Just a hint of 'abroad'

Mari Nicholson tours the Isle of Wight

Few places can combine the ideals of bringing the nat-ional curriculum to life with giving pupils and teachers a holiday, as well as the Isle of Wight. This microcosm of England has it all in 23 by 13 miles, from smugglers and shipwrecks to royalty and Roman remains.

The journey across the Solent from the mainland is a good introduction. Whether dealing with history, geography, science or English literature, with just a little effort lessons can spring to life.

If the school party travels on the Portsmouth to Ryde route, a start can be made on history before even reaching the island. Among the ships moored in Portsmouth harbour is Victory, Nelson's flagship, its masts dominating the skyline. It is now a fascinating museum.

The Isle of Wight reflects nat-ional history and whether studying the Roman occupation of the island, or its role as wartime defender of the naval dockyard at Portsmouth, local resources are there to reinforce the lessons.

The medieval Carisbroke Castle, from where Charles I made his bid for freedom, is a case in point. Its grey stone exterior, drawbridge and moat are forever associated with intrigue. You can walk the circuit of the wall as the King did for exercise, visit his bedroom (now used as an education room), wander through courtyards and scan the horizon from the battlements.

Queen Victoria's home at Osborne House provides a unique resource for studying 19th-century taste: its interior rooms with eclectic Victorian collections - especially the Durbar room - fascinate all ages.

In 1968, 1969 and more famously 1970, the island hosted pop concerts at which the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Jim Morrison and others set the place alight with music - and some of the locals incandescent with rage. It would make a great oral history project, benefiting from the wildly contrasting views of the local people on the events. The project could even be continued in school as many parents will remember those heady days.

If woodland habitats are to be investigated then Parkhurst Forest, Brighstone Forest and Firestone Copse are areas rich in mosses, ferns and lichens. Foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, bank voles and pygmy shrews abound and you may even be lucky and spot a red squirrel, the island is one of the few places where this attractive animal is still found.

For rest and relaxation you'll find quiet beaches, old-fashioned striped deck-chairs and beach huts, rock pools to paddle in and safe swimming off golden sand along the 60-mile coastline, which is rich in crustacean species and anemones.

With the wealth of nature studies on offer, science and technology are not forgotten. As well as the maritime and geology museums, usually saved for rainy days, a working water mill can be seen at Calbourne. Meanwhile at Bembridge there's the earliest application of wind power to shorten man's working day.

For something different but totally absorbing, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution depot on the Medina at East Cowes welcomes school parties with an educational presentation.

Evidence of the island's part in the Second World War can be found in different towns. PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean) ran from Shanklin across to France, delivering precious fuel to the Allies; warships and seaplanes were built at Cowes, and Marconi conducted scientific experiments on radio waves between ship and shore at Alum Bay.

Alum Bay today is popular with children because it has a chairlift to the beach. The remarkable multi-coloured cliffs, the wheeling gulls and the windswept cliffs make this area outstanding.

Among the other attractions are the steam railway, the Rare Breeds Park, Butterfly World, the Tropical Bird Park, the wax works and a superb theme park, the Blackgang Cine. If the children are old enough, Sandown has a watersports centre. There are walks across 500 miles of well-maintained and signposted footpaths and bridleways.

"This island is a little gem," said Karl Marx in a letter to Frederich Engels, a view endorsed by Dickens, Tennyson, Swinburne and other literary greats. It is familiar yet different, separated from the mainland by a strip of water that gives it a faint hint of being abroad. The islanders often ask visiting children where they come from just to hear the answer:

"We're from England. We came by boat."

Isle of Wight Tourist Board, Quay House, Town Quay, Newport, Isle of Wight PO30 2EF. Tel: 01983 521548.l Wightlink Ferries, Lymington to Yarmouth (30 mins), Portsmouth to Fishbourne (40 mins), catamaran Portsmouth to Ryde (15 mins). Tel: 0990 827744.l Red Funnel Ferries Southampton to Cowes (40 mins). Tel: 0800 343333

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