West Wight has many historic reminders of a turbulent past within its landscape. The threat of invasion from France led to the construction of a number of unique buildings that still stand today. There is much evidence of long-standing settled communities, some of it seen most strikingly from the air; but many sites and treasures are hidden beneath our feet.
Archaeological remains are grouped by historical period:
Palaeolithic: 450,000 to 10,000 before the common era (BCE)
(Old Stone Age)
Mesolithic: 10,000 to 45,000
(Middle Stone Age)
Neolithic: 4500 to 2000
(New Stone Age)
Bronze Age: 2500 BCE to common era (CE) 700
Iron Age: 800 BCE to CE 43
Roman: 43 to 410
Saxon: 400 to 1066
Medieval: 1066 to 1485
Post Medieval: 1485 to 1800
Modern: 1800 to present
In 2007 the Isle of Wight county archaeology and historic environment service identified archaeological sites (deposits, monuments and landscapes) within the 120 square kilometres of land in the parishes of Brighstone, Calbourne, Freshwater, Shalfleet, Totland and Yarmouth.
Archaeological remains range from single finds, such as a prehistoric flint tool or Roman coin, to towns, villages and isolated farms. There are standing structures such as the Long Stone at Mottistone, and buildings such as churches and halls. Buried deposits exist below our modern streets and fields while eroding cliff edges round the coastline tell even more stories.
The countryside of West Wight is rich in historical sites, from ancient burial mounds to a Tudor castle inYarmouth(English Heritage); Victorian forts and cliff-top gun batteries; and a Cold War rocket-testing station from the 1960s on the headland near the Needles (National Trust).
Neolithic people had different burial customs to ours. Instead of individual graves, people were buried in large communal burial mounds called long barrows. These were often placed at the edges of their territory on high down land or hill tops and were part of a much bigger landscape of ceremonial monuments and structures. Two of these long barrow sites still survive in West Wight.
The Longstone (actually two massive sandstone blocks) on Mottistone Down was originally one of the upright stones that formed part of a Neolithic long barrow. A large mound of earth would have covered the standing stones and inside it would have been chambers in which the bones of the dead were placed. As the burial place of the first Island farmers, this site is a scheduled monument of national importance.
The West Wight also contains another Neolithic long barrow, the Afton long barrow on Freshwater Golf Course and is probably the burial place of a community living round Freshwater Bay. It sits within a later cemetery of Bronze Age burial mounds, evidence that people buried their dead in this ceremonial place for many generations after the Neolithic period.
On Tennyson Down there is another very rare type of Neolithic earthwork relating to the elaborate rituals surrounding death and burial.
The Iron Age
In West Wight there are five known sites with the remains of buildings from the Iron Age. Coins and pottery have been found at a further 21 sites. The Late Iron Age saw the start of the production of Vectis ware pottery for local needs. Of the coins, the most significant find was a hoard of eight gold coins found atYarmouth 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?
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 samian ware 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 the only settlement in the West Wight with surviving Anglo-Saxon architecture in its church. It is listed along with Calbourne and Shalfleet as one of the settlements with Anglo-Saxon origins in the Domesday Book, compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086. Freshwater may have been an important Anglo-Saxon settlement but there is currently no archaeological evidence for this.
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.
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.
Newtown is now just a handful of cottages. The rich and busyport 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. Built in 1699, the town hall is owned and managed by The National Trust. Today, Newtown and its creek is a nature reserve that attracts bird-watchers, walkers, canoeists and paddle-boarders (SUPers).
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 and 1895 as coastal defences against another threat of invasion from 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 visitors by the National Trust in 1982. There are spectacular views of the Solent, Dorset and Hampshire from the ramparts.
West Wight Churches
Many churches in West Wight date from the 11th, 12th or 13th centuries. 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.
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 but in 1959 Freshwater and Totland parish councils purchased the building. Renamed the Memorial Hall, it opened to the public in 1961.