All 4ft 11 of her would have worn a billowing black cotton bathing dress together with cap and she would have been deposited in the generally freezing water by a trundling wooden bathing machine. Doing anything other than bob would have been a struggle.
The person in question is Queen Victoria and a new insight into her bathing habits will be given from next week when her private beach at Osborne House, her seaside retreat on the Isle of Wight, is opened to the public for the first time.
The estate is managed by English Heritage. Its chief executive, Simon Thurley, said Victoria was sometimes seen as a queen who spent most of her reign in mourning. “Opening her beach at Osborne lets us show another side of her – this was a Queen who collected sea shells with her children, who sketched the changing sea and who swam sometimes twice a day.”
The 300-metre (984ft) long sand and shingle beach is certainly idyllic – a spirit-lifting strip of calm that looks across the Solent to Portsmouth – but like most parts of the UK it has been missing the summer sunshine this year.
Osborne’s curator, Michael Hunter, hopes visitors will be tempted in for a paddle, although he admits, even on nice days, it makes for a bracing experience. “It’s too cold for me,” he said.
Victoria adored her beach. “The first year the family was here they’d be down here every day and the children would be collecting seashells and seaweed.
“Prince Albert designed and had made a pontoon so the children could be taught to swim within a sheltered, safe environment.”
Victoria’s bathing arrangements were more elaborate and English Heritage has restored the original wooden bathing machine which ran down to the water.
It was relatively high-tech compared with most, normally horse-drawn machines. The queen would enter at the back and change into her “costume” and the machine would roll forward on a runway in to the water. She would then emerge on to the curtained verandah, from which she went down the steps into the water.
“She wouldn’t appear from the curtains until she was already in the water so nobody would get to see her in her bathing costume at all,” said English Heritage historian Andrew Hann.
“You would just see her head bobbing. She was worried that people on boats with binoculars might be peering in because although it was a private beach, the Solent was a busy waterway and you would get sightseers.”
When the queen had finished her bobbing she would climb back in and the machine would be winched back up to land.
It was at Osborne that Victoria first swam, writing in her journal. “I thought it was delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled.”
The beach shows her more fun-loving side. There was a royal Punch & Judy; beach games like skittles and quoits and a stone shelter built in the 1860s, known as the Queen’s Alcove, where she would sit and survey the view.
The alcove has been restored, and a pavilion that was built when Osborne was a convalescent home for officers will become a cafe and changing area.
Hunter said: “We wanted to do something new and this might attract more visitors, more families perhaps. The kids can enjoy the beach, build sandcastles, paddle and other members of the family can perhaps look round the house.
“The house does sometimes get very busy so this is a way of spreading the load across the wider estate.”
Victoria and Albert bought the Osborne estate in 1845 as an escape from court life at London and Windsor. The house is jam-packed with personal items as well as furniture and art that accorded with their personal tastes.
After her death in 1901, Edward VII, not needing Osborne, effectively gave it to the nation and it became a convalescent home and training college for naval cadets.
Victoria often rode to the beach on her highland pony or walked. That latter option will be available to visitors, as will a minibus. The beach is open from 27 July until 4 November.
• This article was amended on 18 July 2012 to correct the name of the curator of Osborne House, Michael Hunter. The original called him Michael Turner.
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