We can finally relax for a few days after all the work we have been putting into getting things ready for thezachproject. With the help of our friends Vahe and Kerry we have been spending every spare moment preparing for the 15th August when Zach will have his first day in his further education setting.
While Vahe and Kerry continue to toil away at Scott House we have gone across the water, a little ferry ride to the beautiful Isle of Wight.
I am always searching for things to do with Zach and was looking for holidays on the National Autistic Society website and came across Freedom Family Holidays which happen at the Joseph Allnatt Centre on the Island. I liked the idea of the ferry journey and read the information, which included the words large garden, swimming pool and nearby beach and was sold!
I have never been very good at reading the small print, one year I booked an enormous cottage in Sussex mainly because it had a lovely looking outdoor swimming pool. A few days before we went I actually read the full description to find that the pool was unheated! John and Zach went wearing their wet suits a couple of times and the closest I got to it was floating around in a rubber dingy wearing a warm coat!
The Isle of Wight is one of the great British holiday destinations and people have been crossing that stretch of the Solent since Victorian times to enjoy the quintessential charm of the Island. It offers everything a seaside holiday should, blue skies, sunshine, cream teas, beautiful beaches, ice creams and shops selling must have souvenirs which you will never look at again after going home!
Coming to the Isle of Wight is a little bit like stepping back in time, it has a far slower pace of life, people give way to each other in their cars, there are tea and gift shops selling every imaginable thing you can envisage proudly boasting the words ‘Isle of Wight’! There are many independent shops selling art and craft pieces and clothing. My favourite shop is ‘Daisy Daisy’. Its in Godshill and is full of Fairtrade goodies. I love the little bits and bobs they sell, none of them very expensive and they make really great gifts.
The whole Island is served by a fantastic bus service and you see bus stops everywhere in what seem like very random places, however they serve walkers, tourists, shoppers and the locals very well.
The Allnatt Centre is on the south side of the Island in Bonchurch which is a delightful village. The village is down a fantastically steep shute (I am not sure if shutes and chines are peculiar to the IOW, can anyone tell me?) on a road full of sharp bends, past intriguing looking pathways and staircases and attractive Victorian houses with beautiful gardens full of traditional cottage garden and also some more exotic plants which enjoy the micro climate of the area.
Bonchurch (where East Dene is) has no shops, a little café which serves light lunches and snacks. It is a really pretty little village with beautiful houses tucked away on the slopes of St Boniface and a large pond full of wildlife including fish of all sizes, a resident Heron (who is a fan of fish) and also Terrapins which can often be spotted sunning themselves on the banks.
Ventnor is a wonderful town, both historic and quirky. The town meanders its way up the almost mountainous St Boniface Down, with zig zag steep roads running up and down finally arriving on the sea front. There are stripy beach huts, some of which are Victorian bathing machines. There is an array of fish and chips, cafes, ice cream sellers and bars on the sea front and a beautiful, clean beach at which many people swim. Ventnor has a certain charm and is a nostalgic place for people who remember what old seaside towns were like in the UK.
Agapanthus grow everywhere on this side of the Island, huge blue and white heads making stunning displays of colour. Hydrangea are also in abundance and look spectacular with huge bushes of pinks, whites, creams and blues.
East Dene would be an ideal setting for a story. I can imagine Arthur Ransome setting one of his stories there, a childhood adventure with sail boats, villians and secret hiding places.
Or Agatha Christie, maybe a Marple or Poirot. On Thursday morning I saw the Vicar riding through Bonchurch village on his old style bicycle, he could have very easily been on a film set. It is a magical place and special place.
One such person it may have affected to write was the controversial Algernon Charles Swinburne. Part of the ‘in crowd’ of Pre Raphaelite luvvies and friends with Dante Rossetti ( a thoroughly bad lad) he was a poet, play write and novelist and grew up at East Dene.
Swinburne is considered a poet of the decadent school, although he perhaps professed to more vice than he actually indulged in to advertise his deviance – he spread a rumour that he had had sex with, then eaten, a monkey; Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.
Since Swinburn, East Dene has had various guises, one of them being a Convent for elderly and frail nuns, and a finishing school for young ladies!
East Dene is now part of the company which continues the work of Joseph Allnatt.
Joseph Allnatt founded his organisation in 1924, his vision being to provide accommodation and activities for children and young people from different social classes to meet together in places of natural beauty and to break down class barriers. East Dene was purchased by Joseph Allnatt Centres in 1978, it continues to do what it’s founder set out to do.
The company began over 90 years ago in 1924, when Joseph Allnatt, a visionary and entrepreneur, bought a dis-used aerodrome in St Mary’s Bay, Kent and converted it into a Residential Centre for Schools during the summer and ran it as a Turkey farm during the winter! The Camp was huge, accommodating over a thousand children per week engaged in a vast programme of outdoor activities in the extensive grounds, and visits into the surrounding countryside.
The setting for East Dene could not be better, behind it stand the stunning and almost ethereal Downs, covered in trees and looking wonderful (especially with bright blue sky behind them). This part of the Island is said to have a micro climate and (touch wood) we have always been incredibly lucky with the weather, you could be anywhere on the Mediterranean most days with this view, the blue skies and soaring hillsides.
Bonchurch and Ventnor became quite the place to be in Victorian times, like Bath and Harrogate believed to be good for the health. As a result there are many stunning Victorian mansions, some Gothic in design and wonderful wrought iron fences, stained glass and quirky detail.
East Dene provides all that is needed for a good holiday and more! Which makes it a wonderful place to be.
There is a hot tub which is for the adults to use at any time of the day, overlooking the sea and garden it is a very peaceful place to spend an hour or two.
There is a hard standing games area with trampoline, nets for volleyball and badminton. A zip wire and many other outdoor games and a chill out tent for the teens and youngsters with beanbags, fairy lights and air filled hammocks.
The front view is of the large sloped garden (10 acres in all, including woodland). The Isle of Wight only has Red Squirrels and in the past 7 years we have only seen one twice but I have been lucky enough to see a squirrel in the garden this week. It is a beautiful and thrilling sight.
The woods as well as having beautiful trees of many varieties is also full of equipment for people staying here, archery, woodcraft and adventure equipment. There is also a hidden grotto which on one evening is lit with tea lights, it is magical even to me, followed by toasted marshmallows around the camp fire.
There is a large grass area which leads down to the open air swimming pool which is open twice every day for swimmers. The pool is hugely popular with children and adults alike, sometimes though, you may have it to yourself for a quiet swim. The pool is at a vantage point that overlooks the sea which is stunning and very peaceful when it isn’t full of young people whooping up and enjoying themselves 🙂
The garden goes on down to a large chicken coop on the left, full of very content chickens who during the day have the run of the garden and woods. Down a steep bank and you reach the lower field which is flat (ish) and massive! It has two stiles taking you to the coastal path, follow it for 5 minutes and you find yourself on a beautiful quiet beach and turn right and you can walk along to Ventnor which is the nearest town for an icecream and a coffee. It is a pleasant flat 15 minute walk.
While we were there this year the ‘Ventnor Fringe’ week and the town carnival were on so the town was busy and bustling, though not on the day I took the photo below obviously!
I do hope that my description of East Dene paints the idyllic picture which it really is, it is not of course only the setting which makes it such a fantastic holiday though. Freedom Family Holidays was set up by Deana Wright who is the Managing Director of Joseph Allnatt Centres 11 years ago. It started with just two families visiting and has grown over the years. We feel very lucky to be a part of the Freedom Families Family!
Dee has a family member who has autism and she realised how little there is on offer holiday wise for families. The holiday is inclusive and integrated, siblings, parents and Grandparents all come along. For the past four years Zach’s wonderful support worker Laura has come with us but she got married (it was a truly wonderful wedding) three weeks ago so is not here this year. She is being missed, we have bags of fun with her!
We are having a very relaxed and chilled out holiday. Holidays can be very tricky for families who have a member who has autism, the often rigid and routine led life that a person who has autism needs mean that any change is difficult. Zach is very comfortable here at East Dene and is happy to be here (he has had a massive smile on his face most of the week!) We have visited other autism holiday centres which have been great but this is definitely his favourite and ours too.
Freedom Family Holidays run over three weeks every summer holiday, we always come the first week and over the years have made friends with other families who come and look forward to seeing them. We all understand the complexities of autism in all its different guises and the atmosphere is both relaxed and supportive and fun.
The staff at East Dene are excellent. Suzi is the co-ordinator, always smiling and can’t do enough for you. She makes sure the families are all okay and have everything they need. The activity staff are led by Karen, she also smiles a lot! She has been there since we started going (and probably before) and as with all the long standing staff they are friends.
There are daily activities which are run by staff giving parents time out or we can join in. Some examples of activities are archery, rock pooling, crafts, rope courses, circular walks and wood crafts.
The kitchen staff could not try harder and nothing seems too much trouble for them. They seem to cope with all our wacky requests with a smile and it is a real treat to have time off from the daily grind of cooking! The choice of food is always good and very tasty and the week is always finished off with a massive BBQ and party.
We spend some days just pottering about East Dene with maybe a walk down to the beach but there is plenty to do on the Island. Many families go out every day to different places.
We usually visit the Garlic Farm which has a vast array of Garlic flavoured items for sale, Garlic Fudge is surprisingly good. We have yet to try the Garlic Beer.
We like Robin Hill which is now the home of Bestival, they have many different areas and we particularly like their Electric Woods Nights which see everything alight and glowing. They also have a salsa band and dancers giving it a real carnival atmosphere.
Mostly though we enjoy wandering on the beaches and along the coastal path with it’s twists and turn, the landslip makes it an exciting and magical place. We climb the ‘Devils Chimney’ annually and each year I realise just how unfit I am. The Devil’s chimney is close to Bonchurch and is near where the Smugglers used to bring their hauls up from the beach.It is made up of a tall, narrow fissure in the rock through which a footpath runs before descending into the Bonchurch landslip beneath. We have spent many hours walking up and down this part of the coastal path, there are a number of manmade stair cases (some of which are almost vertical)due to continued erosion of the land.
The pace of life at East Dene is whatever you want it to be, there is no pressure to join in with activities or even to spend time with other families but if you do, you are always made very welcome.
Accommodation is dormitory style and Suzi does her best to ensure families are given the same room each year. Most rooms have sinks, some have showers. There are communal toilets and showers. If you are looking for plush then this isn’t for you, however if you are looking for somewhere with loads of space, fresh air and fun then you would do well to have a look at the Joseph Allnatt Website which can be found at allnatt.co.uk
East Dene and beautiful serene Bonchurch are the sort of place which I find it hard to imagine being there when we are not. East Dene is such a special place, made more so by the Allnatt Team, their ability to meet our many needs and the setting. We love this place and have already put our booking form in for next year!
Thanks so much to Dee and her team, (not forgetting Jane and Lewis the Cockerpoo). Joseph Allnatt would as proud as we are grateful to you, for your vision and drive to provide families like us with a wonderful holiday year after year. xx