrepiece (pictured above) without craning their necks. For a mere quid you can be master of the universe; your coin can kickstart the device, setting the model planets on their celestial paths.

The Orrery, Union Street, Ryde

Matt and Cat took their places at a little round glittering table and studied the menu. The café had a succinct range of exclusively vegetarian dishes which, despite the postcard museum, 90,000 feet of fibre optic cable and a dinosaur, truly is the cafe’s Unique Selling Point. Even Dimbola, haunt of beardy tofu knitters, now offers meaty dishes to swell its coffers. M & C are often asked if there are any vegetarian eating-places on the Island and so they can now answer in the positive. Matt had warmed pitta filled with falafel, salad, hummus and dressing with a little dish of sweet chilli sauce. Cat chose panini with spinach and green pesto and a glass of squash. Matt had tea and was delighted to see it arrive in a pot with a jug of milk and all the trimmings.

Cat’s warmed panini was lovely. The tangy pesto and leaves complimented the soft white cheese which, as she bit into it, made its characteristic rubbery strings. It was a charming little meal, soon polished off. Matt, normally a meat-lover, was entirely convinced by his pitta. It was a really fresh and tasty production – spicy chick-pea falafel crumbling delicately throughout the crunchy salad making the whole thing unexpectedly good.

After their light lunches the duo decided to share a hunk of chocolate cake. It was lovely; moist without being sticky and with an excellent chocolatey taste. Thankfully, unlike the hapless Alice, Matt and Cat did not grow to a tremendous size after eating this cake!

On Matt and Cat’s visit to the Orrery the café was staffed by a pair of youngsters who, although polite enough, were clearly at the very beginnings of what would with luck be illustrious careers in the catering trade. What’s more, tucked behind the bar was the minuscule kitchen; as well as serving the food the staff had to prepare it in this challenging space, so they really didn’t do badly.

So, after four years, Matt and Cat can report that eating in the Orrery was worth the wait. It was good, and the limited menu had very reasonable prices. However, even so, one is almost unaware of the food because of the utterly bonkers eating environment. The more you look the more you see, and you soon cannot avoid becoming drawn into the delightful Wonderland-like logic of this venue. It’s a bit like going to visit a distant relative, who everyone says is raving mad, only to find them a gracious host, and charmingly eccentric.

So the café is good, but even if it had not been, Matt and Cat would recommend The Orrery for the experience alone.

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  • James Bissell-Thomas

    30th May 2011 #1 Author

    Dear Matt & Cat,

    Firstly, a big thank you for coming back to try the Orrery one more time. Looking back, I am saddened to say that the staff member who greeted you on your first visit was not only skimming the till, but also could not be bothered to freshly prepare any of the food for you. This we were quite unaware of do to our inexperience and her beguiling us so convincingly, apologies for this and the ensuing ‘banter’ that occurred after this.

    The cafe is now being run by Rachel who has kindly agreed to keep it vegetarian as I do not wish to profit from the killing of animals. This is at times a uphill struggle as there simply are not enough “tofu knitters’ on the island, nevertheless the cafe’s fare is winning regular customers and its purpose was only ever to be a watering-hole for the museum which is now open – albeit with a totally different content!( http://www.donaldmcgill.info )

    Rachel and her Hubby are keen to licence the premesis, which does mean that someday in the future revelers may wish to come in and witness the celestial ceiling’s illuminated stars all twinkling in the evening light as the midnight hour approaches.

    Thank you once again for your kind words and I wish you all the best with you Dining Club card.

    Lastly, it would appear that the building has once before nearly summoned an angry mob as I was kindly given a copy of the Ryde Ventilator 1st March 1873 which mentions the building when it had just been erected:

    Ryde Ventilator 1873

    Sir, Not only are there glaring instances of want of taste in our public buildings, some of our places of worship being as pretentious and ugly as they can be, but many of them, though not exactly ugly, are incongruous, and look ridiculous because they are not in keeping either with the surrounding buildings, or with the purpose for which they were designed. To one of this latter class belongs a new building recently erected in Union Street. It is built after the Doric style of architecture, and looks like a reduced copy of the George-street Chapel, or an Athenian temple on a small scale. Perhaps this reminiscence to an ancient chapel was premeditated, the owner of the business possibly thinking the design appropriate, as he intends dedicating the building to the worship of Bacchus. If such is the case, I have nothing more to say, and only privately wonder at his taste.

    March 1 1873

    Dear Mr Ventilator, I was sorry to see that you went into the High Art business last week by inserting certain correspondence upon some Union Street architecture. We have had quite enough of different sorts of Art lately. What with the small art of the Conservative cuisine; the Pious art displayed in the new Gothic monstrosity of George Street; and our Dictator‚s reputed art of swallowing the mere verbosity of three Acts of Parliament every morning before breakfast, we are sick of Art altogether. Let us have something else Mr V . Don‚t give us any more art, whether fine or coarse. The Pier Company‚s black art in foreshore appropriation ˆ the Gas Company‚s light (he)art in litigation with the town ˆ the Council‚s fretful art of municipal reform is quite sufficient art for us without anymore rant about Art in general. Nevertheless we agree with the morality of said correspondence (which like our common humanity has lost its parental tail). A man has no more right to erect an absurd or ugly building than he has to be the same in behaviour. Let us be moral in everything, and not in one department only. We shall not be able to go down Union Street now without thinking of Pan, the Bacchic Orgies and the Eleusinian Mysteries. We shall be tempted to shout “Ecce” let down our back hair, and flourish the thyrads. Never mind. Why should we complain of the glare of a little tawdry inappropriate architecture, when everything else, society, custom, speech, trade is getting rouged with red reflection from Taricrus? No! Mr V let Art alone unless it be the Art of steering clear of all this shallow cant and shallower conduct nowadays.

    Yours satirically, Cynic

    Best wishes,

    James Bissell-Thomas

    Reply

  • pete j

    1st February 2011 #2 Author

    Passing by the Orrery today, I notice that it is due to re-open for 2011 at the beginning of March.
    After the revised review and the bickering that went on before between our web hosts and the owner, let’s hope that the place goes from strength to strengh. It’s great to be able to see inside and some of the designs, etc., rather than the cement mixer that ordorned the doorway for so long. And the M&C sticker adorns the window as well. Peace reigns in that area of Union Street!

    Reply

  • Si

    16th September 2010 #3 Author

    They used to make globes in the workshop at the back , I wonder if they still do .It was an amazing place , Had a very Dickensian feel to it .. Oh the coffee is good too ..

    Reply

  • Mat

    16th September 2010 #4 Author

    Great to see this is finally open. Can’t wait to try it out, looks fab and will complement Union Street really well.

    Reply