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Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight's Location within England
Isle of Wight's Location within England
Isle of Wight's Coat of Arms
Isle of Wight's Coat of Arms

Isle of Wight's Flag
Isle of Wight's Flag

The Isle of Wight is an English island, south of Southampton off the southern English coast. It is part of the UK.

Popularized from Victorian times as a holiday resort, it is known for its natural beauty and as home to the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, a town that hosts a world famous annual regatta. Colloquially, it is known as "The Island" by its residents. It possesses a rich history including its own brief status as a vassal kingdom in the fifteenth century, home to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria's much loved summer residence and final home Osborne House. Its maritime history encompasses boat building and sail making through to the manufacture of flying boats and the world's first hovercraft. It is home to the Isle of Wight Festival which in 1970 was one of the largest rock music events ever held with estimates reaching 600,000 attendees, overtaking the record set at Woodstock a year earlier. The island is also one of the richest fossil locations for dinosaurs in Europe. In 686AD, it became the last part of Great Britain to convert to Christianity - almost a century after the mainland.

Until the revival of Rutland in 1997 it was the smallest county in England but it remains, with just one Member of Parliament and 132,731 permanent residents in the 2001 census, the most populated Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom.

Status Ceremonial & Non-metropolitan/Unitary county
Region South East England
- Total
- District
Ranked 46th
380 km²
Ranked 122nd
Admin HQ Newport
ISO 3166-2 GB-IOW
ONS code 00MW
- Total (2004 est.)
- Density
- District
Ranked 46th
364 / km²
Ranked 125th
Ethnicity 98.7% White
Executive Conservative
Members of Parliament Andrew Turner


Geography & Wildlife

The famous view at The Needles and Alum Bay.The Isle of Wight is approximately diamond in shape and covers an area of 147 square miles (381 square km). Nearly half this area, mainly in the west of the Island, 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". The 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, at 241m/791ft, which is also a Marilyn.

The rest of the Island 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 on 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. Where distinguishing the two becomes necessary, each may be referred to as the eastern or western Yar. The south coast of the island adjoins the English Channel.

Isle of Wight and the SolentIsland wildlife is remarkable, thought to be the only place in England where the red squirrel is flourishing, with a stable population. Unlike the rest of England, no grey squirrels are to be found on the Island, nor are there any wild deer, but instead rare and protected species such as the dormouse, and many rare bats can be found. The Glanville Fritillary butterfly, in the United Kingdom is largely restricted to the edges of the crumbling cliffs of the Isle of Wight.

By far the main form of access is by boat from the mainland, regular ferry services being available from Lymington to Yarmouth, Southampton to East Cowes, and Portsmouth to Fishbourne. Foot passengers may also use the hovercraft service between Southsea and Ryde esplanade or two hi-speed catamaran services; from West Cowes to Southampton or Portsmouth Harbour Station to Ryde pier head. The latter provides a direct link between the rail systems of the Island and Mainland. The island is also served by airports for light aircraft at Bembridge and Sandown.

The island is the home of the smallest Train Operating Company in Britain's National Rail network, the Island Line, running some 8½ miles from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin down the eastern side of the island. The island also has a steam operated heritage railway, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, which connects with the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction.

History of the Isle of Wight

Memorial to Charles I at Carisbrooke CastleMuch of the land now making up the Isle of Wight was deposited during the late Cretaceous, at times part of a large river valley complex which consisted of much of the current southern coast of England. The swamps and ponds of the region at that time made the island excellent for the preservation of fossils, and means that it is now one of the richest locations for finding dinosaurs in Europe.

The Isle of Wight became an island sometime after the end of the last Ice Age when post-glacial rebound caused the land level to sink, the Solent flooding and separating the island from the mainland. The island was part of Celtic Britain and known to the Romans as Vectis, captured by Vespasian in the Roman invasion. After the Roman era the Isle of Wight was settled by the Jutes, a Germanic tribe, in the early stages of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The latter's corruption of Vectis into Wiht (the Latin v was pronounced [w]) is the root of the island's name.

The Norman Conquest created the position of Lord of the Isle of Wight. 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 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 crowned King of the Isle of Wight, King Henry VI assisting in person at the ceremony, placing the crown on his head. He died in 1445, aged 22. With no male heir, his regal title expired with him.

Henry VIII, who developed the Royal Navy and its permanent base at Portsmouth, fortified the island at Yarmouth, East & West Cowes and Sandown, sometimes re-using stone from dissolved monasteries as building material. Sir Richard Worsley, Captain of the Island at this time, successfully commanded the resistance to the last of the French attacks in 1545. Much later on after the Spanish Armada in 1588 the threat of Spanish attacks remained, and the outer fortifications of Carisbrooke Castle were built between 1597 and 1602. 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 incarcerated the king in Carisbrooke Castle.

Osborne House and its magnificent grounds are now open to the publicQueen Victoria made Osborne House on the Isle of Wight her summer home for many years, and as a result it become a major holiday resort for members of European royalty, whose many houses could later claim descent from her through the widely flung marriages of her offspring. During her reign in 1897 the World's first radio station was set up by Marconi at the Needles battery at the western tip of the Island.

In 1904 a mysterious illness began to kill honeybee colonies on the island, and had nearly wiped out all hives by 1907 when the disease jumped to the mainland, and decimated beekeeping in the British Isles. Called the Isle of Wight Disease, the cause of the mystery ailment was not identified until 1921 when it was traced to the mite Acarapis woodi. The disease (now called Acarine Disease) frightened many other nations because of the importance of bees in pollination of many food plants. Laws against importation of honeybees were passed, but this merely delayed the eventual spread of the parasite to the rest of the world.

The Isle of Wight Festival could describe several events, but usually the term refers to one 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 for being the last public performance by Jimi Hendrix before his death and the number of attendees reaching, by many estimates 600,000 despite only 50,000 tickets being sold and overtaking the attendance at Woodstock in the previous year. The festival was revived in 2002 and is now an annual event - with other, smaller musical events of many different genres across the Island becoming associated with it.


The Isle of Wight is a Ceremonial and Administrative county and as it has no district councils (only the county council) it is effectively a Unitary county, though not officially. It is unique in England in this way - all other Unitary areas are single districts with no county council, while the Isle of Wight is the other way round. It also has a single Member of Parliament, and is by far the most populous constituency in the UK (more than 50% above the average of English constituencies).

As a constituency of the House of Commons it is traditionally a battleground between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The current MP, Andrew Turner is a Conservative, and his predecessor Dr Peter Brand was a Liberal Democrat.

The Isle of Wight Council election of 2005 was a landslide victory for the Conservative party, displacing the long serving "Island First" group; a coalition of Liberal Democrats and independents.

Language and dialect

The distinctive Isle of Wight accent is a somewhat stronger version of the traditional Hampshire dialect, featuring the dropping of some consonants and an emphasis on longer vowels. This is similar to the West Country drawl heard in south-western England, but less removed in sound from the Estuary English of the South East. The spread of the latter in general, together with continuing immigration, means the broader accent is more prevalent in the older population.

The island also has its own lexical style. Some words like grockel (visitor) and nipper/nips (addressing a younger person) are commonly used and are shared with neighbouring regions. Others are unique, for example mallishag (meaning caterpillar) and nammit (meaning food), although neither of these examples are now in common usage.

Industry and agriculture

The largest industry on the Isle of Wight is tourism, but the Island has a strong agricultural heritage, including sheep, dairy farming and arable crops. Traditional agricultural commodities are more difficult to market off the Island because of transport costs, but Island farmers have managed to successfully exploit some specialist markets. The high price of these products overcomes the transport costs. One of the most successful agricultural sectors at present is crops grown undercover, particularly salad crops including tomatoes and cucumbers. The Isle of Wight has a longer growing season than much of Britain, and this also favours such crops. Garlic has been successfully grown in Newchurch for many years, and is even exported to France. This has led to the establishment of an annual Garlic Festival at Newchurch, which is one of the largest events of the Island's annual calendar. The favourable climate has led to the success of vineyards, including one of the oldest in the British Isles, at Adgestone near Sandown. Lavender is also grown for its oil.

The making of sailcloth, boats and other connected maritime industry has long been associated with the island, although somewhat diminished in recent years. Although they have reduced the extent of the plants and workforce, including the sale of the main site, GKN operate what was once the British Hovercraft Corporation a subsidiary of, and latterly when manufacturing focus changed known as, Westland Aircraft. Prior to its purchase by Westland, it was the independent Saunders-Roe. It remains one of the most notable historical firms; having produced many of the flying boats, and the world's first hovercraft. The island's major manufacturing activity today is in composite materials including a large manufacturer of wind turbine blades, Vesta's.

The Island (Bembridge) is the home of Britten-Norman, manufacturers of the world famous Islander and Trilander aircraft.

A major contribution to the local economy comes from the world-famous international sailing regatta, Cowes Week, which is held every August and attracts over a hundred thousand visitors to the island. Other major sailing events are held at Cowes, including the Admiral's Cup held biennially in July and the Commodores' Cup in August.

In 2005, Northern Petroleum began exploratory drilling for oil with its Sandhills-2 borehole at Porchfield, but ceased operations in October that year after failing to find significant reserves.

Tourism and heritage

Compton Chine, looking east towards BlackgangThe heritage of the Island is a major asset which has for many years kept its economy going. Holidays focussed on natural heritage, including both wildlife and geology, are becoming a growing alternative to the traditional seaside resort holiday. The latter has been in decline in the UK domestic market due to the increased affordability of air travel to alternative destinations.

Tourism is still the largest industry on the Island, As well as more traditional tourist attractions, the island is often host to walking 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 Britain and an annual walking festival has attracted considerable interest.

Transport and communications

There are three ferry companies which operate routes between the mainland and the Island:

Red Funnel - operates a car and passenger service between Southampton and East Cowes. A high speed passenger only services operates from "West" Cowes under the name of "Red Jet".
Wightlink - operates a car and passenger service between Portsmouth and Fishbourne (near Ryde), and between Lymington and Yarmouth. It also operates a passenger-only service between Portsmouth Harbour (train station) and Ryde Pier Head (train station) under the name "Fast Cat", so named because the boats used are catamarans.
Hovertravel - carries passengers between Southsea and Ryde aboard a hovercraft.
There are regular proposals for further routes, and during Cowes Week additional services have been known to operate - notably a fast catamaran service between West Cowes and Lymington.

A railway service operates from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin using ex London Underground rolling stock.

A sign used to greet visitors to the Island disembarking from the car ferry at Fishbourne, stating 'Island roads are different, please drive carefully'. It is a joke amongst local residents that the reason Island roads are different is due to a lack of maintenance by the council. Nevertheless the lighter traffic, quieter roads and slower speeds are noticeable to the visitor and are one of the reasons the Island has remained attractive to tourists from the busier mainland.

A majority of Island telephone exchanges are broadband enabled. In addition to the almost universal British Telecom coverage, some urban areas are covered by cable lines.

The Isle of Wight County Press is the major local newspaper, published weekly each Friday or the last working day before a public holiday falls on that day. There is also a local radio station, Isle of Wight Radio, broadcasting on 107 and 102 FM (also available over the internet), and a regional television station which broadcasts from the Island, Solent TV.

Ferry routes and main roads


The island geography close to the densely populated south of England led to it gaining three prisons: Albany, Camphill and Parkhurst located outside Newport on the main road to Cowes. Albany and Parkhurst were once among the few Category A prisons in the UK until they were downgraded in the 1990s. The downgrading of Parkhurst was precipitated by a major escape: three prisoners (known to be some of the most dangerous murderers in the prison system) made their way out of the prison on 3 January 1995 to enjoy four days of freedom before being recaptured. Parkhurst especially enjoyed notoriety as one of toughest jails in the British Isles and "hosted" many notable inmates, including the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and the Kray twins.

Camphill is located 1 mile (1.6Km) to the west of Albany and Parkhurst, on the very edge of Parkhurst Forest. Originally an army barracks with a small estate of tree-lined roads with well-proportioned officer's houses (with varying grandeur according to rank) to the South and East. Having been converted to a borstal and later a low category prison, it maintains its ties to the housing around it as although now most privately owned, clean water is still provided from the prison itself and residents pay only sewerage fees to the water authority (Southern Water). The estate is accessed by two, gated, private roads. These are closed for one day each year so as not to become a public right of way.



There are 69 LEA maintained schools on the Isle of Wight, and two private schools. As a rural community, many of these schools are small, with average numbers of pupils lower than in many urban areas.

School System

Unlike much of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Wight does not conform to the general pattern with pupils changing schools at 9 and 13 and uses a system once experimented with in a few other areas of the United Kingdom, but now retained by only a handful of other areas.

Part of the rationale behind the system was that the age of eleven is a period of dramatic physical and emotional change and also significantly different to the higher age groups in secondary education. Creation of a tier between earlier primary and later secondary education meant a different character of education suitable to the age group could be developed taking the child up to age thirteen when they were more ready for high school.

The system has been popular among parents and teachers, but since the introduction of the National Curriculum criticisms have arisen over the system because the curriculum is based on 'Key Stages' lasting either two or three years. it has been suggested that due to changing school at age 13, two years of 'Key Stage 3' are spent at a middle school, and one year in high school, thus resulting in a lack of continuity and problems for high schools whose intake will be from several middle schools.

Types of School

Primary Schools -- There are 46 primary schools on the island, taking pupils from age four plus to nine [the reception year to year 4]. 19 of these are Church of England or Catholic aided or controlled. All primaries have pre-school facilities.
Middle Schools -- There are 16 middle schools, taking pupils from age 9 to 13 [Years 5 to 8]. Of these, one is the local Catholic school, two are Church of England controlled and one is C of E voluntary aided. In some other areas of the UK still retaining a similar system the middle school ages are 8 to 12 [Years 4 to 7].
High Schools -- There are five high schools , taking pupils from age 13 to 18 (compulsory years 9 to 11 and (sixth form) years 12 and 13).
Carisbrooke (near Newport) - Sports Specialist
Cowes - Science Specialist
Medina - Performance Arts Specialist
Ryde - Languages Specialist
Sandown - Sports Specialist
There is no church high school.

The Isle of Wight College -- Like many counties the Isle of Wight has a college offering vocational course and a sixth form as well as link courses in tertiary and postgraduate education. This college in located on the outskirts of Newport.
Private Schools -- There are two private schools on the Island, Ryde School (which in the 1990's took over the independent schools Upper Chine and Bembridge School, adding its pupils to its register), and The Priory School, presently in Shanklin.

Standards & Reforms to the System

In 2004 the Isle of Wight council undertook a consultative process aimed at changing local education structure, to a two tier school system similar to that existing in the rest of the country. This move was opposed by a lobby, 'Standards not Tiers', based in Upper Ventnor and the Conservatives, who, after they won the local council elections in May 2005 shelved the proposals pending further investigation.

The Annual Performance Assessment of the Isle of Wight Council's Education and Children's Social Care Services 2005, carried out by Ofsted and the Commission for Social Care Inspection, found low levels of achievements for pupils in schools and a lack of significant and sustained progress over the last five years. Overall, the Isle of Wight Council’s capacity to improve its services for children and young people was judged to be 'adequate', out of the four ratings 'very good', 'promising', 'adequate' or 'inadequate'.

Selected places of interest

  • Alum Bay
  • Appuldurcombe House
  • Blackgang Chine
  • Carisbrooke Castle
  • Dinosaur Isle
  • Golden Hill Fort
  • Fort Victoria
  • Isle of Wight Steam Railway
  • Osborne House
  • The Needles
  • Yarmouth Castle
  • Quarr Abbey

Notable literary and musical references

  • The Beatles' "When I'm Sixty-Four", written by Paul McCartney, refers to a rented summer cottage on the Isle of Wight.
  • Called The Island in some editions of Thomas Hardy's novels in his fictional Wessex.
  • In a similar fashion the island, with fictionalized placenames, is the setting of Maxwell Gray's 1886 novel, The Silence of Dean Maitland.
  • The Isle of Wight is the setting of Julian Barnes's novel England, England.
  • The island also features heavily in John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids and Simon Clark's sequel to it, The Night of the Triffids.
  • Robert Rennick has written a series of detective thrillers set on the Island, including The Fallen
  • In radio series Nebulous, the Isle of Wight has been accidently disintegrated by Professor Nebulous while he was trying to move it slightly to the left.


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