It is generally regarded as the gateway to the Isle of Wight, and as you cross the Solent heading towards Ryde it is easy to see why.
The water is alive with fast cats and hovercrafts bringing tourists and mainland workers alike to the Island, with the twin church spires clearly visible from the sea belonging to All Saints’ (the taller) and Holy Trinity churches – maybe providing the gateposts for the famous gateway.
Arriving by fast cat, the first port of call is Ryde’s famous pier, opened in 1814, and the oldest seaside pier in England. Until the pier was opened, ferry passengers landing at low tide were brought almost half a mile into the shore by horse and cart. Thankfully no such hassle these days!
The pier was designed by John Kent of Southampton and its foundation stone was laid on June 29, 1813, with the pier opening on July 26, the following year. The original timber structure was 527 metres long, but by 1833 it had been extended to 681 metres. It is this pre-Victorian structure which has, with some modifications, carried pedestrians and vehicles ever since, and only recently celebrated its 200th birthday.
A second ‘tramway’ pier was built next to the first pier, opening on 29 August 1864,with horse-drawn trams taking passengers from the pier head to the esplanade. On 12 July 1880 a third pier was opened in 1880, alongside the first two, providing a direct steam railway link to the pier-head. The railway line was owned jointly by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and London and South Western Railway, as far as Ryde St Johns Road, to connect with their ship services to Portsmouth. However, trains were run by the independent Isle of Wight Railway and Isle of Wight Central Railway, who owned the tracks beyond St John’s Road and operated through services to Ventnor and Cowes via Newport respectively.
In 1895 a concert pavilion was constructed at the pier-head and over the following 16 years the original wooden piles were replaced by cast iron. And it was at Ryde Pier that the Empress Eugénie landed from Sir John Burgoyne’s yacht ‘The Gazelle’ after her flight from Paris in 1870. The pier head was remodelled in the 1930s using concrete, and during the Second World War it was used for military purposes.
The pier has seen its great times and its not so great. At one point it fell into disrepair and many feared it would be demolished. More recently it was closed to all vehicles for seven months up to March 2011 for structural work underneath the promenade pier. Work to extend the structure of the Pier Head to allow for additional car parking continued during this period.
These days there is a strict speed limit for vehicles on the pier, as well as a £1 charge, but for anyone who has time to walk along the famous wooden planks to catch the Wightlink Fast Cat, it makes a very pleasant start, or end, to the working day.
Looking out from Ryde, you see one of the busiest stretches of water in the whole of the country, with cruise ships and military vessels alike making their way to exotic and not so exotic ports around the worlds. In 1782 numerous bodies of men, women and children from HMS Royal George, which sank suddenly at Spithead, were washed ashore at Ryde. Many were buried on land that is now occupied by The Esplanade. A memorial to them was erected in June 2004.
Ryde boasts three of the Island’s eight remaining fully-operational railway stations – Ryde Pier Head, Ryde Esplanade and Ryde St Johns Road. Passengers can enjoy the delights of trundling along in former London Underground carriages as they make their way to and from Smallbrook Junction, Brading, Sandown, Lake and Shanklin.
But for many there is no need to make any journey beyond Ryde – it is simply a town that has the lot. It was developed throughout the latter half of the 18th century, the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century as a popular seaside resort.
Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower looks almost within touching distance as you spend a leisurely summer day stretched out on the excellent beach. The town itself has plenty to offer, with a fine array of shops, restaurants, pubs and hotels. It also boasts many Regency and Victorian buildings such as All Saints Church, designed by the eminent Gilbert Scott, and the Town Hall, which was built in 1829 and is considered to be one of the finest buildings of its type on the south coast.
Union Street has an eclectic mix of shops, hotels, restaurants and bars, all with their own characteristics, and some of them with facilities just outside to sit and watch the world go by. But if you venture a little further you will find plenty of other places of interest, including of course the town’s quaint but efficiently run cinema, where all the latest films are readily available to watch.
Then of course there’s the ice rink and pavilion, converted to house a nightclub and bowling alley, the former being the home of the Isle of Wight’s ice hockey team, the Wightlink Raiders.
The pavilion has played host to numerous iconic music events, with the Rolling Stones among other famous groups to perform there. It has also been strongly suggested that when the Beatles tried to book into a hotel on the Esplanade for an overnight stay, they were flatly refused by the hotel owner, who did not want screaming girls shinning up drainpipes trying to reach the rooms of the Fab Four.
Open spaces in Ryde include Western Gardens, Eastern Gardens,the Boating Lake and Vernon Square Garden, which has been restored to its original Georgian design. For those with a bit more sense of adventure, there is always a bracing walk on the sands, particularly at low tide when acres of sand are exposed.
The town’s All Saints’ Church is located in Queens Road on a road junction known as Five Ways. It was designed by George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1872 with a 177ft tall spire. Holy Trinity Church is in Dover Street, designed by Thomas Hellyer and completed in 1845.
The town’s Roman Catholic church, St. Mary’s, is located in the High Street. It was built in 1846 at a cost of £18,000, provided by Elizabeth, Countess of Clare. The church was designed by Joseph Hansom inventor of the hansom cab. Other churches include St James Church and St. Michael and All Angels, Swanmore. There are also Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Elim churches in the town.
Ryde also has its own ‘Castle’. Situated on the Esplanade, it was built around 1840 as a private house and is now a hotel. It was badly damaged after a fire in 2012, and reopened after major restoration last year.
Stroll along Appley Beach to the east and you cannot help but notice Appley Tower, generally accepted as one of the most famous iconic buildings on the Island. For just £1 you can also journey up three floors to the top floor viewing platform to see one of the best views in Ryde.
There is also Beldornie Tower on Augusta Road which was at one point a property of the Earl of Yarborough. The house dates back to the 16th or early 17th century, and was virtually rebuilt around 1840 in Gothic-Jacobean style with the addition of a west wing in 1880.
The hovercraft to Southsea is operated by Hovertravel near the Esplanade close to Ryde Esplanade railway station and the bus station. A major bus interchange is situated between Ryde Pier and the Hover Terminal on the Esplanade with frequent services to many Island towns and villages. Ryde is the second busiest place in the Southern Vectis network, smaller only to Newport.
One of the highlights in the Ryde calendar is its ever-popular carnival, the oldest in the country. Actually there are five carnivals in Ryde throughout the year – an Arts Parade in June; Children’s, Main and Illuminated processions at the end of August and a Lantern Parade in December.
Ryde Carnival remains the Island’s largest carnival, with local crowds and mainland visitors coming together and totalling in excess of 5,000 spectators. Performers consist of community groups, schools, multiple samba and brass bands, stilt walkers and family groups, to name but a few. It’s colourful, captivating and an event not to be missed.
In 2001 a London carnival group called Kinetika was brought to the Island to teach carnival skills to adults and young people in community workshops. Since Kinetika’s input the carnival has been expanding, with its effects felt throughout the Island’s other carnivals.
Near Ryde at Westridge from 2008 until 2011 was the Carnival Learning Centre, funded by the Skills Funding Agency and Arts Council, where carnival skills and crafts were taught.
Ryde is always vibrant, but no more so than every August Bank Holiday when thousands of scooter enthusiasts from all over England, and even Europe descend on the town for the Isle of Wight Scooter Rally. It’s a real throw-back to the days of the Mods, who proudly show off their scooters to the vernal public before taking part in their traditional ride-out. And only a few weeks later Ryde Esplanade can be seen covered in cherished classic cars for the International Classic Car Show.
Ryde is particularly popular with younger members of the community at weekends, with Union Street awash with fun. But there is also plenty to see and do for the older generation. As I mentioned earlier – there’s something for all ages and tastes in Ryde.
The Historic Ryde Society is a volunteer-led group formed in 2009 interested in the history of the town. The Society runs the Ryde District Heritage Centre in the basement of the Victoria Arcade in Union Street – a treasure trove of displays about Ryde and which also houses a historic Ice Well dating from the 1800s. For more information about the Society and the Heritage Centre please go to www.historicrydesociety.com.