Picture-perfect thatched villages, golden sandy beaches, rolling countryside and royal residences – the Isle of Wight is an idyllic holiday destination.
It has been variously called The Diamond in The Solent, England in Miniature, and The Gem of the South, but for many regular visitors to the Isle of Wight, it is the words of philosopher Karl Marx that best sum up its charms: “This island is a little paradise”.
Lying about six miles off the coast of south-east England, the island has no commercial air connections, but boats and hovercraft from the mainland whisk cars and foot passengers across The Solent to the entry ports of Ryde, Yarmouth and Cowes (famous for its yearly hosting of the world’s largest sailing regatta, Cowes Week). Covering 147 square miles in total, the island is blessed with a wide variety of landscapes, from sheltered river valleys to wild, windswept headlands and golden sandy beaches to forests and picturesque villages. Its soft light has attracted artists to its shores since the 19th century, while the sub-tropical climate is ideal for viniculture to flourish and allows exotic plants to grow in sheltered south-facing gardens.
The island also has a rich historic past that dates back more than 125 million years when it was home to a terrifying range of predators – recent finds have reinforced its standing as the number one hotspot for fossil hunting. Dinosaur bones are regularly found along the island’s shores and at low tide there are often parties of people out searching for the fossil that will make them famous.
Centuries of human civilisations have made their mark too. The Romans left villas at Brading and Newport with exceptional remains including exquisite floor mosaics; the Saxons left reminders of their presence in buried coins, brooches and buckles and in two Anglo-Saxon churches (All Saints at Freshwater and St George’s at Arreton); and the Normans left many architecturally rich churches.
The island is of course also well known for its royal connections – perhaps the most fascinating royal personage to have lived here was King Charles I who was a prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle before his beheading in London in 1649. Today, the grey granite fortress is far less forbidding a place and visitors can play boules on the manicured green lawns, visit the donkeys that draw the water from the well, and wander through the king’s rooms.
Royals returned in the 19th century when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built Osborne House, their Italianate villa at Cowes, where they and their nine children lived a quiet family life away from the London Court. Today it is the most popular attraction on the island.
In Victoria’s wake and with the advent of the railways came artists, poets and writers. Alfred, Lord Tennyson bought Farringford House at Freshwater, Julia Margaret Cameron the pioneer photographer resided nearby at Dimbola Lodge, and Charles Dickens rented a house at the little hamlet of Bonchurch with its pretty village pond where ducks and ducklings still paddle among the reeds as they did when he took his walks here.
East Wight is more densely populated than West Wight and it is along these miles of golden sandy beaches that the seaside resorts of Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor grew up. Sandown High Street and the gently sloping beach run parallel making shopping and beach relaxation an easy combination, and for the occasional rainy day – for it is still England after all – the state-of-the-art Dinosaur Museum and Sandown Zoo with its collection of big cats are just along the seafront.
It is worth taking a stroll along Sandown’s pier to look back towards the prominent white headland of Culver and the 73 million-year-old chalk cliffs of Bembridge that were once connected to the South Downs on the mainland. A walk or a drive to the summit of this headland offers spectacular views of the English Channel and is one of the best things to do on a sunny day, while in winter it is exhilarating to feel the wind in your hair as you watch the boats pitching and yawing on the waters below.
Of interest to military history buffs, the headland is home to the remains of 19th-century and WWI fortifications and gun emplacements. Built in 1867 as part of The Solent’s extensive defence system to repel a predicted invasion by the forces of Napoleon III (which never happened) the fort was briefly occupied by a cavalry unit and housed heavy artillery during WWI. In WWII shots were fired against a different enemy – the Nazis.
The beach at Sandown continues along to Shanklin with its famous Old Village of thatched cottages and The Chine, a naturally beautiful historic gorge formed over 10,000 years by water cutting through soft sandstone. Deep inside the gorge, which runs down to the sea, you will see the remaining 65 yards of the pipe that was PLUTO (Pipe Line Under the Ocean), used to transport petrol to France for the invasion of Normandy, one of WWII’s great successes. The pipe initially ran for 70 miles along the Channel seabed to Cherbourg in France and delivered 56,000 gallons a day at its most active.
Away from the coast are Georgian market towns such as Newport, centred on two elegant squares with architecture from Georgian and Victorian periods. At the town quay in the 19th century, boats moored to unload their goods after they had sailed up the River Medina from Cowes.
Away from the coast also are some of the best preserved and prettiest villages in the UK. Thatched cottages set in country gardens and welcoming ‘olde worlde’ pubs such as The Crab in Shanklin, the New Inn at Shalfleet and The Hare and Hounds at Arreton are picture perfect.
Driving, cycling, walking or taking the local bus is an ideal way to see the villages; one of the best routes is the journey from Carisbrooke to Freshwater. Winding along lanes dappled with sunlight penetrating the green canopy of overhead branches, passing honeysuckle-clad cottages, old churches and pubs with flower-filled gardens, this offers glimpses of an alternative Wight. Brightstone, with its quaint little cottage museum displaying the life of the 19th-century village, and Mottistone, with its lovely manor and exquisite gardens of shrub-filled banks, hidden pathways and blossom-laden trees, are some of the best.
The village of Godshill perhaps trumps them all though, and is one of the most photographed in England for its wonderfully whimsical buildings. On top of the hill stands the 15th-century church, flanked by thatched cottages covered with wisteria, clematis and roses. On the main street you will find a cider barn selling locally brewed cider, great food at The Taverners pub and delicious home-made cakes at The Old Smithy tea rooms.
Walk down Winkle Street in Calbourne, a village with a working water mill that still provides flour for bakeries on the island, and it’s as if you’ve strolled back in time. Facing the attractive row of thatched cottages is a stream that meanders towards the 17th-century mill, and nearby is the village green on which cricket is played most weekends.
The small hamlet of Newtown was once a harbour and 180 species of bird have been sighted at its nature reserve. Looking at the grassy lanes, hay meadows and salt marshes today it takes a leap of the imagination to see Newtown as it once was – a medieval port with masted ships crowding the quayside.
The unspoilt scenery on the Isle of Wight (over 50 per cent of the island has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and the 500 miles of well-maintained public footpaths make walking the island a never-ending delight. Nine species of orchid grow on West High Down where Adonis Blue and Chalkhill Blue butterflies can be seen in the summer. The Walking Festival held yearly in early summer attracts people from all over the world for guided walks catering to all ages and abilities; there is even a gentle one-mile stroll for the early risers to listen to the dawn chorus in Newtown.
The island sets this spectacular scenery and its varied history against everyday events such as carnivals and farmers’ markets, enriching life for those who live here and those who come to visit – and few visit only once. To quote Shakespeare, “the isle is full of sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight”. In other words, it’s magical.
Travelling to the Isle of Wight is easy thanks to Wightlink, a ferry service and the main connection between the island and the mainland.