I holiday in the Isle of Wight most years. There’s just something about the relaxed pace of life over there that makes it a perfect break for me.
Every time I go over to the Island, my first stop is always Osborne House. Long-time readers of Royal Central may have previously read my first ever blog for the site (if not, you can read it here) about my love of Osborne. Being a bit of a “Victoria aficionado,” I have been to Osborne so often that I now notice very tiny changes that English Heritage (who look after the royal retreat) make to the route around the house, or even just to the guidebook or visitors’ map. But this year when I visited with my family, there was a change so big that no one could fail to notice it – English Heritage have finished their refurbishment of the Swiss Cottage – the playhouse for Victoria and Albert’s children.
When I first visited Osborne (and I’m not going to admit how long ago that was), part of the Swiss Cottage was open to visitors, but only part. At one point, part of the ground floor was a refreshment area, and in the past few years, quite a lot of the Cottage has been closed as English Heritage made structural repairs to the building. So it was lovely to go back this year and see that not only are the structural repairs finished, but the whole ground floor is now open to the public. Gone is the cafe, and the ground floor is split between a permanent exhibition introducing us to Victoria and Albert’s children, and rooms shown just as they originally were when the Princes and Princesses used them. Upstairs, the visitor is totally transported back to the 1800s with more originally dressed rooms.
But before we go into how the Swiss Cottage looks now, let’s remember the history of this amazing little house (adapted from the Osborne House guidebook):
In 1853, the royal children laid the foundation stone of a timber Swiss cottage to the east of Osborne House. The furnished cottage was officially given to the princes and princesses on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1854. It is speculated that the inspiration for a Swiss cottage may have come from Victoria’s half-sister Princess Feodore, who in 1851, wrote to the Queen that she had constructed a little Swiss cottage for her children in her garden in Baden-Baden. Alternatively, Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, may have previously seen a similar one and wanted to re-create it. Wherever the inspiration came from, Albert intended the Swiss Cottage to be somewhere his children could learn the rudiments of housekeeping and cookery and entertain their parents. He also set aside a room at the cottage where his children could build a natural history collection. In time, this collection became so large that a separate museum was built next-door in 1862 (this museum still stands today and its contents are fascinating).
Mr and Mrs Warne lived in part of the ground floor of the cottage (their rooms now make up the new exhibition space) and helped the royal children look after the building, at the same time teaching them ordinary household skills. Downstairs is a pantry and kitchen for the children to use, while upstairs, reached by an external staircase and balcony, are a dining room, lobby, dressing area (so that the children could change into fresh clothes ready for tea with their parents, after they had been working in the cottage and garden) and sitting room. Such were the royal children’s fond memories of the Swiss Cottage, that even when they had grown up, they brought their own children back to play here.
Outside, is Victoria Fort and Albert Barracks – a miniature earth fort with redoubts that was built against the political backdrop of the Crimean War. Victoria Fort was completed in 1856 – built by, amongst others, the Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred, and was a birthday surprise for the Queen. In 1860, the ten-year-old Prince Arthur, later to become Field Marshal the Duke of Connaught, helped add the brick-built Albert Barracks inside the fort. A drawbridge was added in 1861. This area, while it can still be viewed today, is understandably roped off, but I’m sure many of today’s children would love the chance to run around the trenches as Victoria’s children once did!
Today, all the rooms which the royal children used, can be seen fully furnished and pretty much just as they used to be. Everything is in miniature and the visitor can easily imagine the children working in their individual kitchen gardens (keep an eye out for the mini shed containing the children’s tools – all marked with their titles and names) or cooking in the kitchen ready to serve tea to their mother and father later in the day.
As I mentioned before, there is also the “Childhood at Osborne” exhibition – a highly interactive area where visitors can “discover the interests and personalities of each of Queen Victoria’s nine children,” including dressing up as a soldier or Victorian child, and playing with a puppet theatre.
There is also a fantastic new play area next to the refurbished cottage. Indeed, the play area even has its own miniature “swiss cottage” with slide, sandpit and swings, where we sat for what seemed like a very long time while the children played!
So if you’re visiting Osborne, do make the effort to see the Swiss Cottage too. Yes, it’s a little walk away from the main house, but it’s a pleasant, level walk, which doesn’t take long. Alternatively, a free shuttle bus will take you there and back.
It’s so lovely that the Swiss Cottage complex, which was originally designed to be as much a play area for the royal children as to teach them life skills, now, thanks to the new exhibition and play area, has a new lease of life as somewhere today’s children want to play and learn.
For more information, visit English Heritage’s website: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/osborne/
As an update to my previous piece on Osborne, the private beach, where Victoria’s children learned to swim, is also now open to the public. Last year, my family and I spent many happy hours on this secluded sand-and-shingle beach, which can only be accessed from the Osborne Estate, and where we could also see Victoria’s bathing machine and indulge in some luxurious ice-cream.
Photos: Copyright Ellen Couzens
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