THE VIEW FROM HERE
THIS columnist likes to visit Osborne House from time to time, if only to see there’s been any progress in putting to practical use the former convalescent wing, which closed in 2000 and has stood empty ever since.
The old excuse, hauled out for around 13 years, was that the Osborne Estate Act precluded the use of the convalescent home for any other purpose than that of its original remit — as a facility for military and naval officers.
Last year, however, parliament managed to repeal this act, though God knows why it had taken it so long. Very zippy in sending our armed forces off to futile wars but useless on the home front.
Still, that’s all done and dusted, so what’s the news? Does the site ring to the sound of workmen hammering out a laudable new project? Let’s hurry along and find out.
I had intended to combine my mission with a trip round the gardens at Osborne, with some friends who were visiting for the weekend. It was a hot day, we had only an hour or so to spare, and so a stroll in the fresh air, admiring Queen Victoria’s estate, with its lovely terraces and walled garden, would be delightful. Seven tickets for the garden only, please.
Some hope. English Heritage doesn’t do garden-only tickets at Osborne. You have to pay for both house and grounds, £13.90 per adult and £8.30 for children from five to 15. No matter we didn’t have time to do a full tour and, in any case, wanted just to be outside on this hot summer’s day. Full ticket price or zilch.
Bryn Jones, English Heritage’s IW marketing manager, was sniffy when I later tackled him about this.
"It’s very good value," he kept telling me. "The Osborne ticket gives you access to the house and all the grounds, Swiss Cottage, everything. You can spend the whole day with us. Very good value."
Yes, Bryn, but it’s not good value if you haven’t got the whole day and don’t want to see the house. It’s not good value for an hour’s stroll in the gardens. Couldn’t you do a garden ticket for, say, a fiver?
"It’s very good value," replied Bryn, like a Victorian phonograph whose needle had got stuck.
"And if you join English Heritage, you come in for free."
How much is that, then? £49 for adult annual membership, which Bryn told me is (oh, what a surprise) "very good value." But not if you only want to go round Osborne’s gardens a couple of times a year and you work full time and can’t always be prancing off to English Heritage properties to get the very good value of your membership.
Osborne House actually belongs to the nation, though with bossy-boots English Heritage calling every shot, it’s easy to forget this fact.
It also has a special place in the hearts of Island residents. English Heritage doesn’t do too badly out of the place — it is the third most visited of all its properties, with 243,082 visitors last year, every paying customer having to fork out for a full house-and-grounds ticket, not to mention being bombarded with gift shop and restaurant optional extras.
So wouldn’t it be nice to make a concession, not least to IW residents, by creating a garden-only ticket? It could actually provide quite a bit of extra income from those who, for various reasons, don’t want the full tour and are understandably loath to pay the current tariff for a little walk in the grounds.
Families with children too young to enjoy the house could have a really nice time outside. People could pop in to relax after work.We’d be happy to pay, just not at the present rates, which are only good value on one level.
As for the convalescent home, it’s still empty. A statement from English Heritage says: "Over the next 12 to 18 months, we will be drawing together a number of proposals for the use of empty rooms at Osborne with the hope of identifying a project that sits well within this iconic property."
Meanwhile, our MP’s office told me: "Last time we had any contact with English Heritage, they weren’t doing anything at the moment because they have no money."
Bryn Jones seemed to be stumped about the whole thing and asked me, rather plaintively, what I might suggest.
I suggest you pull your fingers out, the lot of you. And that includes various influential figures on the Island, who’ve blathered on in the past about what might be done with the convalescent wing, called meetings, made a great fuss about having clout in this direction, and then flopped back with nothing whatsoever to show for it.
For heaven’s sake, you’ve had nearly 15 years to think about it.
Moreover, I’m not surprised English Heritage hasn’t got any money. It won’t sell garden tickets and it costs £60,000 a year to maintain the convalescent home in its empty, forlorn state.
It will soon have clocked up
£1 million spent getting nowhere in this pathetic fashion. The Victorians, those busy bees of enterprise and achievement, would have been scandalised.