The Isle of Wight was formed at the end of the last Ice Age, about eight to nine thousand years ago. Sea levels rose and then a huge tsunami from present-day Norway flooded the future English Channel, cutting the future Isle of Wight off from the island of Britain and mainland Europe.
The island is popularly known as Dinosaur Isle. It is one of Europe’s richest sites for dinosaur remains — twenty breeds can be found dating from 125 million years ago. There are organised fossil-hunting trips on the cliffs and beaches. Popular interest led to the island hosting Britain’s first dinosaur museum.
Other museums include one for shipwrecks and smugglers, another for dwellings and artefacts dating back to the Bronze Age, the Stone Age and Roman period, and a third celebrating steam engines from the 19th century. Most of the railway network actually closed in the mid-20th century. However, the island now has the smallest train operating company in Britain, with electric trains from the London Underground running on its fourteen-kilometre circuit. The old railway lines are now a series of cycleways, whose 322 kilometres have won the isle a place in the top ten in the Lonely Planet guide’s list of top cycling locations.
Royal Glory Days
The steam engines date back, in fact, to the island’s glory days, with their connection to royalty. The former royal residence, Osborne House, was built between 1845 and 1851 as a holiday home for Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The presence of the British Royals led European royal families and famous Britons to visit or settle on the island, including Lewis Carroll, John Keats and Charles Dickens (who wrote part of David Copperfield there.)
Boom in Tourism
Queen Victoria’s holiday home produced a boom in tourism on an island previously known for farming, fishing and boat building. This boom produced another boom in urban development, especially in resort towns such as Ventnor, Sandown and Ryde. The ultimate Victorian seaside destination led in time to tourism becoming the island’s main source of revenue. Around two million people now visit annually for sailing, wildlife and geology, walking, cycling and beach holidays.
Tourism is also directly connected to the island’s maritime traditions. Every August, the islanders hold a world-famous international sailing regatta. Cowes Week makes a major contribution to the economy, attracting a hundred thousand visitors every year. The Isle of Wight has a long industrial history associated with the sea, including boat building, sail making and the manufacture of flying boats. The island was also the birthplace of the world’s first hovercraft in the 1950s. At the other extreme, it was also the location for the testing and development of Britain’s space rockets during the Cold War.
Rock Music Festival
The isle’s history has a strong connection to sound, too. The world’s first radio station was set up there by Marconi in 1897, and the island is now the home of the National Wireless Museum. More than seventy years later, the sound was a little less sedate, as rock music reverberated around the island from one of the largest rock festivals the world has ever seen. The Isle of Wight Festival, in 1970, sold fifty thousand tickets, but an incredible six hundred thousand attended the concert, host to acts such as Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Leonard Cohen and The Who. The population of the island then was only one hundred thousand! The festival was revived in 2002 and is now an annual event, attracting established acts such as George Ezra, Robbie Williams and Sophie Ellis Bextor.
An Island Alone
The Isle of Wight is known colloquially as The Island by its residents. In the last few decades there has been an emotional debate about whether a bridge or a tunnel should connect the isle with mainland England. Most islanders, deeply proud of their local lifestyle and traditions, are completely uninterested in the idea. The Royal Island wants to go it alone.