From saints to the devil himself, medieval priests to ancient stones, poets to smugglers – the Isle of Wight is steeped in folklore, history and legend.
Discovering the local stories behind landmarks is part of the joy of discovering the heart of the Island. Here’s an easy guide to the most beautiful, the most famous and the most interesting landmarks on the Isle of Wight, and how to get there.
Synonymous with the Isle of Wight, the image of The Needles can be seen in every souvenir shop. But how many know the history of the distinctive rocks rising off the west coast of the Isle of Wight?
Considered one of the wonders of Southern England, The Needles are a row of three distinctive chalk stacks looming out of the rough waters close to Alum Bay on the western extremity of the Isle of Wight.
Originally four stacks, the formation is actually named for the lost rock, which dramatically collapsed in 1764. The missing rock was ‘needle’-shaped and named ‘Lot’s Wife’ after the Bible story involving pillars of salt. Its collapse during a ferocious storm was apparently felt as far away as Portsmouth and left the gap in the formation you can see today. The name stuck – and that’s why the Needles don’t look at all like needles!
The lighthouse clings to the base of the furthest away rock of the Needles and began its duties in 1859, taking over from the original lighthouse on the cliff to, considered useless due to its high level and resultant poor visibility. It was automated in 1994 and can be seen up close and personal from boat trips operating from Alum Bay.
The Needles Landmark Attraction is a pleasure park at the top of the cliff, complete with small amusement park, shops and rides. A chairlift operates between the park down to the coloured sands of Alum Bay.
You can get a spectacular view of The Needles from The Old Battery, a fortification clinging to the cliffs. Originally built to guard against the French in the 19th century, it was used against the Germans in the 1940s. Nearby on the High Down there’s another National Trust military relic - The Needles New Battery – a former rocket testing site.
The only surviving medieval lighthouse in England, St Catherine’s Oratory stands on one of the highest parts of the Island, on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight. The 11-foot tall stone tower is all that remains of the original building, and was built by Walter de Godeton, Lord of Chale, as penance for stealing wine from a shipwreck in Chale Bay in 1313.
Threatened with excommunication from the Church, Walter chose instead to build the lighthouse on St Catherine’s Down and employ priests to pray for the souls of his family, himself and sailors at sea. The lighthouse was consistently manned until Henry VIII swept in and decommissioned it during his Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s.
The tower’s arched door heads suggest that it was still of interest in the late 16th century as it was extensively repaired around the time of the threat from the Spanish Armada in 1588. In the 18th century, Sir Richard Worsley of Appuldurcombe House added four large buttresses to prevent the tower from collapsing (giving it its rocket-like appearance!).
Now standing at four storeys high, the octagonally shaped tower is well preserved and, on closer inspection, it’s possible to see the remnants of the walls of the rest of the original building. You can also see the foundations that were laid for a replacement lighthouse in 1785 – something that was never completed.
As St Catherine’s Oratory is locally known as the ‘Pepperpot’ due to its distinctive shape, the remains of the almost built replacement are affectionately referred to as the ‘Salt Cellar’.
Easily accessible by footpath you can climb up to the top of St Catherine’s Down from the footpath at the end of Upper House Lane in Chale. Follow footpath 8, then 7 to the point marked ‘tower’ on the OS map. You can see rights of way on the council's website by clicking here.
Just five miles from Ventnor, at Niton Undercliffe, you can find St Catherine’s lighthouse.
Constructed as a 40m high stone tower in 1838, it was subsequently shortened by 13m in 1875 as it was often obscured by fog. Maintained by Trinity House, it’s the third most powerful lighthouse in the UK with a range of 25 nautical miles (equivalent to 46km or 29 land miles).
The white octagonal tower has 94 steps up to the lantern and an adjacent tower that used to house the now redundant fog signal. The second tower was built in 1932.
St Catherine’s Lighthouse was built from ashlar stone, following the loss of The Clarendon on the hidden rocks near its location. Automated in 1997, the lighthouse is monitored and controlled from the Trinity House Operations and Planning Centre in Essex.
Holiday accommodation is available in the same complex, giving a unique place to stay. And you can take an in-depth tour of the lighthouse – you’ll find it impossible not to marvel at the Victorian machinery still turning the light in 2016.
The lighthouse has its own tragic story as a bombing raid destroyed the engine house in June 1943, killing the three keepers on duty. You can see a plaque dedicated to RT Grenfell, C Tomkins and WE Jones on the ground floor.
It’s perhaps inevitable that a structure with such a tragic history would be the origin of various ghost stories, but it has been said shadowy figures can be seen on dark night in the lantern room, and there have been reports of noisy people slamming doors inside the lighthouse when it’s empty.
A tour will take around 40 minutes and pre booking isn’t necessary unless you’re in a large group. For more details click here.
Local legend says that St Catherine and the Devil fought over the Isle of Wight. During their struggle, St Catherine threw a four-metre high stone from the nearby Down that bears her name and lodged it decisively into the ground. The Devil threw a smaller stone that landed short of St Catherine’s, giving a clear victory of good over evil.
These two stones form the Longstone, Mottistone in the heart of the beautiful West Wight area. Contrary to the local legend, the Longstone is actually a Neolithic monument that has baffled and fascinated locals for thousands of years.
The stones are the remains of a 6000-year old communal long barrow, used for burying the dead. Bodies were laid out for birds and animals to pick clean and then the bones buried in chambers with earth piled up on top to form the distinctive dome shape.
It’s likely the stones were moved in Saxon times, and definitely were in the 19th century by Lord Dillon, a local squire who wanted to know what was beneath them. He found nothing, but pottery excavated in 1956 indicates that the mound, and therefore the stones, are Neolithic.
Modern day druids meet at The Longstone throughout the year to celebrate notable dates, including the Summer Solstice. The site is looked after by the National Trust and is free for passers-by to visit.
Another imposing landmark to visit, admire and wonder at is the Earl of Yarborough Monument, found close to National Trust land on Culver Down (pictured above).
The tallest monument on the Island, it’s a striking part of the skyline for the east of the island and used as a seamark for shipping. But who’s it for?
The Earl of Yarborough (1781-1846) was born Charles Anderson Pelham in Lincolnshire. Born into a very powerful family, he inherited by marriage the estates of Sir Richard Worsley. The largest landowner on the Isle of Wight, Sir Richard’s estates included Appuldurcombe, once the grandest house on the Island.
Charles was to make his mark firmly on the Island due to his love of not only Appuldurcombe, but also of sailing. He was one of the founders and later became the Commodore of would be the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes – arguably the most prestigious yachting club in the UK (some would say in the world!).
Three years after his death, the Yarborough monument was built on the higher summit of Bembridge Down. It was painstakingly moved in the 1860s to make way for Bembridge Fort, built as part of the island’s defences against invasion.
Easily accessible by walking, it’s definitely a landmark to tick off the list when visiting the Isle of Wight.
An imposing monument to the great Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Victoria’s Poet Laureate and great exponent of the Isle of Wight, stands at the highest point on Tennyson Down (formerly High Down).
Designed by JL Pearson, it was built in 1897 and erected in the place Tennyson loved best. He used to walk on the down almost every day during the years he lived on the Isle of Wight, saying that the air was worth “sixpence a pint”.
Built from marble by Farmer & Brindley, it’s easy to believe that Tennyson himself would have been delighted with the extraordinary views his monument commands.
Although Tennyson is buried in Westminster Abbey, his heart lay with the Isle of Wight. He famously lived at Farringford in Freshwater. Originally renting the house, he fell in love with the area so much that he bought it in 1858. He wrote Charge of the Light Brigade and much of his ouvre on the Island, having been inspired by the magnificent scenery.
When he died in 1892, a fund was set up to pay for the memorial.
You can climb up the hill to the monument to see the following text:
In memory of Alfred Lord Tennyson this Cross is raised as a beacon to sailors by the people of Freshwater and other friends in England and America, and appreciate the views for yourself.
The monument is easily reached from the Highdown Inn just outside of Totland. Go down the Highdown Lane that runs alongside the rear car park to the pub and after a quarter of a mile the lane finishes in a free car park. Take the well-worn path to the left up towards the Tennyson monument, it’s a steep climb but once up on the top it’s a relatively flat walk with loads of amazing views.
You can also walk across fields and use the coastal path from Freshwater Bay, which is a longer but more gradual climb.
Now owned by the National Trust, Bembridge Windmill was built around 1700 and is the only surviving windmill on the island.
Most of its original machinery is still intact over four storeys, which you can access by some rather steep steps. Fully operational during Victoria’s reign and a bit beyond, it only closed down in 1913, making it an excellent example of the way people lived and worked in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Visitors can find out all about how it worked and see the view that inspired genius painter JMW Turner. Definitely worth a visit with or without kids, as it’s an evocative piece of social history.
There are also refreshments available, which might be welcome if you decided to explore the Culver Trail surrounding the windmill. There are some of the most beautiful walking trails around this area for serious walkers and casual strollers alike.
It’s free for National Trust members, and you can check the charges for non-members at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bembridge-windmill.
If you’re on your bike there’s a clearly marked Island Cycle Route through the centre of the village past Bembridge Windmill and near to Bembridge Fort. Follow the marker signs from Alverstone or Havenstreet villages for a day’s ride.
There are local legends galore in Freshwater Bay, thanks to its rich history of smugglers, pirates and shipwrecks.
Famous for its geology and coastal rock formations, as well as its picturesque beach just south of Freshwater itself, Freshwater Bay is a hugely popular place to hang out in the summer. Any time of year, the bay has stunning views, with shifting flint pebbles lending a rich texture to the beach.
Looking out from the beach there are various rock formations that form local landmarks. One of the best known was the Arch Rock. The chalk rocks of the cliffs are under constant attack by the waves crashing against and underneath them, causing the landscape to change before our eyes. Large blocks fall away, leaving isolated stacks. The Arch Rock is now just the bases of what once stood, as it collapsed in October 1992.
Still standing are the Stag Rock – a column isolated form the mainland is named for a stag that supposedly leapt to the rock from the cliff to escape the hunt. Whether he survived or not is doubtful…
Another huge slab fell from the cliff face in 1968 and is known as Mermaid Rock, presumably as it forms the perfect base for them to lay back and enjoy the sunshine! Just behind it is a big sea cave going several metres into the Cliffside.
Smugglers once used the caves at the bottom of the chalk cliffs that are exposed at low tide – it’s not advisable to explore alone or without an expert guide as you can be cut off from the tide. Kayaking is a great way to see them and other, smaller bays that are also carved from the chalk cliffs.
There are sandy areas on the beach below the low water mark and along to the eastern side of the bay. It’s also excellent for swimming, although tides can be strong. The beach is popular for surfing, watersports and rockpooling.
If you’re not staying in the walkable locality, you’ll either need a car to get to Freshwater Bay or jump on the Route 12 Southern Vectis bus.