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Friday, 28 November 2008

Dear, dear Osborne

Some years ago, one glorious summer day, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I had the good fortune to be at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The previous evening, I had - in the afterglow of an immense lightning storm - taken a boat to Ryde. The sun was glistening on the Solent and, as I walked up the hill to the hotel, everything was quite misty in the early evening sunlight as the rain evaporated. Never in my life had I had such a sense of coming home.
The following morning, I arrived at Osborne House before the official opening time. I sat on a bench by the old cottages - once inhabited by various members of Queen Victoria's family and entourage - and imagined the day when Princess Alice and her new husband, Louis of Hesse, rode out of those gates on their way to their honeymoon.
At length, the gates opened and it was possible to walk through the morning sunshine among those hallowed trees. My heart was pounding with every step - the loveliness of the place, the sense of times long gone, the sense of the whole atmosphere of Prince Albert's beautiful dream.
Every room, every creak of a floorboard, every portrait, every view from a window played on my heart in a way that I cannot begin to describe. I loved that place with every fibre of my being. I was just so happy to be there.
If ever an atmosphere were embroidered into the fabric of a building, I think it is true of 'dear Osborne.'
There was something so poignant, being in the room where Queen Victoria died on the arm of her grandson, Willy - Kaiser Wilhelm II - on that anniversary. Something so tragic about the way that dream ended with the family so divided and destroyed by war.

At the little Swiss Cottage, a rather strange moment occurred. There, where so many of Queen Victoria's children and grandchildren had played, I was walking along the balcony that surrounds the place. Below, out of view but within earshot, some German children were running and I heard them call, "Schnell...schnell...." and something indecipherable to me (I haven't learned German) but understood it to mean their parents were calling for them. In that moment, in those little children's voices, I thought it could be any time...any era...the era of the little Prussian or little Hessian grandchildren of Queen Victoria. When I descended the staircase, there was no sign of any children, German or otherwise. All I knew was that I had never felt such an overwhelming sense of the timelessness of everything. Such a nostalgia for something that, in this life, I had never known. Nor had I ever known such a sense of utter completion.

I must add, too, that the curators of Osborne were the most accommodating and lovely people. Osborne is more than well worth a visit.

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