Last June, twenty men met in the bar of the Dorset Hotel in Ryde to receive strict instructions from headmaster Gordon for their forthcoming rambling weekend. Finishing on a nice round number, this was to be the ninth and final year for the Isle of Wight event, co-organized by the Sussex, Surrey and Solent groups. We came from near and far – from the island itself (Phil and Chris), as well as more distant Preston (John), North Wales (Nigel and Keith) and Edinburgh (Robert, who attempted to pass off Scottish dollars as genuine currency). In contrast, Russian-speaking Andrey – a handsome vision in blue stripy underwear according to Gordon (the rest of us had the decency to look away when he whipped off his trousers) – is now a naturalised Brit and Solent local.
For our first full day, we set off from Shanklin’s Old Village, following a trail led by island local, Chris. The route headed south, taking us close to the cliffs on the coastal path. Then, passing the village of Luccombe, we endured our second major climb, to St Boniface Down for superb island views in unexpectedly beautiful weather. We could even see the hazy Dorset coastline in the far distance. Unfortunately, the steep hills took their toll, causing a couple of members to bail out, with one of them heading for emergency Cream Tea Therapy at Godshill, where we later caught up with him digesting The Lord of the Rings in a Dutch-language edition. The fabulously twee village of thatched cottages gave us an afternoon opportunity to seek sunshine or shade while sucking on ice creams or munching scones plastered with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
We continued to Wroxall, following a gentle cycle-track coasting downward back into Shanklin, which would previously have been the route for the steam trains before the much-discussed Beeching rape of the railways. It had been a day of glorious sunshine and banter while catching up with old GOC (and Edward Carpenter Community) friends and making new connections too. One of the Neils took on the role of expedition photographer, sneakily scouting out unusual angles and natural poses to provide deeply probing digital memories of the weekend.
Saturday evening, as usual, saw the members disband to do their own thing. I deserted my colleagues in Ryde and strolled to the pier head, hoping to find a leather-clad biker. I’d invited one along for the weekend, called Jon. He’d come straight from his victorious mixed quad win for Twickenham Rowing Club at the Richmond Regatta. His journey had been delayed by traffic snarl-ups in Portsmouth, and he arrived overheated, soaking with sweat beneath heavy motorcycle gear (Grrrrr!). I took pity on the poor lad and dragged him straight to the Kasbah pub for an ice‑cold beer.
After a quick shower at The Dorset, we headed for the Ryde Tandoori, which had been commandeered by an ill-mannered and rowdy bunch of young men (i.e. half our GOC group, getting all ‘lagered up’ and boisterous). Headmaster Gordon and his lovely husband, Neil, tried to impose control over the unruly brutes but, in the end, Gordon was forced to cane several members over their kormas, while Neil offered his sympathies to a cute waiter who’d struggled earlier with their ever-changing orders. Other terrified diners abandoned their food and fled.
On Sunday morning we met at Cowes for a walk led by Olawale. We followed the coast and stared out at the yachts on the shimmering water before heading inland from Egypt Point (where a curiously discarded half-set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas drew our attention – one more casualty of the internet age). Then we began our southward journey, closely hugging the west bank of the River Medina, following a busy bicycle route that passed marshland, skeletal boat-wrecks, unusual birds and their tattooed boyfriends. There were many warning shouts of ‘Cycle ahead!’ or ‘Cycle behind!’, although most of us preferred the behinds, which we casually tweaked as they passed us by.
We arrived in Newport early afternoon, where Olawale gave a speech to officially close this series of events. He had been the route planner and guide for the majority of the walks over the past nine years. Mike was also present who had coordinated the event for the first seven years, and had returned as a punter on this final one, which was co-organized by Gordon and (non-attendee) Steve Hayes. There was a big round of applause in appreciation for all the effort put in, including for Chris who led Saturday’s walk, but couldn’t come today.
There was plenty of time for other activities in the afternoon. Phil led our Chairman, David, as well as Gordon, Neil and Steve, up the other side of the River Medina to East Cowes, while Olawale spearheaded an expedition to Sandown Beach with John, Adrian and Mike for an all-over blast of sunshine in the buff.
Sunday evening was the traditional ‘shout-fest’ at Michelangelo’s, a welcoming Italian restaurant on Ryde seafront. Gordon, in his final hours as leader of the Surrey group after ten years in the post, bravely tried to help the waitresses coordinate the distribution of meals to our many chattering men whose menu choices had been pre-ordered several weeks before. Visibly distressed, he wept with manly bravado over his succulent duck leg, which, in a moment of remorse, he named ‘Phyllis’. Meanwhile, his fellow-diners debated the court sentences handed out in recent controversial cases, adoption by gay couples, parascending, skydiving, embroidery and other masculine pursuits. It finally fell to Gordon to tackle the payment of the bill, which he handled with frazzled nobility, settling yet another dispute over the validity of Robert’s Scottish dollars.
Monday morning was a time of sad goodbyes to each other and the island. So, finally, a big thank you to Olawale, Chris, Gordon, Mike, Steve and everyone involved for making a lot of homosexuals very happy on the Isle of Wight (and elsewhere too, I’m certain!).
More of Neil's photos can be seen at http://s1085.photobucket.com/user/Spectralmirror/slideshow/GOC%20East%20Kent%202013/GOC%20Isle%20of%20Wight%202013