Isle of Wight
Carefree short breaks & holidays
Known as the Garden Isle, this jewel of England indeed resembles a diamond in shape - being some 23 miles west to east, from The Needles to Bembridge, and 13 miles north to south, from Cowes to St. Catherine's Point. This, the second smallest, and perhaps the most geographically diverse, of England's counties covers just 147 square miles and is bounded by about 60 miles of coastline. Within this watery border of the Solent to the north and the English Channel to the south lies 'an England in miniature'.
The natural processes of deposition, folding, and erosion during the last 120 million years have resulted in the rich variety of the Island's surface geology. The clay soils in the north and mainly sandy loams in the south are bisected by a chalk spine running west to east across the entire Island, starting at the Needles and ending at Culver cliffs, and reaching 240 metres (787 feet) above sea level at its highest point on St. Boniface Down. The resulting and kaleidoscopic contrasts in the Island's scenery encompass open downland, beech woods, conifer forests, grazing land, wide sandy beaches, sheer chalk cliffs, rocky coves, creeks and estuaries.
The resident population of about 140,000 is concentrated in the main towns of the Island, all of which are coastal except for Newport, the county town at the literal centre of the Island. As a contrasting locality, the Island offers unrivalled opportunities for geographical study.
The Isle of Wight, being relatively small and populous, generates a considerable number of environmental issues, chiefly relating to the competition for resources. The essentially tranquil and rural nature of the Island is threatened by the needs of economic health manifested in both commercial and residential development. The driving force of wealth-generating tourism in particular can often be at odds with the need for the conservation and protection of wildlife habitats, areas of Special Scientific Interest, designated areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and land managed by the National Trust. Marine pollution is another 'muddy' issue, as is the old and often argued question of a bridge spanning the Solent. Such issues characterise the Isle of Wight as it acknowledges, and tries to reconcile, the needs of both its resident population and seasonal guests.
Freshwater causeway © IW Tourism
There are three rivers on the Island, all flowing from south to north. In the centre, and almost dividing the Island in two, the Medina rises at its source on St. Catherine's Down. From here it flows north, to be joined by one of its tributaries, the Merstone stream at Blackwater, before continuing its lazy meandering until it reaches Newport Quay, where it becomes tidal. As it continues on its journey northwards, both banks are lined with marine-related industries and businesses, both service and manufacturing, while the river itself bustles with water-borne traffic of working and pleasure craft. The river reaches the Solent at its mouth where the twin towns of Cowes are sited on either side. The estuary is about 17km from the source of the Medina.
The Island's longest river, at 27km is the Eastern Yar, which also has its source on the southern chalk outcrop of St Catherine's Down. From here it flows north-east, through the small town of Wroxall, before slicing through the Island's central chalk ridge at Brading, and then on to meet the Solent at Bembridge harbour - the mouth of the Eastern Yar estuary.
The third, and shortest river, at only 3km, is the Western Yar, which has its source in the salt marshes only a few hundred metres inland from Freshwater Bay - almost making the West Wight an Island in its own right. From here it flows north to its mouth at the busy harbour town of Yarmouth. Like its sister river in the east, the course and estuary of the Western Yar boasts reed beds, an abundance of wildlife, an old railway causeway, and outstanding scenery.
The Island displays an enormous variety of settlement types, characterised by the main strands of the local economy - namely tourism, farming, and light industry - as well as a significant proportion of the population being retired This has resulted in a mixture of historic and modern developments, ranging from small harbour towns to busy ports, seaside resorts to market towns, and secluded rural villages to modern residential estates.
Your visit to the Island will introduce you to both familiar and different transport systems. The motorway or train on the mainland will be followed by the ferry - the first experience for many children of a 'real' ship and the sea. However, there are a variety of cross-Solent forms of transport, aside from the ferries which run between Lymington and Yarmouth, Southampton and Cowes, and Portsmouth and Fishbourne. These include hovercraft (Southsea to Ryde), passenger catamaran (Portsmouth to Ryde), and hydrofoil (Southampton to Cowes).
On the Island, a modern electric railway operates between Ryde Pier and Shanklin, using former London Underground stock. There is also the chance to travel back in time on the Island's steam railway, based at Havenstreet, and connecting with the modern line at Smallbrook Junction.
By way of further contrast, there is a crossing of the River Medina between East and West Cowes via one of the country's few remaining 'floating bridges', a chain ferry which painstakingly heaves itself to and fro.
There are over 500 miles of roads on the Island, and almost as many miles of well-sign-posted footpaths and bridleways made up of more than 1400 separate public rights of way, offering ready access to both coast and countryside.
Surrounded by water, the Isle of Wight can be said to have a climate of its own. With relatively mild winters, an average annual rainfall of 760mm (31.74 inches), and high light intensity, the local climate borders on subtropical and allows many Mediterranean type plants and trees (even vineyards) to flourish in the open air. The South Wight is particularly blessed in this respect, and Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor (the main seaside resorts on the Island's southeast coast) regularly top the British league for recorded hours of sunshine.