“ Cowes has narrow streets and a wealth of chandleries, unique shops and eating venues, which cater for every need. „
Mention Cowes and the first thing people will say is sailing, although some will say milk, and Cowes on the North coast of the Isle of Wight is one of the places that I have had on my list to visit for some time and although I didn't really wish to experience the town at the height of the busy season when the Yachting events take place, it is a place that I wanted to visit when it could be itself and show me what it had to offer to a tourist.
Although there are bars open throughout the day that offer terraced views across the estuary of the River Medina while you eat, I also discovered that the daytime clientele are not the types of people who would be getting up on the pole to dance after a second cup of Tea, even though this was in plain site at all times!
On our recent visit I found the opportunity just to sit on The Parade in your car and simply watch the world go by, whether that was the ferries coming across from the mainland or just watching the yachts leave port, the whole place just seems to have a relaxed atmosphere to it. The Parade was probably our favourite place as the tranquillity of the 200 metre stretch gives a great panoramic view of the coast of Hampshire and with the Solent looking a vibrant colour blue; Cowes is given a slightly Mediterranean feel to it that is amplified with the newly built apartments along the front and small number of restaurants and coffee bars. It's also convenient for the shops as well, it only a 5 minute walk to find a vast avenue of shops. Parking on The Parade is relatively cheap although it is Pay and Display and you do need to have change with you. There's enough parking for about 80 - 100 cars, but be warned the spaces are quite narrow and we did see a BMW get a sever dent in the passenger door when the next car down opened there driver door a little bit too hard. Others who had a 4x4 decided that two spaces where required and duly parked using two spaces without two tickets, which the Warden duly noticed.
As along most of the Solent facing coast in Cowes there are a number of Yachting clubs and its interesting reading the signs and determining exactly how big they are based on the size of their docking facilities and mini marinas that are located literally on the other side of the gates that the sign is posted upon. Naturally for a place that holds a week long sailing regatta, the main trade is going to be nautical, which again is the biggest selling point of the town anyway, the range of shops are enough to satisfy the shallowest of browser to the town as the shops cater for everyone. From what can only be described as junk shops that seem to sell everything to the more well known High Street names such as Boots that scattered along the length of the High Street. It's far more compact than I imagined as it can be walked from end to end in about 15 minutes with quite a steep rise at one end that seems to put a few off and turn around. I did find a few model shops as well and was quite shocked to find that a number of Corgi models that I had as a kid were fetching prices in the hundred's rather than the tens, a good example is a boxed Starsky and Hutch Ford Torino, I remember my Dad buying this for me at £1.99 and it included figures as well. The model shop wanted £225!!
Also the architecture is kept to the original standard and while some new frontages have been built, it is nice to see coffee shops not attempting to sacrifice the local history and effectively "reboot" the exterior to their favour. I found myself looking up at the buildings as I went along and while the buildings are two or three floors high the style but made the narrow streets somewhat unnaturally darker even when the Sun is high. This effect makes the manner in which they have been kept in makes the finer details stand out even more with regards to any sculptures or facades that have been added or carved in the Victorian stomework. Like any other retail area that has felt an impact in the economy downturn it is painfully obvious to see where Woolworths once stood and that was really the only thing that let the area down as the shop was still empty at the time we visited the island. Its fair to say that I wasn't expecting the modernisation that has taken place in the main shopping area of Newport to be replicated in Cowes, but I though that overall the experience as well as the retail opportunities that Cowes has to offer were very varied, so varied in fact that it took my other half nearly 90 minutes to look in just three shops, hence why I went off on walkabout before the shops closed for the day!
Just off the main drag there is a Co-Op Supermarket, now I though that this was a bit modern for the area as there were little clues to the history of the site, the building had a small service road that looked genuinely out of place and seemed to be a focal point for taxis, initially I was guessing this was because the foot passenger ferry from Southampton had its Terminal less than 100 yards away to which the Bus Station was also located as well. When I got home I looked this up and was amazed to find that the Co-Op was built on the site of the Cowes British Railway station that was demolished years ago. This answered a lot of questions and from the top of the road as it was on a hill you can see here the track went as the land itself just looked that little bit different with the differences leading up to a now disused and sealed off tunnel. I found this absolutely fascinating and regret not enquiring if there was a local Museum that could further satisfy my curiosity that I had with the town.
Cowes is split into two, as the River runs through the town and the town is on the estuary, the other side of Cowes is designated as East Cowes and is linked by a chain ferry. We walked down to here and watched the Ferry come across, thinking it would be empty the gate was dropped and about 20 vehicles, plus foot passengers and cyclists off loaded into Cowes. East Cowes is more industrialised and the vast ship building warehouses can be seen from way out in the Solent.
I cant talk about the nightlife, but to take a guess its would appear to be quite energetic, the Waterside bar that we popped in for a quick drink had posters up for the upcoming weekend and looked big enough to hold about 300 - 500 people. We saw other bars, but not anywhere as big or enticing as this one which served the most appetizing food that I have seen in a Pub for a while. I personally wouldn't like to think how busy the town gets when its Cowes week as well. I also need to add that the Solent facing restaurants and bars also have open air terraces available as well which makes eating a far more grander and special occasion, especially as the weather was scorching when we visited.
Overall I was impressed with Cowes as a town, its got everything that I would want to have nearby if I lived there and further more its got plentiful amounts of transport links around the Island as well as to the mainland, something that we couldn't fail to notice as the Red Jet Car Ferry that docks in East Cowes was liveried up in standard Ikea corporate colours of Yellow and Blue to advertise the recently opened store in Southampton. This visit also bought home the history of the town and what has happened in the past, and gave me some food for thought with looking this up on the Internet upon my return. We thought parking would be a problem, however when we arrived at 11am the town still seemed very quiet in places and it was far easier to park up and explore than we thought it would be.
I can safely say with hand on heart as to why I like Cowes, simply put it's a place that is a nice place to be. The town is clean and well kept without the vibe of a large scale town that seems to accelerate drinking as its only selling point.