Cowes and East Cowes face each other over the River Medina at the northern-most tip of the Isle of Wight and are linked by a chain ferry affectionately known as the “floating bridge”, one of only a handful still operating in the UK.
Originally, the name ‘Cowes’ is thought to be derived from the ‘cow castles’ that were built by Henry VIII as part of his 16th-century fortification of the Solent area, although the place name existed for a long time before the castles were constructed. The Royal Yacht Squadron has made its home in the remaining castle on the west side of the River Medina and ‘Cowes Castle’ has become a landmark in its own right since the club moved there in 1858.
Queen Victoria's beach at Osborne, East Cowes. Credit English Heritage.
Royal connections are widespread on the Isle of Wight and nowhere more so than East Cowes, the home to Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert who built the magnificent Osborne House between 1845 and 1851. Osborne became their family home and Queen Victoria lived there until her death on the Island in 1901. English Heritage now runs Osborne House as one of its finest properties and no visit to the Island is complete without a visit. Queen Victoria is reported to have said: "It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot", and indeed, the house and grounds of this royal seaside palace are superb, with many rooms remaining just as they were in Victoria's day.
SR-N1. Charles Brown Collection, RAF Museum.
As well as being the modern day ‘home of world yachting’, the history of Cowes is steeped in maritime heritage. Cowes has a long and illustrious reputation as an industrial town that specialised firstly in boat building, but which also diversified into aircraft technologies and manufacturing. This combination of boat building and aviation technology ultimately led to the town also being famous as the home of the hovercraft. The world's first practical hovercraft, designed by Sir Christopher Cockerell and built by Saunders-Roe, first flew in Cowes on 11 June 1959.
Located on the seafront in East Cowes is the light and airy new premises of the Classic Boat Museum, which proudly displays notable boats such as Prince Philip’s Flying Fifteen Coweslip as well as a superbly restored example of Uffa Fox’s Mk 1 Airborne Lifeboat and Shirley Robertson’s ‘Europe’ dinghy, in which she won her first Olympic gold medal in 2000, in Sydney. However, few visitors appreciate beforehand the sheer diversity of the 50 or so other boats on display.
Classic Boat Museum, East Cowes.
A hundred yards across the road is the Classic Boat Museum Gallery which houses a wide and fascinating mix of exhibits including sections dedicated to Sir Francis Chichester, Dame Ellen MacArthur, and Uffa Fox, as well as the Jo Carstairs collection, at one time the fastest woman on water. With all manner of models, plans, photographs, pictures and flags as well as regularly changing exhibitions on subjects of both local and national interest those who take the time to visit are in for a real treat.
In the town centre, the East Cowes Heritage Centre houses a permanent exhibition giving an insight into the history of East Cowes over the last 200 years. Supported also by temporary exhibitions mounted several times a year, the East Cowes Heritage Centre aims to preserve and present the town's industrial and social heritage before reminders of the past are lost for ever.
Sir Max Aitken Museum, Cowes.
In Cowes High Street, the famous pink building ‘The Prospect’ is home to the Sir Max Aitken Museum. The beautiful 18th century sail maker’s loft, where Britannia’s mainsail was made, was acquired and restored by Sir Max Aitken in 1947. Today, with its traditional splendour, the building boasts Sir Max Aitken’s personal collection of nautical artifacts including a remarkable display of marine paintings, nautical instruments and yachting memorabilia. Whether you’re fascinated by maritime history or just enjoy unique exhibits, the Museum is well worth a visit.
"West Cowes landing" by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) - Cowes Maritime Museum.
There is also Cowes Maritime Museum to visit, situated within Cowes Library, which exhibits objects and images from the Island’s maritime collection, including model paddle steamers, lifeboats and other ships built by J. Samuel White & Co. of Cowes.
(Top photo: Credit English Heritage)