Isle of Wight

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Isle of Wight


Isle of Wight coastline.jpg
The Needles and Alum Bay
Main town: Newport

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Area: 148 sq miles
Population: 140,000
The island flag of Wight

The Isle of Wight is an island of Hampshire in the English Channel, 3–5 miles off the south coast of Great Britain. It is separated from the main body of Hampshire by a strait called the Solent. The island is known for its natural beauty, its sailing based at the town of Cowes, and its resorts, which have been holiday destinations since Victorian days.

The island has a rich history, including a brief status as a dependent kingdom in the 15th century. Until 1995, the island had its own Governor, holding a position similar to that of lord-lieutenants elsewhere, a position held by many distinguished military men, most notably Lord Mountbatten from 1969–1974.

It was home to the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and to Queen Victoria, who built her much loved summer residence and final home Osborne House at East Cowes. The island's maritime and industrial history encompasses boat building, sail making, the manufacture of flying boats, the world's first hovercraft and the testing and development of Britain's space rockets. It is home to the Isle of Wight International Jazz Festival and the recently-revived Isle of Wight Festival, which, in 1970, was the largest rock music event ever held.[1] The island has some exceptional wildlife and is one of the richest locations of dinosaur fossils in Europe.

Wight had 132,731 permanent residents according to the 2001 census (making it the most populous Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom.

The island is easily accessible from Southsea by hovercraft and by several ferry services from Southampton to Cowes (10 miles), Portsmouth to Ryde (5 miles), Portsmouth to Fishbourne (7 miles) and Lymington to Yarmouth (4 miles).

Physical geography and wildlife

The Isle of Wight is approximately diamond-shaped and covers an area of 148 square miles. Slightly more than half of the island, mainly in the west, is designated as the “Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. The landscape of the Island is remarkably diverse, leading to its oft-quoted description of "England in Miniature". West Wight is predominantly rural, with dramatic coastlines dominated by the famous chalk downland ridge, running across the whole island and ending in The Needles stacks — perhaps the most photographed aspect of the Isle of Wight. The highest point on the island is St Boniface Down.

The rest of the Island's landscape also has great diversity, with perhaps the most notable habitats being the soft cliffs and sea ledges, which are spectacular features as well as being very important for wildlife, and are internationally protected. The River Medina flows north into the Solent, whilst the other main river, the River Yar flows roughly north-east, emerging at Bembridge Harbour at the eastern end of the island. Confusingly, there is another entirely separate river at the western end also called the River Yar flowing the short distance from Freshwater Bay to a relatively large estuary at Yarmouth. To distinguish them, they may be referred to as the Eastern and Western Yar.

The south coast of the island borders the English Channel. Without man's intervention, the sea might well have split the island into three; at the west end where a bank of pebbles separates Freshwater Bay from the marshy backwaters of the Western Yar east of Freshwater, and at the east end where a thin strip of land separates Sandown Bay from the marshy basin of the Eastern Yar, east of Sandown. Yarmouth itself was effectively an island, with water on all sides and only connected to the rest of the island by a regularly breached neck of land immediately east of the town.

Island wildlife is remarkable, and it is one of the few places in England where the red squirrel is flourishing, with a stable population (Brownsea Island in Dorset is another). Unlike most of Britain, no grey squirrels are to be found on the island,[2] but wild deer are occasionally seen. Rare and protected species such as the dormouse and many rare bats can be found. The Glanville Fritillary butterfly's distribution in the United Kingdom is largely restricted to the edges of the crumbling cliffs of the Isle of Wight.

The island is known as one of the most important areas in Europe for dinosaur fossils. The eroding cliffs often reveal previously hidden remains.


Blackgang Chine c. 1910

The Isle of Wight is made up of a wide variety of different rock types ranging from Early Cretaceous times (around 127 million years ago) to the middle of the Palaeogene (around 30 million years ago). All the rocks found on the island are sedimentary, made up of mineral grains from previously existing rocks. These are all consolidated to form the rocks that can be seen on the island today, such as limestone, mudstone and sandstone. Rocks on the island are very rich in fossils and many of these can be seen exposed on the beaches as the cliffs erode.

Cretaceous rocks on the island, usually red, show that the climate was previously hot and dry. This provided suitable living conditions for dinosaurs. Dinosaur bones and footprints can be seen in and on the rocks exposed around the island's beaches, especially at Yaverland and Compton Bay. As a result, the isle has been nicknamed Dinosaur Island.

Along the northern coast of the island there is a rich source of fossilised shellfish, crocodiles, turtles and mammal bones. The youngest of these date back to around 30 million years ago. The Island is known for the discovery of the dinosaur Yaverlandia, a new species not found anywhere else in the world and named after Yaverland beach where it was discovered. The only fossilised remains of “Yaverlandia” are now displayed at Sandown's Geological Museum.[3]

The island is mainly made up of Tertiary clays, in most of the northern parts of the island, limestone, upper and lower greensands, wealden and chalk.

The Clipper "Flying Cloud" off the Needles (James E. Buttersworth, 1859–60)

Main towns

Newport; main town & high street
  • Newport, located in the centre of the island, is the administrative centre of the Isle of Wight and is the island's main shopping area. Recent developments include a new bus station with retail complex and a new retail park on the outskirts. Located next to the River Medina, Newport Quay was a busy port until the mid 19th century, but has now been mainly converted into art galleries, apartments and other meeting places.
  • Ryde, the island's largest town with a population of around 30,000, is located in the north-east of the island. It is a Victorian town with an 800 yard long pier and 4 miles of beaches, attracting many tourists each year. Every year there is a Ryde Carnival in two parts, spread over more than one day: one in the daytime, and one at night with many coloured lights. Ryde is also home to the ice hockey club Isle of Wight Raiders, who play in the English Premier League.
  • Cowes is the location of Cowes Week every year and a popular international sailing centre. It is also the home of the record-setting sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur.
  • Sandown is another seaside resort, attracting many tourists each year. It is also home to the Isle of Wight Zoo and Dinosaur Isle geological museum, and one of the island's two 18-hole golf courses.
  • Shanklin just south of Sandown, also attracts tourists, with its sandy beaches, Shanklin Chine and the old village.
  • Ventnor, built on the steep slopes of St Boniface Down on the south coast of the island, leads down to a picturesque bay that attracts many tourists. Recent developments include Ventnor Haven, a small harbour built around a Victorian-style bandstand.
Graveyard on the grounds of the church in the town of Brading, Isle of Wight

In addition there are smaller towns along the coasts, particularly on the eastern side of the island. There are also a number of smaller villages. Some of these (for example, Godshill) also attract many tourists.


Early history

The Isle of Wight is first mentioned in writing in the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemaeus. The Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the entire island was captured by Vespasian, later to become emperor. In the Roman period it was known as Vectis.

After the end of the Roman period the island and the neighbouring coasts were settled by Jutes from Jutland, who created a kingdom here. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record the foundation story that the Jutes were led by Stuf and Wihtgar, after the latter of whom Carisbrooke is named, though historians consider these details closer to a foundation myth, though there is evidence of the kingdom's having been a diarchy, with two kings not one.

Early Middle Ages

In 661, Wight was invaded by Wulfhere King of the Mercians and forceably converted to Christianity, though the islanders reverted to paganism when he departed. In 685 the island was conquered by Cædwalla King of the West Saxons and incorporated into Wessex. According to Bede, the last two kings of Wight accepted baptism and were voluntarily executed. Thus was the Isle of Wight the last part of England to convert to Christianity.[4][5][6] Later the island became part of the West Saxon shire of Hampshire.

In the Anglo-Saxon period the island's name was Wiht. The island suffered especially from Viking attacks. Alfred the Great's navy defeated the Danes in 871 after they had "ravaged Devon and Wight".

Later Middle ages

Carisbrooke Castle in Newport

After the Norman Conquest a Lord of the Isle of Wight was created. Carisbrooke Priory and the fort of Carisbrooke Castle were founded. The island did not come under full control of the Crown until it was sold by the dying last Norman Lord, Lady Isabella de Fortibus, to Edward I in 1293.

The Lordship thereafter became a royal appointment, with a brief interruption when Henry de Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick was in 1444 crowned King of the Isle of Wight.[7] King Henry VI assisted in person at the ceremony, placing the crown on his head. Warwick had no male heir and the regal title expired on his death.

Henry VIII, who developed the Royal Navy and its permanent base at Portsmouth, fortified the island at Yarmouth, Cowes, East Cowes, and Sandown. Much later, though the Spanish Armada was defeated at sea in 1588, the threat of Spanish attacks remained and the outer fortifications of Carisbrooke Castle were built between 1597 and 1602.

Civil war

During the English Civil War, King Charles fled to the Isle of Wight, believing he would receive sympathy from the governor, Robert Hammond. Hammond was appalled, and imprisoned the king in Carisbrooke Castle. Charles had originally intended to flee to Jersey but had got lost in the New Forest and missed the boat.

Osborne House and its grounds, now open to the public

Seven Years War

During the Seven Years War, the island was used as a staging post for British troops departing on expeditions against the French coast such as the raid on Rochefort. During 1759 with a planned French invasion imminent, a large force of soldiers was kept there so they could be moved at speed to any destination on the south coast. The French called their invasion off after their fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Quiberon Bay. A later French invasion plan involved a landing on the Isle of Wight, but it was never attempted.[8]

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria made Osborne House on the Isle of Wight her summer home for many years and, as a result, it became a major holiday resort for fashionable Victorians including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dickens (who wrote much of David Copperfield there) and members of European royalty.

During her reign, in 1897, the world's first radio station, at The Needles Battery, at the western tip of the island.

Twentieth century

During the Second World War the island was frequently bombed. Looking toward France, the island had a number of observation stations and transmitters, and was the starting-point for one of the earlier Operation Pluto pipelines to feed fuel to the Normandy landings.

The Needles battery was used as the site for testing and development of the Black Arrow and Black Knight]] space rockets, subsequently launched from Woomera in Australia.

The Isle of Wight Festival was a very large rock festival that took place near Afton Down, West Wight in 1970, following two smaller concerts in 1968 and 1969. The 1970 show was notable both for being one of the last public performances by Jimi Hendrix and for the number attending reaching, by many estimates, 600,000.[9] The festival was revived in 2002 in a different format and is now an annual event.

Tourism and heritage

Compton Chine, looking east towards Blackgang

The heritage of the island is a major asset, which has for many years kept its economy going. Holidays focused on natural heritage, including both wildlife and geology, are becoming a growing alternative to the traditional British seaside holiday, which went into decline in the second half of the 20th century, due to the increased affordability of air travel to alternative destinations.

Tourism is still the largest industry on the island. In 1999, the 130,000 island residents were host to 2.7 million visitors. Of these, 1.5 million stayed overnight, and 1.2 million visits were day visits. Only 150,000 of these visitors were international visitors. Between 1993 and 2000, visits increased at a rate of 3% a year, on average.[10]

At the turn of the nineteenth century the island had ten pleasure piers including two at Ryde and a "chain pier" at Seaview. The Victoria Pier in Cowes succeeded the earlier Royal Pier but was itself removed in 1960. The piers at Ryde, Seaview, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor originally served a coastal steamer service that operated from Southsea on the mainland. The piers at Seaview, Shanklin, Ventnor and Alum Bay were all destroyed by storms during the last century. Today only the railway pier at Ryde and the piers at Sandown, Totland Bay (currently closed to the public) and Yarmouth survive. Blackgang Chine is arguably the oldest theme park in the United Kingdom, and one of the oldest in the world.

As well as more traditional tourist attractions, the island is often host to walking holidays[11] or cycling holidays through the attractive scenery. Almost every town and village on the island plays host to hotels, hostels and camping sites. Out of the peak summer season, the island is still an important destination for coach tours from other parts of the United Kingdom and an annual walking festival has attracted considerable interest. The 67½-mile Isle of Wight Coastal Path follows the coastline as far as possible, deviating onto roads where the route is impassable closer to the sea.

A major contribution to the local economy comes from sailing and marine-related tourism.

Summer Camp at Camp Beaumont is an attraction at the old Bembridge School site, Kingswood Centre, Bembridge Boarding Campus. The site is owned by Ryde School with Upper Chine. Kingswood Centre also provides year-round education facilities. Accommodation is provided as necessary.


The Isle of Wight has a total of 492 miles of roadway. Major roads run between the main island towns, with smaller roads connecting villages. The roads are minor roads, with but one dual carriageway, from Coppins Bridge in Newport towards the north of Newport near the island's hospital and prison. A comprehensive bus network links most island settlements, with Newport as the central hub.

The island's location 5 miles off the mainland means that longer-distance transport is by boat. Car ferry and passenger services as a hovercraft operated cross the Solent frequently. Fixed links, in the forms of tunnels or bridges, have been proposed but none built.

The island formerly had its own railway network of over 55 miles, but only one line remains in regular use; the Island Line, running about 8½ miles from Ryde to Shanklin. The line was opened by the Isle of Wight Railway in 1864, and from 1996 to 2007 was run by the smallest train operating company on the network, Island Line Trains. It is notable for using ex-London Underground rolling stock. Branching off the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction is the heritage Isle of Wight Steam Railway, which runs for 5½ miles to the outskirts of Wootton.

There are currently two airfields for general aviation, Isle of Wight Airport at Sandown and Bembridge Airport.

The island has over 200 miles of cycleways, much of which can be enjoyed by families off road. Major Trails are

  • The Sunshine Trail, which incorporates Sandown, Shanklin, Godshill, and Wroxall in a 12-mile circular route
  • The Troll Trail between Cowes and Sandown (13 miles, 90% off road)
  • The Round the Island Cycle Route, which circumnavigates the island.

A full list of routes are available here: Isle Cycle The site is constantly updated to add new routes.


The geography of the island, and its location near the densely populated south of England, led to it hosting three prisons: Albany, Camp Hill and Parkhurst, all located outside Newport near the main road to Cowes. Albany and Parkhurst were among the few Category A prisons in Britain until they were downgraded in the 1990s. The downgrading of Parkhurst was precipitated by a major escape: three prisoners (two murderers and a blackmailer) made their way out of the prison on 3 January 1995 for four days of freedom before being recaptured. Parkhurst especially enjoyed notoriety as one of the toughest jails in the British Isles and "hosted" many notable inmates, including the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, New Zealand drug lord Terry Clark and the Kray twins.

Camp Hill is located to the west of, and adjacent to, Albany and Parkhurst, on the very edge of Parkhurst Forest, having been converted first to a borstal and later to a Category C prison. It was built on the site of an army camp (both Albany and Parkhurst were barracks); there is a small estate of tree-lined roads with well-proportioned officers' quarters (of varying grandeur according to rank, but now privately owned) to the south and east.

The management of all three prisons was merged into a single administration, under the name of "HMP Isle of Wight" in April 2009.

Selected places of interest

Cathedral/Abbey/Priory Cathedral/Abbey/Priory
Accessible open space Accessible open space
Amusement/Theme Park Amusement/Theme Park
Castle Castle
Country Park Country Park
English Heritage English Heritage
Forestry Commission Forestry Commission
Heritage railway Heritage railway
Historic house Historic House
Museum (free)
Museum (not free)
Museum (free/not free)
National Trust National Trust
Zoo Zoo
Blackgang Chine
Isle of Wight Bus Museum
  • Alum Bay
  • Historic houseEnglish Heritage Appuldurcombe House
  • Zoo Amazon World Zoo
  • Amusement/Theme Park Blackgang Chine
  • Museum (not free) Brading Roman Villa
  • CastleEnglish Heritage Carisbrooke Castle where King Charles I was imprisoned
  • Museum (not free) Dimbola Lodge, home of Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron
  • Museum (not free) Dinosaur Isle
  • Country Park Fort Victoria
  • Godshill Village, and Model Village
  • Museum (not free) Isle of Wight Bus & Coach Museum
  • Heritage railway Isle of Wight Steam Railway
  • Zoo Isle of Wight Zoo, Yaverland
  • Medina Theatre, home to the island's entertainment including music and performances.
  • National Trust The Needles, near "The Old Battery" museum and Old Look-out Tower tea-room
  • English Heritage Osborne House, where Queen Victoria had a country residence
  • Cathedral/Abbey/Priory Quarr Abbey
  • Country Park Robin Hill
  • Botanic Gardens, Ventnor
  • CastleEnglish Heritage Yarmouth Castle, Yarmouth, associated with King Henry VIII


Outside links