The Isle of Wight has adopted a motto which declares: ‘All this beauty is of God’. It echoes the poet John Keats ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’, the first line of his poem Endymion which he wrote while staying on the island in the hope that its crisp country air would improve his health.
Other distinguished visitors have described Wight as ‘The Garden Isle’, and ‘England’s Madeira’ and about half of its 147 square miles have been designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But it was quite late in the day before the island became popular as a resort. This was partly because for centuries, right up until the 1600s, the island was a first port of call for pestiferous French raiders who made the islanders’ lives a misery with their constant incursions. These attacks ceased following the Napoleonic wars but the turning point came in the 1840s when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought an estate near East Cowes. They demolished the existing house and Albert designed and built an Italianate mansion he named Osborne House. A few years later, the Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, bought Farringford on the eastern side of the island. Socially, the Isle of Wight had arrived. Tourists flock here in their thousands, and at peak times there are some 350 ferry crossings every day.
Most of the island’s 140,000 residents live in the northeast quadrant of the island, with its main resort towns of Sandown and Shanklin strung along the east coast. The rest of the island is wonderfully peaceful with a quiet, unassertive charm all of its own. There are many miles of footpaths, bridleways and cycle paths, making it easy to explore – and more than 60 miles of coastline.
Popular annual island events include the Isle of Wight Festival, a huge music festival held in early June and attracting around 60,000 people and the Isle of Wight Walking Festival, which takes place during two weeks in May. For those keener on two wheels, the Isle of Wight Cycling Festival takes place during a week in mid–late September.
Set around the River Medina, Newport has a history going back to Roman times. In Cypress Road, excavations in 1926 uncovered the well-preserved remains of a Roman Villa, a 3rd century farmhouse in which one side of the building was given over entirely to baths. Visitors can follow the bather’s progress – from April to October – through changing room, cold room, warm and hot rooms with underfloor heating systems, and integral cold and hot plunge baths. A Roman style garden has been re-created in the grounds and provides an interesting insight into the wealth of new plants the Romans introduced into Britain.
Newport received its first charter back in 1190 but the growth of the small town received a severe setback in 1377 when it was completely burnt to the ground by the French. Recovery was slow and it wasn’t until the 17th century that Newport really prospered again. Indirectly, the new prosperity was also due to the French since the island was heavily garrisoned during the Anglo-French wars of that period. Supplying the troops with provisions and goods brought great wealth to the town.
Some striking buildings have survived, amongst them God’s Providence House, built in 1701 and now a tea room; John Nash’s elegant Guildhall of 1816 which is now occupied by the Museum of Island History with plenty of hands-on and interactive displays; a charming Tudor Old Grammar School, and the parish Church of St Thomas whose foundation stone was laid in 1854 by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. The church contains the tomb of the tragic Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I, who died of a fever at the age of 14 while a prisoner at nearby Carisbrooke Castle.