Four more places to visit on Victoria’s Island trail

The film Victoria and Abdul
The film Victoria and Abdul

The table is elaborately laid as it would have been more than a century ago, when guests of Britain’s reigning monarch were served a marathon meal of soups, game and seafood - and generally forced to eat at a sprinter’s pace.

But the truth is, Queen Victoria, well known for her fast-paced feasting, would probably have preferred a supper more suited to the Indian decor of the grandiose Durbar room at her Isle of Wight retreat, Osborne House.

According to historians, Her Royal Highness was rather partial to a plate of curry. “She usually had them on Sunday lunchtime,” says Michael Hunter, English Heritage curator at Osborne. “We have kitchen ledgers that list chicken curry and daal as dishes she would have.”

Queen Victoria’s penchant for the spicy dish was all part of her fascination with India, a subject brought to life in new film Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard.

The close - and controversial - relationship between the elderly queen and her treasured Munshi (teacher), Abdul Karim, is celebrated at Osborne House where many of the scenes were filmed.

Presided over by an enormous peacock, with an ostentatious ceiling reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, the Durbar room plays a prominent role in the heart-warming epic, and is currently filled with mannequins wearing costumes worn by the cast, on display until the end of the month.

Walking through the showpiece designed by John Lockwood Kipling, father of the author Rudyard, I’m struck by cabinets filled with glittering curios such as a sequin-studded pouch presented by her ‘Loyal Subjects of Hyderabad’ and a backscratcher carved from ivory in the form of a human hand.

The newest exhibit is Queen Victoria’s Hindustani diary, borrowed from the Royal Archives and on public display for the first time.

Curling inky script shows both English, Hindustani and Urdu characters, with the Queen’s entries becoming gradually more sophisticated under direction from her Munshi.

In 1887, 11 years after she was named Empress of India, Queen Victoria began employing Indian servants and 24-year-old Abdul from Agra quickly advanced through the ranks, accompanying her overseas on visits and taking part in tableaux vivants (motionless re-enactments of famous historical scenes) staged in the Durbar room at Christmas time.

Ironically, she was never able to visit her Asian Empire, so Abdul provided a window on this exotic and entrancing world.

Most importantly, he gave companionship to the grieving widow, following the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and her Scottish personal attendant John Brown in 1883.

Four portraits of Abdul, commissioned by the queen, hang on the walls of the Durbar Corridor at Osborne. “In one he’s wearing a gold turban and looks more like a maharaja,” says Michael Hunter. “It’s an indication of how Victoria viewed him - a breath of fresh air. Introducing this creature into the household and the consternation it caused must have given her some sort of excitement in her last decade, when things were getting dull.”

Incredibly the relationship was a mystery for many years, kept secret by an embarrassed royal court until author Shrabani Basu unearthed Abdul’s private diary in 2010 while writing her book, on which the new film is based.

It’s fitting that much of their friendship blossomed at Osborne House, purchased by Victoria and Albert in 1845 as an escape from court life in London and Windsor, and a tour of the property is one of the best ways to discover the more affectionate and human side of a monarch often depicted as cantankerous and austere.

Walking through the grounds, filled with gnarled, ancient oak trees, I imagine how much freedom the place must have afforded. Family holidays were often spent on a private forest-fringed, sandy beach, where a bathing machine - a wooden changing cubicle with cart wheels - allowed Victoria to preserve her modesty.

Today, sailing boats slice through gentle white caps on The Solent, and although the mainland seems within arm’s reach, it’s also a million miles away.

Safe from prying eyes, there’s a sense anything is possible in this small, sea-lapped haven - even an unlikely alliance between a revered member of royalty and a lowly Indian servant more than 40 years her junior.