West Wight local history

The name Freshwater in West Wight comes from the spring in Witches’ Copse.

Freshwater Gate (now Bay) is the opening to the Channel where merchant ships and navy vessels called in to fill their barrels for the voyage ahead.

Needles Old Battery

Photo: Albany Associates

In the 19th century eminent Victorians came to visit Tennyson at Farringford; Prince Edward stayed at a number of holiday villas with Lillie Langtry; and the government built forts and gun batteries to protect Britain from invasion from France.

The West Wight military installations also served in the 20th century. The Needles Battery hosts living history re-enactments and on the headland to the south you can see the remains of a top-secret rocket-testing station. This is all within easy walking distance over the downs from the bothy at Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight.


12 thoughts on “West Wight local history

  1. Freshwater Gate, the creek opening to the sea, lives on as Gate Lane. Apart from walking across the narrow embankment in the south, the other way to reach the Isle of Freshwater, as it was known, was a ferry across the mouth of the river Yar just below Norton.
    The first bridge, the causeway at Old Freshwater, led to Afton Manor. Black Bridge, across the stream in the shadows of the trees in the middle of the marshland, came next. The bridges at Yarmouth and Afton Road, near the End of the Line café, are relatively recent.

  2. Freshwater’s remoteness changed dramatically in the middle of the 19th century.
    The War Office financed the Military Road along the Back of the Wight together with various military installations: Fort Redoubt above Freshwater Bay; gun batteries at Alum Bay, above the Needles rocks and on Hatherwood Point; Cliff End Battery, Fort Albert and Fort Victoria between Colwell and Norton; and the six-sided Golden Hill Fort with its military hospital and officers’ quarters above Norton Green.

  3. The thatched-roof church of St Agnes, opposite Freshwater Bay’s post office, half way between the beach and Tennyson’s home at Farringford, is one of only eight in the British Isles. It was built in 1908 using stones from an old farm house, the birthplace of scientist Robert Hooke in Old Freshwater. One of the stones is dated 1694.

  4. There is a Stone Age long barrow on Tennyson Down. The Beaker People arrived in, the Bronze Age. They made distinctive pottery and called the island Wiht, meaning raised. There are three Bronze Age burial mounds on Headon Warren, between Alum Bay and Totland Bay. Then the Celts used the name Ynys yr Gwyth, the channel island, so by coincidence the corrupted word Wechts was established.
    The Romans, who had a similar word veho for lifting, Latinised the local name and called the two islands, Wight and Freshwater, Vectis. The Saxons called the island Whitland.

  5. There are 20 colours of rock in the cliff at Alum Bay, The shades include grey, black, ochre, yellow and red. They range in age from 35 million to 65 million years old.
    The railway company’s pier, built to bring visitors by paddle steamer from Lymington Quay, was unsafe by 1925. It closed and soon suffered severe storm damage. The beach, pier and cliffs saw extensive target practice in world war two.
    Guglielmo Marconi sent his first wireless telegraph transmissions out to ships in the bay from the cliff top at Alum Bay in 1897. His experiments brought scientists from all over the world to West Wight

  6. The much-photographed Arch Rock collapsed in 1992 leaving Stag Rock and 1969’s newcomer Mermaid Rock. This used to support the roof at the entrance to Freshwater Caves. Stag Rock recalls the deer that jumped from the top of the cliffs to escape a hunter’s hounds.
    Nearby to the west, below High Down Cliffs, three caves were used by Lord Holmes, grandson of 17th-century Island governor Sir Robert Holmes, to entertain guests in his cellar, kitchen and parlour.
    The 1970 Isle of Wight Rock Festival took place near Freshwater Bay. There is a statue of Jimi Hendrix in the garden at Dimbola on the corner of Gate Lane and Terrace Lane.

  7. Robert Hooke – inventor, astronomer, anatomist, architect, surveyor, draughtsman, scientist and designer of technical instruments – was born in Freshwater in 1635.
    He worked with Robert Boyle playing a crucial part in 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.
    Hooke Hill, where Robert Hooke was born in a farmhouse, leads down from Church Place, Old Freshwater, to Afton Road.

  8. The Needles Old Battery is perched precariously on the headland above the chalk stacks. It is owned by the National Trust.
    The fort was built in 1862 to keep an eye out for Napoleon III’s threatened invasion from France. The headland also saw active service in both world wars. The buildings are closed in winter, but West High Down is open to walkers.
    Nearby the New Battery was home to top-secret missile testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Britain’s efficient and successful space programme, with a launch site at Woomera in Australia, tested rockets on West High Down above the Needles. All 26 rockets in the programme were built on the Isle of Wight and tested on the cliff tops of West Wight.

  9. The subject of Island railways was first raised in about 1845. Objectors claimed that it would ruin the Island for walkers, rather than help them move from place to place to do more walking. The Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway Company was eventually formed in 1880. The original locomotive Freshwater brought in the first goods train.
    On Bank Holidays there were cheap excursion fares bringing residents of Wight across the Yar to the beaches of West Wight. Cheap tickets in the opposite direction offered An Evening by the Sea. This is despite our own glorious sunsets across the Solent at Alum, Totland and Colwell bays! The Island’s great east-west divide is nothing new. They really do see us the Wild West… where we send the missionaries!

  10. The railways, with plans for a connecting route from Totland and Freshwater Bay to Newport, also brought talk of a tunnel from England, a foreign country across the water. The route would have met the Island somewhere between Fort Victoria and Fort Albert and surfaced between Norton and Golden Hill.
    The railway network drove the local economy in the 1860s. For local people, the railway took livestock and milk via Calbourne and Carisbrooke to the market in Newport.
    There were grand plans for a circular route past the beaches of Colwell and Totland and then across the middle of Freshwater to the causeway, and a branch through Afton Marsh to the south coast. The War Office supported the Solent tunnel and a route along the Military Road to Ventnor. When it came, the railway followed the river Yar’s east bank and then crossed Afton Marsh ending in the middle of nowhere at the bottom of Hooke Hill.

  11. The Isle of Wight protects North Island’s harbours at Southampton and Portsmouth from natural sea storms. West Wight also provides the prime position for observing the western approach to the Solent and defending these major ports from enemy craft in wartime. Totland is a natural lookout or ‘tout’ point.
    The 19th-century fortresses, authorised by prime minister Lord Palmerston when Britain once again feared invasion from France, still stand on the land above, and in the waters of, the Solent and the Channel. The Military Road along Wight’s south coast eastwards from Freshwater Bay was completed at this time. Fort Victoria, on the north coast, was still an active military base in the first and second world wars.

  12. …which leads me to action that took place in the skies over Freshwater in 1940.
    On the 28 November, Battle of Britain ace Flight Lieutenant John Dundas in a Spitfire of the RAF’s 609 Squadron shot down German air ace Major Helmut Wick. In a further air battle above the Needles, F/Lt Dundas was himself shot down and killed by Leutnant Pflanz, the major’s crewman, who also lost his life. As usual, the Messerschmidt 109s flew “out of the sun”. There is a small memorial to F/Lt Dundas on Freshwater Cliffs.

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