The Isle of Wight has always been a haven for those with an unconventional frame of mind.
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.
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…
Falafel pitta £3.65
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.
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.