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HERITAGE

There is a rich tapestry of history, waiting to be unravelled on the Island. From dinosaurs to invading Frenchmen and royal prisoners, the Isle of Wight has it all! It was about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, when the sea level rose, that the Island separated from mainland England.

Since that time the Island has had a varied history with fluctuating fortunes, shaped almost exclusively by its location within the Solent. This section takes a look at a potted history of the Island, providing the information you need to be ready to go and explore the heritage of the Island for yourself.

Prehistoric Island : Picture yourself on the Isle of Wight 120 million years ago. It was very different then. For a start you would not be on an Island, you would be in the middle of a large floodplain and swamp-type area that covered southern England. The Island has always had nice weather, but now it hot all year round and dry in the summer, wet in the winter. Standing on the flat you would see rivers winding along the vast floodplain, with lakes dotted across the land.   By the side of these rivers one might spot a plant-eating Iguanodon , or perhaps even the newly discovered Neovenator , hunting for prey. Aquatic life at this time included crocodiles, fish and turtles. Numerous shark teeth have been found around the Island, because sea levels had begun to rise and the fertile floodplains, home to the dinosaurs, was now underwater. The sandstone cliffs at Blackgang are a window into the sea-life of 110 million years ago. Check out the plant fossils at Hanover Point, Brook, which can only be seen at low tide. Known as the Fossil Forest (bit in fact they are felled trees that were washed down and jammed in a prehistoric river), it is giant petrified conifers and rare pineapple shaped cyads!

The Isle of Wight is one of the best sites in Europe for fossils, and many new species have been discovered here on the Island, including the Eotyrannus an ancestor of Tyrannosaurus ! Walk along Bouldnor beach and look in the shingle there is a chance of finding fossilised remains from millions of years ago. Perhaps look in the cliffs at Compton or any other beach on the southwest coastline whilst you stroll along the beach. Storms and landslides are known to reveal dinosaur remains, previously unseen. Go on! Have a look - who knows what you might find!

Stone & Bronze Ages : There is little evidence on the Island of Stone Age settlement. The earliest traces of human activity are from the New Stone Age, where man farmed peacefully and cleared forests. No proof of New Stone Age dwellings has been found, but pottery from this age has been discovered below Bronze Age sites. Around 1,900BC the Island was populated by a wandering group of people from Europe known as the Beaker people who left behind tell-tale signs of occupancy in the form of pottery drinking beakers. They moved on after a few hundred years, possibly due to increased hostility from Celtic tribes. The Beaker people did leave a mark on the Island by naming it 'Wiht', which meant raised or what rises out of the sea. This is one of the possible names that gave us the 'Wight' of today. There are many artefacts excavated from the Island on display in the British Museum. The barrows are shown on Ordnance Survey maps as Tumuli.

Roman : The year is 43AD and the Isle of Wight is inhabited by a mixed bag of descendents of the Beaker people, Celts and Belgae. It is a fairly peaceful life, based mainly around agriculture. When the II legion of the army of Emperor Claudius landed, it is thought there was little resistance. Indeed the man charged with commanding the II legion was Vespasian, who went on to become Emperor himself in 69AD. The Roman writer Suetonius said that Vespasian 'reduced to subjection ... the island of Vectis very near to Britannia'. This perhaps suggests the Island was, in fact, taken by force, although there is no archaeological proof to strengthen this claim. To Suetonius and the Romans, the Island was known as Vectis, which was a direct translation from the Beaker peoples' 'Wiht' to the Latin equivalent 'Veho', meaning lifting and thus into Vectis, a name which is still referred to today. Roman rule was peaceful; there is no evidence of struggles between the two people. Indeed they shared a love, or realised the importance, of agriculture. Although a possible Roman fort underlies the fortifications at Carisbrooke, no Roman town or road has been identified.

Dark Ages : The departure of the Romans, led to what many have called the Dark Ages, where society seemingly regressed. However, it does lead to an interesting time that shaped the Isle of Wight and mainland Britain. This was a time of invasion, infighting and in the case of the Island, paganism. The Chronicle of AD530 tells us that Cerdic and Cynric, Saxon chieftains, brought the Island under the Kingdom of Wessex. In the process they 'slew many men at Wihtgarabyrig', which is probably the site of Carisbrooke castle, although there is no archaeological proof of this. Just four years later there was fresh bloodshed when the Island was given to Cerdic's nephews, Stuf and Wihtgar. Wihtgar is another word that the modern day Wight may have derived from. There was a period of Saxon rule from about the 6 th century until late in the 7th century. The 8th century writer Bede, records the rule of the Island as belonging to the Jutes. From then until the Norman Conquest the Island and mainland Britain was subject to terrifying attacks from the Vikings of Scandinavia.

Medieval Period : The summer of 1066 was a tense one for those on the south coast of England. A Norman invasion was expected from across the channel. Most people, including King Harold I, thought this would arrive through the Isle of Wight and the Solent and so he made his camp on the Island. The Norman invasion produced a period of relative stability for England as a whole. However, the Island is slightly different from mainland England, and Carisbrooke Castle experienced its first siege and only capture in battle during the turbulent rule of Stephen I. The 14th century was a chaotic one for the Island. It passed from hereditary Norman lords to the Crown, at a time when relations with France were souring rapidly. Throughout the century there were sea battles and raids on the Island and the south coast. In 1377 the Island experienced its worst attacks, which were eventually repelled. During all this the Island was experiencing an agricultural boom, with corn and woollen cloth being exported, as were carp and rabbits! Due to the threat of invasion, the roads on the Island were improved, with the stately sum of £89 being spent on road building in 1295!

Throughout the 14 th century the French raided the Isle of Wight in response to English interest in French soil. The main French attacks of this period occurred in August and September 1377. Landings of men and horses were made on the north coast of the Island and spread out into the heart of the Island, razing Yarmouth, Newtown (then known as Francheville) and Newport, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The inhabitants of the Island fled to Carisbrooke Castle and the protection of the garrisons' commander Hugh Tyrrel. The French laid siege to the castle for a month, but the turning point came when a local archer, Peter de Heynoe, shot and killed the French commander. Local legend has it that de Heynoe's cross-bow was made of silver! On the western wall of the castle you can still see the loophole window from which the fatal shot was made, and it has been known as 'de Heynoe's Loope'. This set back for the French, coupled with the Islanders offer of a 1,000 marks, persuaded them to leave the Island. There was a small French raiding party the following year, but the damage was much less. Raids with over 1,000 troops occurred twice in the early 15 th century, but they were repelled by local militiamen.

Tudors & Stuarts : The last raid on the Island came in 1545, when a French fleet of over 200 vessels dropped off 2,000 soldiers on the Island. Incidentally, it was this fleet that combined with heavy winds and poor design, which resulted in the sinking of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's great flagship. The soldiers landed at Seaview, Bembridge and Bonchurch, and at all three locations skirmishes took place. The Tudor period saw a number of coastal defences being built along the Island's north coast, with Yarmouth castle being a prime example. It was during this period that Newtown was rebuilt in a Tudor style, after its medieval ransacking. The Island was identified as a target for the Spanish Armada to invade and use as a base for a mainland invasion. Moving into the Stuart era, the history becomes less volatile. With no threat of an invasion, the English Civil war raged. Even this conflict practically passed the Island, but with a notable exception. King Charles was famously imprisoned at Carisbrooke castle, and was responsible for the introduction of the bowling greens there. Overall this was a reasonably quiet period of time for the Island, with improved security resulting in increasing prosperity.

Shipwrecks, the Sea & Smuggling : From the end of the English Civil War onwards the Island's history has been shaped by importance of the Solent. The period saw a rise in international trade and the increasing prominence of the Royal Navy. The unprotected southern coast of the Island, directly exposed to the strong Atlantic south-westerlies, with its steep cliffs and rocky foreshores, resulted in treacherous sailing conditions. St Catherine's and Chale Bay have the highest number of recorded wrecks on the Island - fourteen in one night in 1757. Between 1830 and 1900 more than 270 ships were wrecked along the coast, mostly sailing vessels unable to cope with the conditions. In response to this, particularly the loss of lives from the Claredon in 1836, there was increased awareness and protective measures, with the first lifeboats were introduced in 1860, at Brook and Grange Chine.This wasn't the only shipping problem on the waters around the Island. Because of the remoteness of its southern coast and its general proximity to the mainland the Island has long been associated with smuggling. It was the 18th century that saw the heyday of smuggling, particularly in tobacco and spirits, in response to high Excise Duties and low wages.

The lifeboat service has a long and proud history on the Isle of Wight. Prior to the first lifeboat stations on the Island in 1860, the coastguard increasingly found themselves saving lives. It was loss of life in 1859 that encouraged two local clergymen to write to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) to ask for lifeboat stations at Brook and Grange Chine. The result was the Rescue and Dauntless , with a third boat, the Catherine Swift , in 1891. It is a testament to the bravery and sacrifice of the local men who served on the lifeboats that crews from Brook, Brighstone and Atherfield have saved nearly a thousand lives between them. Records of their feats can be found in many of the local churches, particularly Brighstone. Before the introduction of motorised boats the lifeboats were oar-powered, which made launching difficult, especially in the dark with a storm blowing. The launching of the boats was an impressive affair, with up to 60 helpers assisting the 10 oarsmen and the 8 heavy horses who pulled the boat. A maroon would be fired to gather everyone, who would then haul the boat to the beach where the coxswain would wait for a suitable moment to launch from the carriage into the unruly depths of a tumultuous sea. It required immense strength and character of the crew to stay out for a night, maybe making several trips to save lives, whilst endangering theirs.

The Victorians : The Victorian era saw the Isle of Wight develop from a mainly agricultural exporter in a strategic position, into a fashionable, chic destination for royalty, many of Britain's richest people and finest artists. This economic and social turnaround was due to the royal patronage implied when the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made Osborn House one of their favourite retreats in 1848. The technological advances made in this period made the Island more accessible than ever before. The early 19th century saw the introduction of regular steamboat services to the Island, arriving at Cowes, Ryde and Yarmouth, as they do today. The development of the railway opened up the Island from the ferry ports making the Island a viable holiday destination to compete with the often war-torn mainland Europe. Yachting was also extremely popular at this time, with races at Cowes and Ryde attracting massive crowds and visitors from the world over. The modern day botanic gardens at Ventnor are in the grounds of a former hospital for tuberculosis (a common problem in the time), which the Island's temperate climate and nearness to the sea was thought to help alleviate the symptoms.

20th Century : The Isle of Wight spent the early years of the 20th century basking in the glory of its Victorian heyday. Indeed the century started with a royal death, with Queen Victoria passing away at her country retreat, Osborn House, in 1901. The Isle of Wight continued its fine yachting and boatbuilding traditions, with Uffa Fox perhaps the iconic sailing figure of this age. The Island played an important strategic role in both World Wars, in the First as a place where famous names such as A A Milne and Robert Graves recuperated in the tranquil surroundings of Osborn House. During the Second World War the Island was an important resource for the Allied invasion of France, with fuel being pumped from Sandown to Normandy in the Pipe Line Under The Ocean (PLUTO). Barnes Wallis, the man behind the 'bouncing bomb' was an apprentice at J Samuel White. Throughout the century the Island has been renowned as an archetypal 'bucket and spade' holiday resort, but the largest influx of people for a single event was the world famous 1970 pop festival at Afton Down, which saw some of the finest acts of the generation, including Jimi Hendrix, perform to over half a million people.

 


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