The Isle of Wight is located at about the mid point of the south coast of England. It is a small island of 393 square km with a population of approximately 140,000, concentrated mostly in the two towns of Newport (north of dead centre) and Ryde (opposite Portsmouth). The community is largely rural; very different from the nearby coastal ports of Southampton and Portsmouth.
Landscapes, habitats and heritage
If they know the Isle of Wight at all, most people remember its most famous landmark, the Needles, a line of stacks running out into the sea from a prow of towering chalk cliffs with, at their tip, the Needles lighthouse.
The chalk downland of Tennyson Down and West High Down, above these cliffs, is home to some of Britain’s rarest wildlife. Just to the north, our best preserved maritime heathland is seen on Headon Warren with its more gentle tumbled cliffs, this again is a rare example of an undamaged habitat. In between the two is a large car park.
Throughout the Island are scattered fragments of past riches, just as with England generally; we as a society try to document and understand them. In the past this was seen by many as the recording of inevitable extinctions; an unstoppable progression. Today there is some hope that diversity will be valued and traditional usages reinstated.
The landscapes of the Island are very varied, giving us many types of habitat for animals and plants. On the mainland nearby, to pass over the same rock formations as here, one needs to travel ten times as far. Geologists love it, and well they might, it contains some of the classic sites of British Geology.
Archaeology here is also favoured. From Prehistoric through Roman to Medieval times, this land has a long history of settlement and the submersion of the Solent, the strip of water separating it from the English mainland, has preserved evidence of Stone Age structures which elsewhere have crumbled away. Marine Archaeology is making interesting discoveries along our northern coast.
Large areas of the Island are designated AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty) and its popularity as a holiday destination in the past was largely because of the beauty of the countryside and the slow pace of life here. It is perhaps an indication of the pedestrian nature of the Island that we have one of the largest concentrations of footpaths in the country. The work of the Society’s Countryside Section, started by Dora Millington, in establishing Rights of Way over many decades has very much improved the network and continues to do so.
The Island is well known for its palaeontology and significant recent, as well as historic, discoveries have been made. Dinosaurs are found frequently here, especially along the south-west coast, where the rapid erosion of low soft cliffs constantly exposes new profiles.
The Island is recognised as the most important dinosaur site in Europe. An interactive purpose built museum dedicated to palaeontology, ‘Dinosaur Isle’ was opened at Sandown on our southeast coast in 2001. See Local Links.