Silent Sunday

Mid-June 2020. Deserted Resort due to CoronaVirus.

A sunny, hot, Sunday afternoon and the beach should be full of families with children playing on the sands, buckets and spades, and the sounds of bat hitting ball. Beach cafes closed, ice-cream parlours boarded up, and the pier locked up. How are the families coping who have no access to outdoor facilities, no gardens, no nearby parks? We who have must be grateful – we are the lucky ones.

Link to Words Visual and Lucid Gypsy

Unlocking the Past

April, 2020: I miss a lot during these days of lock-down, of isolation and no contact with friends, but what I’m missing more than I thought I would is the work I and a group of other volunteers have been doing with our County Archaeologist, Dr. Ruth Waller. 

“The past is another country “said J.P. Hartley, but I don’t think he had in mind the 13th or 14th centuries when he said that. It is something very obvious to me however, as a volunteer with the Brading Community Archive Group, when I open a centuries-old Rate Book, a Fee Farm Rent Book or a Poor Rate Book.  For over a year now we have been working on unlocking the past through old documents, books, paintings and photographs from the village of Brading on the Isle of Wight, a project made possible by a Grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and without which the project would not be possible.

Old Brading – British Library Print from Villages & Geographical Maps

The end result will be that books and documents which have been hidden away for centuries will be transcribed and available online to researchers.  The original documents will be seen side by side with the transcribed documents and will also be available in paper form for researchers.

Charles lst gave this once thriving seaport as security for a loan from the City of London.  Today Brading is no longer a coastal seaway: after failed attemps in the 16th century the marshes were finally drained and the embankment completed on 1881 which enabled the railway system to progress.

Brading Norman Church, Old Town Hall with Stocks Below – Photo Mari Nicholson

Brading’s history is apparent from the Norman Church at the top of the incline to the well-preserved 16th and 17th century houses that line both sides of the High Street with their eclectic range of windows, roofs and chimneys.  Next to the church is the old town hall, a stone and brick building with an open arcade housing the stocks and whipping post, once the site of the butchers’ shambles for the market first held in 1285.

It is here that we work, in the Old Town Hall, a musty room over the stocks, a cold place in the winter as we can’t have heating because of the fragility of the books.

One of Brading’s attractive buildings – Photo by James Stringer http://www.visitisleofwight.com

As bacteria, acids, oils and dirt on our hands can be transferred to the materials we are working on, disposable rubber gloves are worn at all times, no food or drink is allowed on the premises and it goes without saying that no pens are allowed anywhere near the documents or books (all notes must be taken using pencils).  Working on the books is done according to prescribed rules: opening them at 1800 could cause irreparable damage (1200 is the maximum opening) and tightly bound books should be opened no more than 900.     To prevent damage to the spine they are opened in a box made into a sort of cradle and as fragile surfaces must not be touched pages must never to be turned by the corners, and more ….  And I haven’t got to photographs and pictures yet!

Before we got to the transcribing stage we had to carefully clean the books with special brushes which wouldn’t damage the paper, first the front, back and spine, then each page.  When I say this was boring, believe me, I’m not exaggerating.  After that, each book was wrapped in special acid-free paper, tied up with acid-free cotton tape, given a number which was attached to it and then placed carefully on shelves ready for the next stage. 

Original Stocks, under the Old Town Hall – Photo Mari Nicholson

In the midst of all this ancient paraphanalia we sit among modern technology, overhead scanners, laptops, computer storage devices etc. 

Once the transcribing began the brain was engaged and the fascination with ancient ways and history meant that even two cold winters in the Old Town Hall could be coped with – just!  As well as remembering that 1752 was the first year in England to begin on January 1st (until then the New Year began officially on March 25th, Lady Day) there was the fact that two centuries earlier, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had reformed the Julian calendar because it did not conform to the solar system, and cut 10 days from the year.   England did not follow other European countries in this and remained ten days behind until an adjustment was made in 1752 and these days removed.   Then there are Regnal years versus calendar years and other hazards for the careless transcriber, one of the trickiest being documents written in the reign of Charles ll who came to the throne in May 1660 although he calculated his regnal year as beginning on 30 January 1649 the date of his father’s execution.  These anomalies do not interfere with the actual transcription of the documents but they have to be kept in mind for dating purposes.

The actual transcription has to retain the original spelling and as spelling in English was not standardised until the 18th century this can create difficulties.  Before then phonetic spelling was used and people wrote in the local dialect so when transcribing it is often necessary to say the word aloud as it appears on the page to get a sense of what the word might be.  It is useful to know where the document was written or by whom as a word written by someone who spoke in a Somerset dialect say, could differ in spelling from that of a Londoner. 

Old Brading – British Library Print from Villages & Geographical Maps

The books and documents themselves are fascinating and sometimes one can spend too long reading about the fines for allowing a pig to roam in the street, money requested for footware for a shoeless child of the village, for a cart to take an old woman to the Workhouse, or for bread for a hungry family.  One is made aware of the importance of policing certain trades by the weights and measures being strictly kept under lock and key and checked and signed for each year, and made to wonder at the many pubs the village supported.  There are many sad tales and one is grateful beyond words to have been born in this present day and age where despite its failings, there is a safety net to catch all but the most vulnerable in our society.

Part of Brading High Street – Photo James Murray http://www.visitisleofwight.com

We shall be working on the books for another year at least, but once away from the ancient past and into the 20th century it will get easier, and I dare say, less interesting.  Coronation street parties, the coming of street lighting and the contract to the lamp-lighter (£16 a year), are still fascinating but I shall miss the dark, old days, when life was ruled by the rising and setting of the sun and when having the price of a candle meant that a woman could wear her eyes out doing sewing to make an exra few pennies to feed the family.

When the lock-down is over and things return to normal, our little band of volunteers will return once more to our job of unlocking the past so that future generations will be able to research the history and times of Brading, Isle of Wight.  Although it is but a small town on an island, the broad outlines of how it was run apply equally to towns and villages all over the country and the knowledge gained by looking at this one small town gives an insight into England’s governance at a micro level.

Lost Images

I haven’t posted for some weeks now as I’ve been tied up trying to recover virtually my entire photographic collection. I had a serious mishap with my computer and everything disappeared. Most of the documents I managed to recover but they are now in a different format and with the expenditure of quite a sum of money I got most of them back. Some were originally in an older version of Windows but had been converted but have now reverted to the former version.

The photographs are a different problem though. I managed to get quite a lot back but they are all mixed up. Not only are they in a jumble of dates but the captions have disappeared completely, leaving me at a loss as to where some were taken, when, and for what reason. Imagine trying to differentiate 100 churches or more, all taken at different periods in different countries and landscapes without any defining features, and you’ll have an idea of my problem.

My back-up went the same way and neither of the two computer experts I’ve had looking at it can understand why. Maybe because it is kept plugged in to my desktop all the time, to make a backup?

My older photographs I always put on DVDs (or CDs in the earlier days) and these are OK, but since I bought the Iomega backup machine I haven’t bothered. Lesson learned.

I am just about to put up a blog post but it won’t have the photographs I had planned to use of the volunteers working together on our project at Brading, Isle of Wight, and this after I’d got everyone’s permission to use the images!

And now to continue my search through thousands of images to try and re-caption them, date them (vaguely) and otherwise restore them.

Hurtigruten Around the UK

Back from the 5-day trial run of the new Hurtigruten ship MS Fridtjof Nansen which left Liverpool on Thursday last 12th March for Dublin, Cardiff, Fowey (Cornwall) and Dartmouth (Devon) before disembarking its passengers at Portsmouth on Tuesday morning 17th

MS Friedtjof Nansen at anchor

Those who’ve read my blogs will know I’m no fan of cruising but this trip was exceptional and I’m now a big fan of, not cruising, but the Hurtigruten fleet and their way of presenting a cruise.  So much so that I would have signed up immediately for another trip with them but for the Coronavirus situation which makes forward planning difficult.

Hurtigruten has long been in the forefront of ecological travel and the MS Friedtjof Nansen, being the latest ship in the fleet, has a very sophisticated operating system. In line with their ecological profile is the cutting-edge hybrid engine system which consists of large battery packs with extra electric power that allows the engines to function at optimal levels: these, in tu, substantially lower fuel usage and CO2 emission. In addition, the ship has the option to run just on battery power for limited periods of time which means no fuel spent and zero emissions.

Pool on Upper Deck – Photograph Agurtxane Concellon/www.hurtigruten.com

Our cabin was spacious and well-furnished in cool Nordic fashion with blissfully comfortable beds and duvets, plus thick Scandinavian blankets should they be needed (they weren’t). A good-sized bathroom with super rain-shower led off the hall, but the cherry on the cake was the large balcony with a hot-tub which steamed away throughout the voyage – available for use day or night. A giant TV screen was both television and information display for temperatures, maps, up-coming talks, lectures, films, restaurants and menus, and just about everything one wanted, or needed to know on the voyage. A state-of-the-art coffee machine and tea-maker well-supplied with the necessary makings, meant we had all we needed should we want to spend time in our cabin.

A choice of talks from onboard professionals throughout the day (all enthusiasts with sense of humour) meant that we were immersed in an experience second to none, and difficult though it was to draw oneself away from the hot tub on the balcony (or the hot jacuzzi on the top deck for those who wanted a more social immersion) I found it hard not to attend as many as possible.

The Nansen Science Centre is the onboard HQ for the expedition team, an edutainment venue where guests and crew meet.  This Centre will come into its own when the ship voyages to the polar areas that the Hurtigruten fleet have made their own, equipped as it is with VR goggles which will allow passengers to use Pioneer BluEye underwater drone cameras.

Large cube screens in the Science Center showcase engaging content and it is equipped with advanced microscopes to examine samples from the field, offering a perspective on the natural world.  Although we were sailing in UK waters, we were able to see and handle many exciting finds from polar regions, like Narwahl tusks, killer whale teeth, walrus tusks, polar bear skulls and dolphin fin skeletons which resemble nothing so much as a human hand.   

Explorer Lounge Bar – Photographs Agurtxane Concellon/www.hurtigruten.com

Disembarkation in Dublin was cancelled because it was in lockdown so our first port of call was Cardiff.

Arriving at the Port, the life-size statue of Ivor Novello sitting atop a plinth of red granite took me back to my teens when we danced to the music of this favourite son of Cardiff. Or did we? I can remember my mother singing We’ll Gather Lilacs so perhaps it’s the mind playing tricks.

CARDIFF BAY

Quotations such as these adorn the walls of the Welsh History Museum
Titles of Novello Songs

Outstanding architecture and great use of space made the area a very agreeable place in which to saunter before popping into the Millennium Building for a tour of the theatre (the acoustics are very impressive) and the lush red terracotta Pierhead Building (now the Welsh History Museum) built of glazed terracotta blocks from Wrexham.  The interior is no less startling in its use of terracotta and locally produced ceramic tiles. It houses a terracotta fireplace, a terracotta staircase the balusters of which are made of terracotta, and a banister of glazed ceramic that echoes the lovely tiles that line the walls. 

Interior Welsh History Museum

Much has been made of the waterfront development in Cardiff and with its many cafes and restaurants we experienced a very Welsh welcome wherever we went.  We even sampled Welsh cakes and Bara Brith with our morning coffee.

Nordic Church built to honour the Norwegian sailors who docked here

FOWEY

Fowey (which I learned to pronounce Foy) in Cornwall was a pretty little place and as there was an optional river trip up the estuary many people opted for that but I spent the day in the village and was rewarded by some delightful sights as I strolled around the village.

Fowey

The light rain persisted for most of the day so although it was possible to take photograhs, the effect on the final images was to make them all look a bit misty.  In fact, a typical day in an English seaside resort in spring.

DARTMOUTH

Dartmouth I completely fell in love with.  I was entranced by the medieval buildings still being used as dwelling houses, the narrow cobbled alleyways, the parks, the sense of history everywhere, and the absence of big stores. 

Independent shops, boutiques, and providers of food, wine and butchery, serve the local population from 17th and 18th century merchants’ houses. It is said that Dartmouth has the best collection of these merchant houses of this period, but it must also be said that it has some exuberant imitations.  The Butterwalk is the most impressive block. It consists of four timber framed houses built between 1628-1640 and beautifully restored after bomb damage during the Second World War. 

We took a trip up the river Dart, passing Sir Walter Raleigh’s boathouse, to Greenway House, the former home of Agatha Christie and now a National Trust property. The house overlooks stunning views of the River Dart and the 30-minute cruise, operated exclusively for the National Trust, is a perfect way to approach Christie’s mansion and superb grounds. 

We didn’t go inside Greenway but spent a lovely sunny afternoon walking the extensive grounds and woodland, admiring the wild cyclamen, bluebells, primroses and irises growing under the trees and along the edges of the paths, and inhaling the perfume of the magnolia trees, magnificently in bloom.  Do rhododendrons smell?  I can’t remember but in their full glory of crimson, yellow and pink blossom they were a sight to behold.

Ring the Bell for the Ferryman and he comes from the other side.

A quick ferry across the river to Dittisham, an exceptionally beautiful riverside settlement on the Dart and one of the most attractive villages in South Devon.   Famous for its plums at one time, it is now a relaxing day-trip from many places in the county and an ideal spot for a short break – or even a day trip.

Coluldn’t resist it!

And then it was back to our Norwegian home for our last night on board.  It had been a wonderful five days, much better than I had imagined it would, and I put it all down to the Hurtigruten staff who made sure everything ran smoothly, the comfort of the cabins with their cool Norwegian décor, and the simple yet wonderful food.   I even bought a stuffed huskie to take home and I wasn’t even in the arctic!

Chichester – Cathedral City

South Street, Chichester

To Chichester last week to see I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the stage performance of the popular Radio 4 satirical quiz starring Jack Dee, Rory Bremner, Miles Jupp, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Tony Hawks.  A superb – and  hilarious – evening in a packed Chichester Festival Theatre where the audience laughed their way through two and a half hours of clever, satirical humour.  

But this post isn’t about the performance, brilliant though it was, it’s about Chichester, a hidden gem of a City, located less than two hours from London and within easy distance of Brighton, Southampton, Portsmouth and the S.E. coast.

Chichester Cathedral (Photo Steve Moore)

We stayed overnight, Chichester being well supplied with hotels and guest houses, the only drawback being the weather which wasn’t kind to us.  Rain and wind are not conducive to walking slowly through cobbled streets steeped in history, along canal banks, through green parks and along the City Walls, not to mention walking to and from the Theatre.

For that reason the outdoor photographs here were all taken last year.  I go there at least once a month to the The Festival Theatre and its sister theatre, The Minerva both of which offer first-class productions of drama, musicals, and newly written plays, most of which transfer to the West End after their run in Chichester.  There are also two good restaurants on the site (booking essential).

The city’s Roman influence is reflected in the main street pattern, and it is not difficult to spot historic buildings that line the streets and the little alleys that lead off them. One of the city’s most iconic features is The Market Cross, believed to have been built in 1501 by Bishop Edward Story, who paid £10 to the Mayor of Chichester for the ground on which it is built. The Bishop allowed peasants to trade under the Market Cross without paying a toll, and it’s still a gathering point for the community today and for sellers of fruits in summer and umbrellas and plastic ponchos last week!

You will see the Roman name Noviomagus Reginorum in various places in the city and to find out what that means, the best thing is to take a walk along the City Walls,  the most intact circuit of Roman town defences in Southern England.   You can start the 1.5 mile walk anywhere along the wall and stop to admire the impressive views over the rooftops at any point.

If the weather is not conducive to walking the walls, then head to the free Novium Museum, built over the remains of a vast Roman bath house which can be seen from the ground floor, for an in-depth insight into the history of the City and wider district.

Another indoor attraction is the Pallant House Gallery (rated second only to the Tate for modern British art by the Guardian) which explores new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now.  It is housed in what is considered to be one of the most important 18th century townhouses in England and one of very few Queen Anne houses open to the public. 

The Cathedral is one of the most impressive in S.E. England and has a wealth of art inside that makes a visit there worth more than a visit to many other grander buildings. See linked post.

Interior of Chichester Cathedral

Chichester: Art in the Cathedral

I am not a frequent visitor to churches and cathedrals but I make an exception for the 7thCentury Chichester Cathedral because it contains art that speaks to me.  The Cathedral is a classic Norman building with round arch windows and west facing twin towers and is the only English Cathedral with a surviving detached medieval Bell Tower dating back to 681 when Saint Wilfred brought Christianity to Sussex.

Medieval Bell Tower, Chichester Cathedral

It was raining heavily on the day after the theatre performance so we spent most of the time before lunch and our departure, in the Cathedral.  I wanted to re-visit the Arundel Tomb, subject of a poem by one of my favourite poets, Philip Larkin.  I have been re-reading Larkin recently and that particular poem has being going round and round in my head and I knew I could only dislodge it by visiting the tomb.

The Arundel Tomb

The Arundel Tomb was brought from Lewes Priory sometime after its dissolution in 1537. It is a chest on top of which lies the figures of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster. The tomb was restored at the beginning of the 19th century bt Edward Richardson, a well-known sculptor of the day.

I know the poem off by heart and I was able to sit there for a long time and listen to the music of the words in my head and ‘see’ what Larkin saw when he wrote the poem.  Without his words, I would have walked by this tomb and missed what he saw “what will survive of us is love”.  If copyright allowed, I would have liked to add the poem here, but it wasn’t possible.

I also wanted another chance to see the Chagall stained-glass window and the Gustav Holst plaque.  The Chagall window, installed in 1978, is unusual in that the glass is predominantly red when Chagall usually worked in blue.  It is absolutely gorgeous and I could have stayed longer just drinking in the beauty of the luminous jewel cololurs.

Stained Glass Window by Chagall – Photo by David Spender CC.

Gustav Holst, one of the greatest figures in British 20th century music, had a special connection to Chichester Cathedral and on his death aged 59, on 25th May 1934, his ashes were interred in the Cathedral.  The composer of The Planets Suite, was a friend of Chichester’s Bishop Bell and worked with him on the Whitsuntide Festivals.  Under the plaque on the floor in the North Transept , his ashes were buried near to a memorial to his favourite Tudor composer, Thomas Weelkes. 

Plaque in Memorium Gustav Holst

I shall no doubt visit again on my next trip to Chichester because there is more art to be seen in the cathedral.  There is a John Piper tapestry on the High Altar, a vividly coloured work which I have yet to take to: there is a Graham Sutherland painting and there are various sculptures worth searching out.   

But Chichester has lots of other attractions to tempt one.  Here are just a few.

The Festival Theatre along with its sister theatre, The Minerva, has a continuos programme of first-class productions, most of which transfer to the West End after their run in Chichester.  There are also two really good restaurants on the site (booking essential).

The free Novium Museum gives an in-depth insight into the history of the City and wider district and it is built over the remains of a vast Roman bath house, which can be seen from the ground floor.

The internationally recognised Pallant House Gallery (rated second only to the Tate for modern British art by the Guardian) explores new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now.  It is housed in what is considered to be one of the most important 18th century townhouses in England, one of very few Queen Anne houses open to the public. 

The 200-year-old Chichester Canal is another of Chichester’s hidden gems. This secret waterway was once part of the former Portsmouth and Arundel Canal (opening in 1823) with carrying regular cargoes of  gold bullion from Portsmouth to the Bank of England – with armed guards on the barges! 

There are free drop-in guided tours of the Cathedral at 11.15am and 2.30pm Monday to Saturday, which last approximately 45 minutes.

Windsor by Steam Train

I had a sort of time-travel experience yesterday when a celebratory day out with friends took me from London Waterloo in sumptuous style to Windsor, recently the perfect setting for two royal weddings.  We traveled in a ‘special event’ steam train of the Royal Windsor Steam Express.

Pullman Dining in Style

On board the vintage Pullman carriages of the RWSE it is easy to imagine yourself back in the golden age of steam travel as you relax in the plush seats with plenty of legroom. The wood paneling on the walls of the carriage soothes the eye, and the starched white tablecloths on the tables take you back decades.

A champagne brunch is available in the Pullman dining carriages for £85 per person if you want the real luxe effect, but there is also the option of coffee, tea, wines and snacks from one of the charming hostesses on board in the Standard and First Class non-Pullman carriages. 

The London Eye

Starting from London the Royal Windsor Steam Express passes many of London’s famous landmarks including the London Eye and Houses of Parliament, crossing the River Thames to reach leafy suburbs, reservoirs and lakes until it reaches the charming Royal Windsor & Eton Riverside Station designed by William Tite for the London & South Western Railway (LSWR).  The steam engine used to pull the refurbished carriages is The Mayflower, an original British Rail engine built in 1948.

Windsor Castle

 The station is right in the town and as soon as you exit you can see stunning Windsor Castle on the hill opposite.   Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world and is the Queen’s favourite weekend home. 

Windsor Castle with statue of Queen Victoria

The River Thames runs through the town and a boat trip along this stretch of the river is highly recommended.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for this:  I had done it before but would have very much liked to do it again had we not spent so much time lunching by the river and ambling around the town. 

The Royal Borough has a rich mix of history, culture and heritage and if time allows a walk through the town is both practical and easy.  If not, the hop-on-hop-off bus will transport you to the main sights in Windsor and next-door Eton.    If you can time your visit to take in the colourful spectacle of the Guards marching through the streets of Windsor for the Changing the Guard ceremony within Windsor Castle’s walls, this unique sight could well be the icing on the cake.

Notes:

Windsor Tourist Office: https://www.windsor.gov.uk/visitor-information/visitor-information-centre

The steam train service runs every Tuesday from 4th June – 3rd September, with three daily services each way between Waterloo and Windsor & Eton Riverside station.  Fares from £35 one way.   Tel:  01483 209888   Website:  SunsetSteamExpress.co.uk

1-Hour Boat Trips on the Thames at Windsor in an 1898 Steam Boat – 4 minutes walk from the station.   £14 per person   FrenchBrothers.co.uk Tel: 01753 837345

Hop-on Hop-Off Windsor Bus Tour £20. theoriginaltour.com/windsor   Tel: 0208 877 2120

STEYNING – A Sussex Town

If life in Brighton becomes too hectic, then a few days in Steyning are guaranteed to put things back in perspective.   Or so I found this week when the fine weather brought more people to Brighton than I’d anticipated and my ‘quiet’ time became distinctly unquiet, although I did enjoy some fine walks along Brighton beach and along Palace Pier.

One of the prettiest Sussex towns, the Saxon town of Steyning (its history dates back to the 8th century) has more or less everything – a meandering high street, historic buildings, good shops (including an Independent Bookshop) and magnificent countryside all around, the South Downs to be precise.

Steyning had been a trading powerhouse in the early middle ages as a river port for the downland wool trade, but the silting up of the River Adur left it up the creek, so to speak.  The Black Death hit the village hard and the competition from other ports added to its economic woes, but the loss to the medieval folk of Steyning is our gain today.

The bypass has also been of benefit in this respect because, unlike many other small towns and villages in Sussex, the High Street has been spared the constant heavy traffic that makes a toll on the roads and creates noise and pollution.

Steyning is pretty well preserved, with many Tudor style half-timbered houses alongside some smart Georgian townhouses.

The preponderance of wood is especially noticeable, from the many old wooden doors to wooden fencing dividing the pavement from the road.  Below are a few of the doorways that took my camera’s eye.

There is only one high-street grocery chain in the town and the many independent retailers offer an eclectic range of foodstuffs ranging from organic to exotic: the range of coffee shops/restaurants is truly amazing, many seeming to have a bakery shop as an add-on.   Outstanding is the Independent Booksellers in which we whiled away a couple of hours, emerging later with bags full of wonderful books, some bought as Christmas presents.  It was the sort of shop where one comes across books one just knows will suit someone, the sort one doesn’t find in the big bookstores anymore.   As a consequence of the mix of old-fashioned and modern small shops, shopping in Steyning is easy paced and very enjoyable.P1030559

Steyning holds an Arts Festival every year, there is a Museum in Church Street, and in St Andrew’s Norman church in the nearby village of Bramber, where there is also an evocative ruined castle, there are some interesting carvings.    

P1030573

The South Downs Way passes just to the south of Steyning and climbs through the magnificent countryside around the Steyning Bowl, making this a perfect area for walking and cycling.   Wonderful country pubs abound in this area. 

It has now become my favourite place outside Brighton.

P1030590

Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

Valentine Grey

 

The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

P1090920
Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

CC David Hill
Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com