The countryside of West Wight is rich in history from ancient burial grounds to a Tudor castle in Yarmouth (English Heritage), Victorian forts and cliff-top gun batteries, and a Cold War rocket-testing station from the 1960s near the Needles (National Trust).
Love Freshwater Bay.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Queen Victoria’s newly appointed poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson, and his family arrived at Farringford House in 1853 hunting for a retreat. Emily Tennyson looked out of the drawing room windows to Freshwater Bay and announced: “I must have that view.”
Literary and Other Pilgrims
Tennyson’s presence in West Wight attracted other great names of the period: Darwin, Thackeray, Longfellow, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Edward Lear, Ellen Terry, John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Lewis Carroll and little Alice Liddell. This Victorian cultural circle was satirised by Virginia Woolf in her play Freshwater.
The painter of light’s first oil painting Fishermen at Sea portrays a storm in Freshwater Bay. He must have witnessed the raging waters from the windows of The Inn (The Cabin, now the Albion Hotel) in 1796. However, the background is imaginary. He has taken the chalk stacks of the Needles, where the Solent meets the English Channel at the far end of West High Down, and added them to Freshwater Bay’s Arch Rock and Stag Rock, the so-called Miniature Needles.
Freshwater’s most famous son – inventor, astronomer, anatomist, architect, surveyor, draughtsman, scientist and designer of technical instruments – was born in a farmhouse* below Old Freshwater in 1635.
His father was the curate at All Saints, Freshwater. Robert Hooke studied at Oxford University and is known to history for pushing the boundaries of science and architecture.
Hooke worked with Robert Boyle playing a crucial part in history and the discovery of the law of expansion of gases, Boyle’s Law. The law of elasticity is Hooke’s Law. He was the first curator of experiments at the Royal Society and invented the universal joint and watch spring.
After the Great Fire of London, Hooke was appointed surveyor and worked with Christopher Wren on the new street plans for the capital. He also claimed to have given Isaac Newton the idea of the law of gravity.
Robert Hooke died a cantankerous recluse in London in 1703.
*The dressed stone was used to build St Agnes church, Freshwater Bay.
Freshwater Memorial Hall
The drill hall and headquarters for the local Territorial Army was funded by public subscriptions and donations. The foundation stone dated 1899 was laid by Hallam Tennyson, son of the Victorian pot laureate. Inside the hall are memorials to those who died fighting for their country in the first and second world wars. Shortly afterwards the drill hall closed.
In 1959 Freshwater and Totland parish councils purchased the hall and renamed the building the Memorial Hall. It opened to the public on 23 September 1961.
Freshwater Independent Lifeboat
Over the years the rescue service in Freshwater has developed from land-based lifeguards to a small inflatable inshore boat and then to larger boats with outboard engines and more recently a cabin for the navigator and sophisticated electronic equipment.
Freshwater Independent Lifeboat has embraced a number of fundraising initiatives including a pram push, buy a brick and the mosaic on the sea-facing wall of the boathouse. If you can help Freshwater Independent Lifeboat, contact a member of the crew or visit www.freshwaterlifeboat.org uk and donate through PayPal.
The West Wight local community should be encouraged to learn about and be proud of their unbroken archaeological heritage, and educational and tourism initiatives should include this important aspect of the West Wight landscape.
Historic Environment Audit of the West Wight
There are village archive groups in Freshwater and Newbridge. The civil parish of Freshwater is a thriving rural community with a vibrant economy based mainly on agriculture and tourism. It is the birthplace of scientist Robert Hooke and was home to Alfred, Lord Tennsyon the Victorian poet laureate. There are good beaches with safe bathing and extensive bridleways and footpaths.
Newbridge in the parish of Shalfleet is a village with a rich history of agriculture, quarrying, milling and Methodism. The shallow brook that gives the parish its name flows into Newtown Creek. The area attracts visitors who enjoy seclusion.
Newtown is now just a handful of cottages. The rich and busy port of Francheville (recorded in 1254) disappeared long ago as the harbour silted up, other Solent ports competed, farming changed and the French raided and burned. Originally there were 73 plots for buildings on a simple grid pattern of streets with a quay, chapel and town hall. The old town hall survives. Today, Newtown and its creek is a nature reserve that attracts bird-watchers, walkers, canoeists and paddle-boarders (SUPers).
This is a great place for a picnic with views over the Solent to the New Forest, Hampshire. Inside there are rooms recreating the 16th-century atmosphere of the castle and an exhibition on local shipwrecks.
Built by Henry VIII in 1547, Yarmouth Castle guards the small harbour and western approach to Portsmouth. The stone fortress with no central tower is square rather than round and has angular arrow-shaped bastions for the guns. It is owned by English Heritage.
The Needles Batteries
The Old Battery has great views of the Needles from the searchlight position 80 metres (250 feet) above sea level… if you can squeeze yourself down the spiral staircase and along the 70 metre (200 foot) tunnel that is. The New Battery was home to rocket testing in the 1950s and 1960s… giving West Wight a clear role in the history of the Island and a boost to 21st-century Isle of Wight tourism.
The gun batteries were constructed between 1861-95 as coastal defences against a threat of invasion by France. They played an important role in history and the defence of southern Britain during the two world wars. The Old Battery was opened to tourism by the National Trust in 1982. There are spectacular views of the Solent, Dorset and Hampshire from the ramparts.
Needles Park (site of former Alum Bay Hotel)
Great views and there’s a chairlift down to the beach at Alum Bay where there are 20 colours of rock in the cliff-face. Take a look, too, at the Alum Bay Glass workshop and showroom, and the sweet factory. And another bit of history: Marconi’s first wireless telegraph transmitter was on this western-most headland of the Isle of Wight.
- Wight Surf History
Wight Surf History Project tells the story of how surfing arrived and evolved on the Isle of Wight, and the lively characters involved in
Island surfing since the early 1960s.
In those days surfing was something of an experiment on the Isle
of Wight. A small number of friends started out with belly boards or homemade wooden surfboards.
Small pockets of surfers scattered around the Island experimented in their own ways until they got together and tried to set up an Isle of Wight Surf Club.
The Mottistone Long Stone, a five-metre tall sandstone megalith, has a second stone lying at its foot. The remaining outlines of the original New Stone Age tomb and grass mound are well defined on the downs above Compton Bay. The barrow is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. There are several other burial mounds in this area of the Isle of Wight and the site of an Iron Age hill fort on a small hill to the south east.
Coins and Pottery
In West Wight there are five known sites with Iron Age occupation. Coins and pottery have been found at a further 21 sites confirming the early history of the Isle of Wight. The Late Iron Age saw the start of the production of local pottery, Vectis ware, for local needs. Of the coins, the most significant find was a hoard of eight gold coins found at Yarmouth in 1867. Two Iron Age coins, staters from the early first century of the common era, have been found in West Wight. The existence of these Iron Age coins in West Wight is evidence that the Isle of Wight was trading with other British and European tribes, and using their own coinage, well before the Romans arrived. Early Isle of Wight tourism perhaps.
Brooke Lifeboat Station was established in 1860. Before then
rescues were carried out by the local longshoremen, and later the coastguards.
After a succession of wrecks in 1859 local committees raised enough money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to build two boats for the villages of Brook and Brighstone. From then on everyone in Hulverstone, Mottistone and Brook was connected with Brooke lifeboat in some way.
The lifeboat house still stands with doors facing away from the sea so that they can be opened in stormy weather. Up until 1937, when it was closed down, the Brooke service saved 381 lives.
The family of historian AJP Taylor owned the tide mill, Yarmouth. He used to sit at the bar at the Albion Hotel, Freshwater Bay, with writer JB Priestley who lived at Brook Hill House. They plotted their campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND) and their own place in history.
Roman West Wight
Evidence of Roman life has been found at 76 different sites in the western part of the Isle of Wight. Luxury items from different parts of the Roman Empire show how the Isle of Wight was involved in the history of trade. The Roman villa found near Brighstone in 1840 was a simple building with a rectangular ground plan and five rooms leading off a hall. It was probably built between 275 and 300. Expensive samianware pottery, building material and glass have all been found in West Wight. Other Roman finds, including a quern stone for grinding corn, were revealed by cliff falls. Evidence of metal working was found in Shalfleet. There were two Roman settlements near Thorley.
Anglo-Saxon West Wight
After the Romans left the Isle of Wight there were several migrations of European peoples from what is now Germany. The Venerable Bede, writing around 620, tells us that invaders came from three tribes… the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The Jutes conquered the Isle of Wight.
Freshwater is a Saxon name and may have been an important Anglo-Saxon settlement, but there is no known archaeological evidence of dwellings from this period.
The most important Anglo-Saxon site on the Isle of Wight is the Chessell Down cemetery discovered in 1818. Over 130 graves were found with a wide range of objects including brooches, belt buckles, finger rings, beads and strap ends, swords, spear heads, arrowheads, knives and an axe, buckets of silver and wood, a bronze pail, a bronze hanging bowl, and household pottery.
West Wight Churches
St Agnes, Freshwater Bay, is built with stones taken from the farmhouse where the scientist Robert Hooke was born. Christ Church in Totland has a lych gate made of timbers from HMS Thunderer, a ship that fought with Nelson at Trafalgar. The church in Brook, St Mary the Virgin has memorials to local lifeboat crews. Much of St Peter’s, Shorwell, is 17th century but the key attraction is the
15th-century fresco of St Christopher.
St Andrew’s in Chale is close to the Military Road and its extensive views. It was the burial place of the first president of Hungary and his son. In nearby Niton, St John the Baptist church dates from the11th century. There is a memorial in the churchyard to Edward Edwards,
co-founder of public libraries.