A mere couple of miles or so off the Hampshire coast in the south of England is a diamond shaped island, over half of it recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Isle of Wight.
It is England’s largest island covering some 147 square miles. Located in the English Channel it is 23 miles long by 13 miles wide with a 65 mile coast line separated from the mainland by a strait of water known as the Solent.
Once part of Hampshire, today it is an independent administrative county with its own Member of Parliament and is the largest political constituency in the country.
Days gone by
The island was formed at the end of the last Ice age when the rise in global sea level flooded a former river valley to the north and what was to become the English Channel to the south.
A number of historical and archaeological sites have been discovered including prehistoric fossil beds with dinosaur remains to dwellings and artifacts of the Bronze and Iron Ages, Romans and beyond. Sometime about 1900BC the Beaker people arrived (so named because of their distinctive pottery). It was from them that the island got its name – Wiht (raised/rising over the sea). In 43AD the Romans arrived and translated Wiht into Vectis (from the Latin veho – lifting), a name that is still used occasionally today.
The 400 years of peaceful Roman rule gave way to violence with the arrival of the Saxons in 530AD which continued on and off for over 100 years till 686AD when Caedwalla, a West Saxon king conquered the island and brought Christianity to it. But even then the islanders troubles were not over for in 897AD the Danes arrived inflicting more fear and terror for a further 100 years.
Then came the Norman Conquest. Eventually the lordship of the island passed to the De Redvers family until in 1293, the last survivor of the family Countess Isabella de Fortibus, sold it to Edward 1, whence it came under royal possession. For a brief spell in the 15th century the island even had its own king. But still the island was not to be at peace.
Later, during the 100 Years War, along with other parts of the English south coast the island was in danger from marauding French ships and their crews. Unfortunately the only fortification – the Norman castle of Carisbrooke – had been built in the centre of the island so the French chiefly chose to ignore it, instead concentrating their pillaging and burning on coastal towns and villages.
With the construction of the naval base at Portsmouth it was apparent that the island’s location was strategically important for the dockyard’s safety and Henry VIII ordered the building of better fortifications on the island. Thank goodness he did because the next invasion attempts were made during his daughter’s reign (Elizabeth 1) by Spain.
The 17th century saw King Charles 1 held captive at Carisbrooke Castle, prior to being taken to London and his subsequent execution.
Happier royal visits were made to the island by Queen Victoria and her adored husband Prince Albert. The Queen remembered holidays spent there as a child and in a bid to escape from the rituals of palace life bought Osborne House which she and Albert had rebuilt into a carefree family holiday home. After Albert’s death Victoria turned the house almost into a shrine to his memory. She died there in 1901.
Naturalists and other like-minded visitors had started coming to the island in Georgian days to pursue their interest in nature and to search for fossils and dinosaur bones. However, the main surge of visitors followed with the advent of the railways when well-to-do Victorians headed there on vacation.
Marconi experimented with his wireless apparatus at Alum Bay, including his first communication between the station at his Needles hotel to one at Bournemouth and another on a small boat.
Marconi was not the only famous person to visit or make the island his home. Charles Darwin is believed to have begun his Origin of Species during a visit in 1867. Alfred, Lord Tennyson loved the place so much he bought a house overlooking Freshwater Bay – parts of the island bear his name. The artist J M W Turner sketched and painted many an island scene. It is thought that Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield during his sojourn. It attracted the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and J B Priestley lived on the island for some time.
And so the Isle of Wight has remained, apart from a spell during World War II when it was also badly bombed, to this day – a favorite venue for those seeking sea, sun and sand.
The Present Day
Today the Isle of Wight offers an, away-from-it-all atmosphere. Whilst there is indeed evidence of 21st century living parts of the island have a gentle, innocent quality in marked contrast to the rush and bustle of everyday life. It is almost as if time has slowed to let the rest of the world rush by.
For a start there are the beaches. Lots of them. Some small, others large; some secluded, others commercialised; some difficult to access, others perfect for the bucket and spade brigade. A number of beaches fly ‘Seaside Award Flags’ and also the coveted Blue Flag Quality Awards. Visit www.isleofwightbeaches.com
Much beloved by the Victorians, and indeed by today’s children, are the coloured sands from the cliffs of Alum Bay. Even to this day a favourite souvenir to take home is a glass lighthouse filled with colourful layers. An amusement park is also sited here, but at least entrance is free even if the rides have to be paid for. A chairlift swings visitors gently down to the beach. Alum Bay is also ‘home’ to the iconic Needles – the massive chalk rocks jutting up from the sea. They don’t look particularly needle-like today, but in days gone by one in particular did. The 120′ rock (actually called Lot’s Wife) no longer exists today. It fell into the sea in 1764 with a crash so loud it was said it could be heard miles away.
It is a pretty island: more than half of it a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Some 30 miles of its seashore has Heritage Coast status and there are 500 miles of public footpaths and bridleways to say nothing of winding, flower bejewelled, narrow lanes leading visitors to chocolate-box pretty villages, across downland to spectacular cliffs and through gentle farmland, river valleys, marshland and the chines (ravines).
Small the Isle of Wight may be, but it has an awful lot to offer in the way of attractions and things to do. For instance you could go on a dinosaur hunt – well, their remains at least. The exposed rocks at Compton, Brook and Brightstone Bays contain fossilised trees along with dinosaur bones, or head off to Hanover Point to see giant dinosaur footprints. There are a number of organised fossil hunting trips on the island but what better place to whet your interest in these amazing creatures than Dinosaur Isle where visitors can marvel at the life-sized models of Neovenator, Eotyrannus, Iguanodon, Hypsilophodon and Polacanthus and look at some of the museum’s vast collection of 30,000 geological exhibits.
Watch donkeys working the 16th century tread wheel at Carisbrooke Castle, see the Charles 1 memorabilia in the castle’s museum, climb up the keep and walk round the battlements.
Or why not visit Queen Victoria’s beloved home Osborne House. Allow plenty of time to explore this fascinating property with its extravagant interiors and opulent furnishings, including the amazing Indian décor of the Durbar Room, plus the more intimate private apartments like the Queen’s bedroom and the children’s nurseries. The grounds with their views out over the Solent are delightful, as are the chalet, known as the Swiss Cottage and built for Victoria and Albert’s children, the Victorian walled garden and the hothouses.
Yachting enthusiasts head for the quaint little town of Cowes, especially in the first week of August when Cowes Week, one of the longest-running and largest regular regattas in the world takes place.
Other attractions for the history buff include Yarmouth Castle, and the Needles Old Battery. Whilst Fort Victoria, originally built to guard the Solent, today houses a Marine Aquarium, an Underwater Archaeology Centre, a Planetarium and a Model Railway. Fort Victoria is set in a Country Park with Seashore and Woodland walks and some of the best places for watching the boats and shipping using the Solent.
Whilst modest by royal palace standards, should Osborne house be too grand, there are also a number of lovely manor houses and gardens on the island. One of The Foody Traveller’s favourites is the garden of Mottistone Manor – an Elizabethan manor house, managed by the National Trust. It is one of those enchanted gardens with heavenly borders, grassy terraces and covetable shrubs. A number of olive trees were planted in 2005 as part of an on-going experiment with plants from warmer parts of the world.
Take a ride on the steam train operating from Smallbrook Junction – a treat for all age groups; visit the historic town of Newport, the island’s largest town and a good place for shopping or the popular seaside resorts of Ventnor, Shanklin and Sandown.
Then there is the pretty little town of Brading, said to be the island’s oldest town, and delight in the thatched cottages of Godshill. Visit the Garlic Farm and don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for those elusive red squirrels.
Red Funnel: Vehicle ferries run regularly around the clock from Southampton, whilst the Red Jet Hi-Speed foot passenger service takes just 25 minutes to reach Cowes. Visit www.redfunnel.co.uk
Wightlink: Wightlink car ferries sail between Lymington and Yarmouth and from Portsmouth to Fishbourne in as little as 35 minutes, while modern catamarans make the crossing between Ryde from Portsmouth in around 22 minutes. Visit: www.wightlink.co.uk
Hovertravel: Hovertravel, the only scheduled hovercraft operator in Europe, runs a half hourly 10 minute crossing between Portsmouth and Ryde. Visit www.hovertravel.co.uk
Hoverbreaks to the Isle of Wight
Hovertravel, the fastest passenger service to Isle of Wight, has teamed up with Wight Locations to launch Hoverbreaks offering a 20% discount off travel to the island.
With Hoverbreaks, travellers can not only book accommodation in cottages, holiday homes and even countryside manors, they can also travel over to the island on a Hovercraft. Many of the homes even allow pets, so even furry family members don’t have to be left behind. Crossing the Solent from Portsmouth with Hovertravel takes just 10 minutes.
To receive the 20% discount simply choose the accommodation with Wight Locations, either online or through the brochure, and present the confirmation at a Hovertravel terminal to receive an exclusive 20% discount off travel to the island.