Category Archives: Isle of Wight

Yarmouth Castle

This is the last post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. 

When I was around eight years old my class in school held a castle building competition. We were divided into teams, given a pile of boxes, scissors, string and Sellotape and the timer was started. I’m not sure why, but I became adamant that our team’s castle should be replete with a working drawbridge and portcullis. This, due to the time constraints, caused some consternation among some members of the team. A degree of teacher diplomacy was called upon, and I was eventually awarded a splinter group within our team to build the drawbridge and portcullis. We won the competition. I felt rather satisfied that our castle’s working drawbridge and portcullis was named as a deciding factor in the win.  

Still, this small success is no evidence that I could have made it as a successful castle builder. I was so determined that it should have a drawbridge and portcullis that I had little concern for anything else. If I’d have been a castle builder during the Medieval period no doubt I would have been standing back to admire my fancy gatehouse with working drawbridge and portcullis when the enemy arrived and I was asked, “Maybe we should have built some walls as well?” 

The competition was inspired by a project we were doing on castles. It was this project, and the subsequent trip to Porchester Castle, that sparked my early interest in these ancient defences. But I wasn’t the only one keenly interested in castle defences.  

Much like Southsea Castle (discussed in my previous post), Yarmouth was designed differently to Henry’s earlier castles. It was square and featured a new ‘arrow-head’ bastion protruding from its southeast corner. This new style of bastion, developed in Italy, made the castle one of the most innovative military buildings in England. Most of the castle’s firepower was directed out to sea, leaving it vulnerable to land attack. For this reason a moat was dug on the land side. The new bastion was positioned at the corner of the moat and enabled the garrison to provide flanking fire to protect the moat-side walls. Any would-be attackers who tried to get close to the walls could easily be despatched.  

The arrow-bastion revolutionised the design of fortresses, although the example at Yarmouth was initially somewhat lacking. The stone walls designed to protect soldiers from enemy fire were too short. Later alterations addressed the issue. It appears that Henry’s designers were experimenting with the concept before fully understanding it.  

Yarmouth was the last of Henry’s castles. Not long after Southsea’s completion a French fleet approached Portsmouth, on 18th July 1545. They were retaliating for an invasion by Henry the previous year. Owed to a long standing dispute, Henry still believed he, as king of England, was the rightful king of France. The fleet landed on the Isle of Wight. The next day a naval battle occurred in front of Southsea while Henry watched from the mainland. It was during this battle that his beloved, and infamous, flagship the Mary Rose sank.*  

Until the French fleet’s invasion, it was considered unnecessary to build a castle on the island. But by landing there they were beyond the reach of the mainland’s guns. The local militia defeated them, but the defensive weakness had been exposed. It was decided to build Yarmouth Castle. It was completed in 1547, after Henry’s death. It never saw action, but was garrisoned until 1885.  

This is how it originally looked: 


But the castle has been altered significantly since its construction. Its original courtyard was filled in during the late 16th/early 17th century, and in 1670 the outer earthworks were removed. The moat was also filled in and a house was built – now the George Hotel. 

This is how it looks today: 


Much like Southsea, Yarmouth’s only major action took place during the English Civil War. It was held by a Royalist captain, but he was clearly more sober and sensible than Southsea’s captain (as discussed in my previous post). When the Parliamentarians arrived the captain acknowledged that his tiny garrison was unlikely to repel such a large force, so he surrendered.  

The castle’s displays explained how the town of Yarmouth once exerted Parliamentary influence vastly disproportionate to its size. During Elizabethan times, Yarmouth’s burgesses (local officials) were able to send two MPs to Parliament. This situation continued until 1832, despite Yarmouth only possessing around six hundred residents. Birmingham, meanwhile, with a population of nearly 150,000, didn’t have the right to send any! 

In 1763, Yarmouth’s mayor was chosen during a meeting in which only he and one other burgess was present. This seems a little unseemly. Especially when the following year the same situation occurred, only with the two swapping places! It’s no wonder Yarmouth gained a reputation as a rotten borough. It still enjoys prestige beyond its size though. It’s Britain’s smallest town (unlike villages, towns have the right to hold regular markets, appoint mayors and construct town halls). 




*As an aside, I visited the Mary Rose during a school trip in, I believe, the same year as the castle building competition. It was behind glass while being sprayed with water as part of its preservation. I remember wondering how long it would take to complete the process. That was back in the 1980s (it was raised in 1982). It’s scheduled to go on full display in the summer of 2016. It seems incredible that it’s taken so long. What an astounding amount of work it’s taken to preserve such a magnificent treasure. I’m thinking I might have to pay it a visit… 


Southsea Castle

The Battle of Hastings was a ferocious and bloody battle that left, by some estimates, 6,000 dead, but it wasn’t the end of the struggle for William. He still had a deeply hostile and resentful populous to pacify. Fortunately, he had some cutting-edge military technology at his disposal. William introduced the vanquished populous to a new innovation bought over from the continent: the castle. 

Initially Norman castles were simple, hastily constructed affairs. They consisted of a motte (an earthen mound) and a bailey (a flattened area surrounding the motte). The earthen mounds had steep sides rendering them difficult to attack. The bailey was often enclosed by a wooden palisade and wooden buildings were often constructed upon the motte. The castles could be quickly built and easily defended. It was this innovative military tactic that allowed the Normans to conquer and pacify the vast territories they did.  

Despite the great advantage of these castles attackers soon recognised the Achilles heel of the wooden palisades: fire. A sturdier construction was needed. Soon the wooden palisades and buildings were being replaced by stone keeps and enclosures. These new sturdier castles took more time and were more expensive, but were harder to attack. As the stone buildings grew in size they became too heavy for the handmade mottes, so they became the keeps, the last stronghold of the castle. The Tower of London, arguably the most famous example, became the first stone keep in England.  

As the use of stonewalls and keeps increased, attackers were forced to modify their tactics. Their three options were to dig under the walls, climb over the walls or break through the walls. In response castle designers adapted their designs again. Gatehouses were built to strengthen the entrances. Parapets and turrets were added to aid defence of the walls. Sometimes even moats were dug to stop attackers approaching the walls. As this arms race soldiered on, eventually a completely new design of castle emerged: concentric castles. 

Early attackers to concentric castles were likely celebratory upon penetrating the castle’s outer wall, at least initially. But undoubtedly their merriment would have been extremely short-lived. Beyond the first wall was a second, higher wall. Along its top were positioned archers raining arrows upon them. They were now stuck between the two great walls with nowhere to shelter. They were trapped in what was aptly dubbed ‘the death area’.  

As time wore on a more peaceful era emerged, negating the need for such grand fortresses. In response castles began to be built, and adapted, more for comfortable accommodation – as well as great displays of wealth. 

Until not long ago I was only familiar with the Medieval castle designs described above. But Henry VIII’s questionable marital liaisons and belligerent behaviour reignited hostilities with the great European powers of France and Spain. This created a renewed need for defence. But technological advances rendered large, flat walls easy targets and flimsy resistance against the period’s ferocious fire power. A new approach was needed. The solution was short, solid, squat, cylindrical constructions. I first encountered this alternative style when I visited the wonderful Deal Castle. I was immediately won over. Look at how unusual it appears from the air:  

Deal Castle

As you can see it’s made from a series of squat concentric circles. In fact, whether intentionally or not, from the air it’s shaped like a Tudor rose. Henry built around forty such forts along England’s southern coast. Many have since been destroyed. Many have been converted for accommodation or other such uses. There are around twelve, in various states of repair, open to the public. I’ve posted about some previous trips here and here. 


One such castle, Southsea Castle, is situated in the town of Portsmouth. Across the water, on the Isle of Wight, is Yarmouth Castle. My intention of visiting these two castles was the motivation behind my Isle of Wight trip. This post, and the next, is about my visits. 

Southsea Castle was built to defend the incredibly important port of Portsmouth. It’s believed Henry himself played a role in its design. His adoption of the latest design innovations from the continent resulted in a departure from the rounded concentric forts, such as Deal. Southsea possess angled walls, increasing flanking capacity. Another defensive innovation was the manner in which the courtyard featured four walls, confusing any would-be attackers. The castle was hastily constructed in less than six months during 1544. The swiftness was owed to the ongoing threat from a French attack.  

The French attack never arrived. As is the case with many of Henry’s castles, Southsea didn’t see any action until the English Civil War broke out in 1642. It was not long after war broke out that a Parliamentarian force surrounded the castle. The Royalist commander of the castle, Captain Challoner, was too drunk to surrender and rather cheekily asked them to come back in the morning. Ignoring his inebriated request they approached from the undefended sea side and climbed over the walls in the early morning. The garrison of twelve men wisely surrendered to the four hundred besiegers with no loss of life. It was the only time the castle was captured.  

The castle served as an active military base for over 400 years. Military service ended in 1960, but easily could have done so sooner. Due to its dilapidated state, Southsea was nearly demolished in 1814. Thankfully it was instead renovated with the addition of more guns and a larger garrison. Today it’s is free to visit. I assumed this meant there wasn’t that much to see, but I was wrong. The castle is still complete and there’s plenty to see and do. I was quite surprised. I would happily have paid to visit, so it’s definitely worth visiting for free.  



(Dino) Footprints in the Sand

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

– Sir Isaac Newton

Warning: This blog post is about rocks. As I’m sure you can imagine, blog posts about rocks feature an extreme degree of adrenalin-fuelled drama that often proves too excessive for many readers. Those with a nervous predisposition or known heart condition should proceed with caution.

This is the fifth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. It’s also my third post about rocks. I’ll save the links to the other rock posts until the end. You need to pace yourself. If you can survive the below then feel free to tackle the others.

As I crunched my way over the pebbly beach one particular pebble amongst the thousands of others caught my attention. I stopped. “Hmm…now that is interesting,” I thought to myself. I bent down. Picked it up. Inspected it. Turned it over in my hand. “Interesting,” I thought again. I slipped it in my pocket and continued on my journey.

Many thousands of years ago our Neolithic ancestors undoubtedly walked along similar such beaches looking for similar such rocks. Admittedly, their vision was far keener than mine and their attention was focused far more on survival.

The next day I pulled into a car park besides a different beach. After grabbing my coat and rucksack I joined the gathering crowd of strangers assembling at the meeting point. There were parents struggling to herd their excited children, young couples hugging each other in protection against the building breeze and well-equipped older enthusiasts patiently waiting in earnest. As the scheduled time of our meeting passed our guide, Oliver, concluded that everyone who intended to join had likely done so; it was time to begin. Over his shoulder was a well-worn satchel. He dug in deep and retrieved a small collection of rocks. He then began passing them around amongst the eager audience. They were like the clothing of a missing person to rescue dogs. They were the examples to train our eyes upon before departing on our quest. The rocks were fossils. And we were on a fossil hunt.

The Isle of Wight constitutes one of the richest fossil hunting sites in Europe. Over twenty-five different species of dinosaur have been identified on the island. The connection to dinosaurs is so strong that it’s become a major tourist draw. This point is illustrated by a fun walking tour created along the south coast. This ‘Dinosaur Island Trail’ has a series of ‘meteorites’ (rocks) which you can locate. There’s an associated phone app. When you reach the meteorite you open the app and point the phone’s camera at the meteorite. It then super-imposes an animated dinosaur, complete with sound effects, on the scene allowing you to take a photo. Each location has a different dinosaur to discover. Here’s a photo I took at one location:


Besides the walking tour there are also opportunities to go on fossil hunts. Having been fascinated by dinosaurs since I was a kid (as mentioned here) I opted to take a tour and learn some more.

My first discovery came less than a minute into the hunt. I was standing on a raised ridge when I heard a panicked lady asking if anyone had seen a young boy in a red coat. From my vantage point I could see a lone child playing on the other side of the ridge. He was wearing a red coat and appeared too young to be safely playing on his own. From my elevated position I was able to direct the appreciative lady to the missing child. He wasn’t quite a dinosaur fossil, but I guess it was a good find nonetheless. His mum seemed rather relieved anyway.

As we made our way along the beach, armed with our new know how of what to look for, we scoured the ground. Oliver was a local professor of palaeontology and, along with a fellow expert, was on-hand to identify the various finds. He was a jovial fellow and seemed more than accommodating to the relentless queue of budding-fossil hunters hoping for confirmation of having found something special. “That’s a good find, but unfortunately it’s just a bit of wood…” “They look a bit like that, but unfortunately that just some flint…” “Umm…that’s some glass…”*

I was determined to find a fossil. I forensically scrutinised the scene at my feet as I slowly made my way along the beach. Every slightly unusual rock or oddly coloured example was plucked from the sand, excitedly examined , before disappointedly discarded.

We’d been searching a lot longer than I realised when Oliver called out to announce we’d reached as far as we were to go. I was initially disheartened to have progressed so far through the hunt without success. That was until Oliver drew out attention to this:


140 million years ago the Isle of Wight was a floodplain with a monsoonal climate of long dry summers punctuated by flash floods. It was also home to a great many Iguanodons. It seems that a whole herd of these 3.5 ton herbivores had made their way across the muddy terrain that eventually became the Isle of Wight’s coast. It seems likely that a flood struck causing a river to burst its bank filling the footprints with sand. Over millions of years the mud turned to mudstone and the sand turned to sandstone. Sandstone is tougher than mudstone so as the relentless waves erode the soft mudstone cliff the perfectly formed sandstone casts fall out onto the beach.

There was a time when people would collect the footprints. This was fine until some budding entrepreneurs began selling them. This kick-started a lucrative business creating great demand for the footprints. Unsurprisingly, demand soon out-stripped supply. The unsustainable situation came to a head when a footprint was destroyed by someone trying to cut it from the rocks. In desperation the National Trust, who owns the stretch of coastline, sought legal advice. It was recommended that a by-law should be introduced making removal of footprints illegal. The law was introduced in 1984. Since then, any unusual or scientifically important footprints have been removed and taken to the local museum. All others are left on the beach for the public to enjoy. Here, enjoy some yourself:



And here’s another of the Dinosaur Trail photos:


It’s a Pelorosaurus. It’s one of the rarest types of sauropods and grew up to 20 metres in length.

The highest concentration of the footprints can be found around Hanover Point. It’s a geologically interesting location. The underlying rock is being pushed north. This has caused it to rise and at Hanover Point it has cracked and given way. As such, it features the oldest layers of the beach. This can be explained by imagining several layers of paper stacked upon one another. If you push the stack from each end then the middle will rise, creating a peak (Hanover Point). Wind, rain and glaciers has since eroded the top few layers leaving the older layers (the lowest layers of paper) exposed. It’s Africa’s gradual movement northwards which, alongside creating the Alps, has caused this phenomenon.**

While walking back Oliver stopped to point out an apparently incongruous anomaly in the rock strata. Near the top of the cliff was a 128 million-year-old layer. Sat directly on top of it was a layer only 6,800 years old. He asked us if we could explain the odd feature. Can you? (Answer at the end of the post)

Naturally, I assumed I’d discover a completely new species of dinosaur that would totally revolutionise our whole understanding of them. Surprisingly, this didn’t occur. I found a few interesting things, but sadly no dinosaur fossils. As we neared the car park and the end of the hunt I excitedly approached Oliver with my latest find. I was convinced that it must be something. It looked nothing like else I’d seen. The fossils are very, very dark black. And, despite having been subjected to unimaginable heats and pressures for millions of years, their surface still looks remarkably like bone. This was the darkest, blackest thing I’d seen. It also had a slight bone-like surface. Sadly, it was nothing of interest. It was just an odd, dark rock. I think Oliver must have taken pity on me though. He offered me a small fossil that he’d found. He thought it was likely a turtle bone or something. He said I could keep it, which was very good of him. Maybe I didn’t find my new species of dinosaur (The Lanceasaurus), but at least I got my own fossil. I found a few other interesting things as well:


On the left is a 115 million-year-old lobster burrow. The top-right is a piece of fossilised wood (you can see the grain), and the sample at the bottom-right has white shells and fish bones.

I also got the chance to ask Oliver if the stone I’d found the previous day was anything of interest. I was pleased to be informed that it was a 90 million-year-old fossilised sponge that he considered a good find:


The fossil is made from flint. Flint is made from silica. It turns out that the majority of silica comprising flint comes from the remains of ancient creatures (such as sea sponges or various microorganisms). That’s something to bear in mind next time you see some flint. You’re looking at fossils. It’s also interesting to note that our ancestors found flint to be a great source of cutting blades. As they combed beaches in search of cutting tool material they were undoubtedly unaware that they were in fact searching for the remains of ancient creatures. Ancient creatures that had lived and died lived long before our ancient ancestors could possibly have imagined.


My fossil


Incongruous Rock Strata

The reason for the disparate layers being so close is that the ancient layers were pushed up and eroded. This resulted in the 128 million-year-old layer being near the surface. During the Ice Age glaciers carved away the remaining layers. When the glaciers melted, 6,800 years ago, the ancient layer was left exposed. Subsequent layers then began to be laid down.


*To be honest, I was the one who excitedly showed him the piece of glass. It had been smoothed by the sea and severely scuffed up, so it looked peculiar and unlike anything else around.


**As an interesting side note, a documentary I watched a few years ago explained that Africa’s northward migration will eventually result in Morocco and Spain meeting, making the Mediterranean the world’s largest inland sea. With the water not being replenished it will eventually evaporate creating the world’s largest salt bed (something to consider next time someone offers you an investment in a beachside property on the Med).


If you managed to make it all the way through this rip-roaring rock post without requiring hospitalisation, feel free to see if you can survive the excitement of my other rock-based posts here and here.


Appuldurcrombe House

This is the third post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here.

Regular readers may remember this post about Calke Abbey where I focused on the demise of country houses during the 20th century. While I was on the Isle of Wight I decided to take a trip to Appuldurcrombe, which is in an even more advanced state of decay.


It may seem soppy and sentimental but I’m always saddened to see places of such former glory and grandeur reduced to hollowed-out shells. As I wandered around those empty rooms I couldn’t help but ponder how, over the course of their three centuries, they’ve witnessed every chapter of the human experience played out repeatedly. Within those walls many friendships were forged, and many loves blossomed. Raucous laughter of long forgotten jokes echoed down those hallways. The raised voices of bitter arguments did so too. Joyful singing marked the passing of untold birthdays, Christmases and New Years. Gentle, sweet-nothings were whispered into the ears of lovers in those bedrooms. Other times the lonely and broken-hearted sobbed their bitter tears. Some people’s fondest memories were formed within those walls, others their most painful. New born babies gasped their first breaths from air bounded by those walls. Others, on the final page of their life story, drew their last. Their memories of that place passing with them. All of it now long gone, lost and forgotten.

Instead, wind whistles down chimneys and out of empty fireplaces around which families once gathered for warmth. Pits within bricks betray locations of joists that once supported long departed floors upon which residents walked. What were once smooth, finely plastered surfaces are now coarse, un-cut stones bare, naked and exposed. Moss and lichen now clings to walls where priceless works of art once hung. These are walls which have stood stoically and witnessed the natural world hunker down to survive three hundred winters and welcome three hundred springs. Once much-loved. Now much-neglected. Gutted and ghostly. A vacant husk battered and bruised by wind, rain and storms. Elegantly framed windows that once guarded against the worst of the elements now freely let them pass. And with each passing gust evermore grains of those stones are carried away as they’re slowly worn down and crumble to dust.


Appuldurcrombe originally featured 365 windows, 12 principled room, 52 rooms and 7 staircases. Such houses were known as calendar houses for the way their interiors represent the days, weeks and months of the year.


From these now bare walls once hung one of the country’s greatest art collections, and displayed the most important collection of ancient Greek marbles in England.


The ornamental grounds were shaped by the legendary Capability Brown in 1779.


Some of the 18th century’s most eminent figures were entertained by lavish parties in the Great Hall.


Use of the site can be traced back to 1100 when there was a priory situated on the land.


Like many country houses Appuldurcrombe faced demolition in 1952, but was saved.


The unusual name comes from the Old English ‘appuldur’ which is a place where apples grow and the Old English ‘cumb’ or Celtic ‘cwn’ for valley.


Work began on it in 1702 and took 70 years to complete.


It’s considered a baroque masterpiece and was once the grandest house on the island.


A key factor in the building’s decline occurred in 1943 during the Second World War. A German Dornier bomber plane was badly hit and about to crash land. In hope of surviving the crash the crew dropped the sea mine they were carrying. The mine landed in the grounds of Appuldurcrombe. The explosion blew out the house’s windows and caused the roof to collapse. Despite their desperate attempts, the crew died on impact.


One of its former owners was Richard Worsley. He was embroiled in an infamous scandal when a bitter court case revealed that his wife, Seymour, had 27 lovers. Worsley later died at Appuldurcrombe in 1805.


A photo of one of the rooms when in use as a drawing room in the late 19th C when the house was a school.


A photo of the Great Hall in use as the school dining room between 1867 and 1896.

Appuldurcrombe is currently for sale for almost £5 million, so if you’ve got some spare cash lying around…

Carisbrooke Castle

This is the second post about my Isle of Wight Trip. The first can be found here. This post focuses on my trip to Carisbrooke Castle. 

One of the most famous tales associated with Carisbrooke occurred during a siege by a French garrison in 1377. What was initially expected to be a drawn-out campaign ended prematurely when the French commander’s daily stroll to the wall was rudely interrupted by a crossbow bolt entering his head and killing him instantly –thus ending the siege. 

On another occasion two guards were likely a little surprised to find King Charles I halfway through the window of one of the castle’s bedrooms. He was wedged and stuck between the bars. But this wasn’t owed to any intended illicit midnight liaisons. It also wasn’t a slight on the hospitality. It was a failed attempt to avoid the executioner’s block.  

During another siege the castle’s commander was initially rather confident of his sturdy fortress’ imperviousness. Why wouldn’t he be? It was a formidable and daunting deterrent. That was until he looked in the well. The recent dry summer had resulted in the water level being too low to withstand a siege. As such, the weather had rendered the mighty stone walls an irrelevancy. He surrendered immediately.  

One former resident of the castle also owned the whole of the Isle of Wight. That was until King Edward I intervened. On her deathbed she granted the island, along with all of her wealth to him. Well, apparently. When she supposedly agreed to the deal the only people present were those sent by the king to secure her agreement. Suspicious. 

It was Peter de Heyno who killed the French commander with the deftly shot crossbow. He’d noticed the commander taking daily walks towards the wall at a certain time and decided to take advantage. By ending the siege he saved many lives and was rightly hailed as a local hero.   

Getting stuck in the bars of his windows wasn’t Charles’ only attempt at escape. On another occasion he was double-crossed when those he’d paid to arrange his escape failed to do so. He was initially held in luxurious accommodation, but his repeated escape attempts resulted in him being moved to more secure and more modest accommodation. He was imprisoned at the castle after being deposed and remained there until his execution, fourteen months later. His two youngest children were later confined there too. His daughter, Elizabeth, never left after sadly dying aged only fourteen.  

After his successful siege King Stephen immediately set about addressing the castle’s fatal well-related flaw. He immediately sent two of the castle’s prisoners down the well to dig it deeper. They dug down forty-nine metres in total. It was so deep that a donkey-operated wheel was required to draw the water. The castle still has resident donkeys for visitor demonstrations. They’re a little temperamental though. During the demonstration that I watched the guide appeared to do most of the work. Still, the donkeys have become a bit of an icon of the castle. As such, a cartoon donkey was used as the narrator of the castle’s introductory video. It was voiced by TV personality Phil Jupitus. I couldn’t help but wonder how flattering he found the job offer. “Hi Phil. It’s me, your agent. I’ve got an acting job for you.” “Excellent! What is it? Hamlet? King Lear? James Bond?” “Umm…let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a donkey. They’re convinced you’re perfect for the part.” 

It was Isabella de Fortibus whose wealth was granted to Edward I. She was the richest woman in England. At that time the Isle of Wight was semi-autonomous, and she was the last owner. She was titled Lord of the Wight (although often referred to as the queen). Her great wealth made her hand one of the most highly-sought in marriage. But, she was uninterested in remarrying after her husband’s death. She skilfully managed to swerve her many suitors, maintain her independence and retain her riches, something difficult for a woman at the time. Edward was extremely jealous of her huge wealth and power. But she managed to thwart his repeated attempts to seize her fortune. Well, until her dying moments. She outlived her six children leaving her heirless. Upon hearing of her ill-health Edward immediately despatched some trusted men to convince her to sign over her riches. She didn’t sign though. We have no way of knowing whether this was through weakness or refusal. The only people present in the room were the three men sent by Edward. She reportedly touched the glove of the hand holding the proposed contract. This was interpreted as her agreeing to the deal, conveniently. The deal involved selling the island for a measly 6,000 marks and naming Edward as her heir. The meagre sum became immaterial though as naming Edward her heir meant he automatically inherited her wealth, including the 6,000 marks. So he received the island, her properties and all her wealth for nothing. Not a bad day’s work.  

It’s easy to wander around sites like Carisbrooke Castle and dismiss them as lifeless old piles of rocks. But these ancient fortresses often played central roles in our history. They’re often the stages upon which our country’s greatest dramas were set. And, as the stories above demonstrate, behind the crumbling walls and sprawling ivy often lurks some fascinating tales. And these tales often provide insightful windows upon our colourful past. Therefore, sometimes through simply understanding the twists and turns of a castle’s history, we can often uncover a great deal of our own, and Carisbrooke is certainly no exception. 

After the collapse of the Roman Empire much of Europe was thrown into turmoil. The resultant power vacuum in Britain left it defenceless. Many waves of attackers took advantage. It was one such set of attackers, the Vikings, which likely inspired Carisbrooke’s first inception. Use of the site can be traced back to 1000 when a rectangular fortification was built on the hilltop site as a likely refuge from Viking raids.  

The next great event in England’s history was the invasion of the Norman’s in 1066 led by William the Conqueror. The first castle at Carisbrooke was likely built shortly after the invasion when the island was granted to William FitzOsbern. It’s believed the intention was to aid the pacification process necessary after Williams’ turbulent route to the throne.  

Another notable period in the castle’s history occurred between 1335 and 1550. The castle’s defences were significantly upgraded and overhauled to repel French attacks. The threat was owed to the ongoing Hundred Years War. This was a period of great conflict between France and England. Ever since the Norman period the king of England had owned territories in France, but by the end of the Hundred Years War these territories had been lost. This loss of lands severed the two nations spurring the growth of strong independent national identities. It also fostered the notion of England being an island nation separate from mainland Europe. This mind set has continued ever since and still shapes our relationship with Europe today.  

The next notable chapter in the castle’s history occurred in the 1580s when Elizabeth I made her second cousin, Sir George Carey, the captain of the island. It was Carey who assumed command of the Isle’s defences when the Spanish Armada entered the Solent. The intention of the attack was to overthrow Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism as well as stop England interfering in the Spanish-owned lowland regions. The Armada’s defeat represents one of England’s greatest military successes (although poor weather played a significant role). If the invasion had succeeded then Britain, and quite likely the world, would be very different today. Elizabeth embraced England’s new island nation identity and keenly supported global exploration. This, along with England’s maritime expertise, helped sow the seeds for the eventual British Empire.  

The country’s future was in the balance once again when rising republicanism erupted into civil war. This is why the castle ended up playing the role of prison to Charles I. When the monarchy was eventually reinstated it was as a limited constitutional monarchy, meaning Parliamentary rule as opposed to monarchical rule. This curtailing of the monarch’s powers is regarded as a key reason why the UK avoided the later violent and bloody republican uprisings that swept across Europe (creating the guillotine’s famous rivers of blood on Paris’ streets). 

The civil war was the last occasion of such widespread violent upheaval. This rendered properties like castles unnecessary for defence. When Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, became the Isle of Wight governor in 1896 she decided to modernise the castle and make it more fit for accommodation and pleasure. With the need for defence having subsided similar changes were implemented at many such properties throughout the country. But this period was short-lived. Changes in taxes and society made running such grand properties untenable. Carisbrooke is typical in this regard in that after Beatrice’s death, in 1944, the castle was opened to the public, as it is today.  

These mighty construction are no longer needed for defence, but they serve as ready reminders of the tumultuous times when they were. 

The Trial of Wight

As someone who lives the kind of fast-paced, adrenalin-fuelled existence of a Radio Four listener who’s been told to slow down by his doctor, I enjoy pottering around castles*. As previously mentioned, I’ve been making my way around all of Henry VIIIs castles (the ones that can be visited anyway). I’ve written about my previous journeys here, and here. There’s one on the south coast at Southsea, and another just across the water on the Isle of Wight. I decided to spend a long weekend visiting the island and ticking the castles from my list. This is the first post about that trip. It was a trip that didn’t exactly start smoothly.

Now, many would assume that a trip to the Isle of Wight would require a time machine with the dial set to mid-1970s. Personally, I opted for a ferry, but the journey was far from plain sailing.

It was the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. As such, I expected the roads to be pretty snarled up. So, when I awoke, I checked the AA website to assess the traffic situation. Much to my surprise, the roads were reportedly clear. I found this a little unlikely, so opted to periodically check throughout the morning while packing and preparing for the trip.

The journey time was predicted as 1hr 20mins. The ferry departed at 15:30 and the instructions said to get there half an hour early. As my departure time approached the AA website still maintained that the roads were clear. All the same, I left at around half twelve. This allowed 2hr 30mins for a 1hr 20min journey while still observing the thirty minutes grace time. Plenty of time – so I thought.

As I pulled away from home and joined the main road I immediately hit heavy traffic. Not the best start. It took me fifteen minutes to go about three quarters of a mile. Not to worry. This was exactly why I’d allowed plenty of time. On my way to the motorway I had to stop off to get a camping stove. Unfortunately, the car park was grid-locked. It took me ten minutes to get out. Not to worry. As I say, this was why I’d left myself plenty of time. Once escaped from the clutches of the car park everything went smoothly. Well, until I hit the motorway. The motorway was only crawling along. The AA site didn’t say anything about that. Now that was worrying.

I went all the way to the next junction without ever reaching top speed. Thankfully, I only needed to go one junction before departing the motorway and joining an A road. I was relieved to find this was clear all the way to the next motorway. That’s when the troubles returned. As I turned down the slip road I was greeted by the sight of backed-up traffic at almost standstill. The AA didn’t say anything about that either. I looked at the clock. I’d already wasted about forty minutes. This meant I only had thirty extra minutes left, and I still had a very long way to go. I began to get concerned. I also began nervously watching the sat-nav’s ETA as it ticked ever closer to my departure time.

Every time the motorway cleared, inciting a sigh of relief, it soon snarled back up again. It would clear for mere minutes before I encountered the next grid-locked section. It felt like being teased. Every time I was given hope that it would be okay, it was dashed by the next section of congestion coming into view. I sat helplessly watching as the time I’d cautiously allowed drained away. The AA website clearly had a lot to answer for. Meanwhile, time ticked away so freely that I eventually began entertaining the fact that I might not even make my ferry at all.

I had left the ferry booking later than intended. By the time I finally got around to it the fares were extortionate. I almost postponed the trip. It was only after I realised I could get my ticket significantly cheaper by booking through the campsite that I decided to stick to the original plan. But the ticket was tied to a particular departure time. Clearly, any last minute changes were likely to inflict a heavy toll. I was expecting over two hundred pounds for a ticket that had cost me about forty. As I crawled along the motorway, often at little more than walking pace, and watched the time ebb liberally away I even considered cancelling and postponing the trip. But, as I had nothing else planned, I figured that I might as well soldier on and see what happens.

What happened is that my thirty minutes buffer-zone soon evaporated. I then began to eat into the extra thirty minutes grace time. All the while, the traffic would clear for a few minutes only to clog back up again a few minutes later.

My ferry was leaving Portsmouth Ferry Terminal at 15:30. By the time I finally arrived it was 15:29. A guy in a high-vis jacket flagged me down and asked which ferry I was travelling on. I was feeling pretty broken by this point. “The half three to the Isle of Wight, but I assume I’ve missed it,” I said resignedly. “This isn’t the terminal for the Isle of Wight,” he replied, “That’s on the other side of town. You have to keep following the road.” I groaned**, thanked him and continued along my journey.

I pulled out of the terminal and began making my way across Portsmouth, only to realise that the motorways weren’t the only things snarled up. Portsmouth was packed as well. It took me ten minutes just to drive a mile or so. I eventually reached a grid-locked road on an approach to a roundabout. The turning for the terminal was off the roundabout.

As I glacially made my way up the road I kept looking at the clock. It was 15:40. I kept reminding myself that my ferry had left ten minutes earlier. What was the point in turning off from the roundabout and getting stuck in even more grid-locked traffic when I was already too late? Well, I’d travelled this far, so I figured I might as well see it through to the end. I opted to stay the course.

After a few minutes I finally took the turning off the roundabout. It was such solid traffic that I turned my engine off. What was the point? The traffic was going nowhere. As I sat there frustrated and annoyed I saw a partially readable dot matrix sign just up ahead. “Did that just say…” A tree’s branch was obscuring the message as it waved in the breeze. “Did that just say…all ferries are running 30 minutes late?” I asked myself. I stared at the sign waiting for the wind to move the branch. A breeze arrived. The branch moved. I got my view. All ferries were running thirty minutes late. I looked at the clock. It was 15:42! I was only running twelve minutes late. I still had eighteen minutes to go! All I had to do was drive a hundred metres up the road. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was actually going to make it!

Forty minutes it took to drive that one hundred metres. Forty, long, infuriating minutes. I was stuck behind a lorry, so I couldn’t see the road ahead. Every time it moved I became hopeful, only for it to move a couple of metres before stopping again. I was almost banging my head against the steering wheel. How could I get so close and still fail?

Eventually I reached the terminal entrance. I pulled up alongside a woman in a high-vis jacket. “Which ferry you here for?” she asked. I despondently explained, while expecting bad news. “They’re just loading that one now. You might just make it,” she said with a smile. I couldn’t believe it. I rushed up the road before being flagged down by the next person in a high-vis jacket. I then repeated the conversation I’d had with the lady. Well, almost. This time the interaction didn’t end so positively. “Nah, you ain’t gonna make that, mate. You’ll need to go to the booking office and buy a ticket for the next one,” he said. Aarrgghhh! Defeated, I crawled up the road before being flagged down by a third person in high-vis. We went through the same conversation again. After I explained the situation he apologised for the inconvenience before saying, “Just drive down into bay two and I’ll put you on the next one.” “O-kay,” I said, somewhat confused. I drove down to the requested bay. “How about that,” I thought to myself. “I think I’m going to make it.”

There had been some kind of terminal inspection combined with an unexpected level of travellers that had created turmoil at the port. This turned out to be fortuitous for me as I was able to get on, eventually. I didn’t make the next one. It wasn’t actually until 17:20 that I was finally standing on the deck of the ferry and thinking, “I can’t believe I actually made it.”

About an hour or so later I was happily winding my way across the island towards my campsite. I had a little trouble finding it (which I later realised was owed to someone having crashed into, and flattened, the requisite signpost), but I eventually arrived. The camp site was right on the coast and had only a short stroll down to a nice, sandy beach. Not that I was in a position to exploit it. By the time I set up camp it was getting dark. I hadn’t brought much in the way of food as my plan was to get there much earlier and go to the pub in the nearby village. It was 20:30 and dark by the time I’d set up camp. I was sceptical as to whether the pub would still be serving food. The campsite shop had obviously closed, and I had no idea where the nearest open shop was. I was relieved to have finally made it, but acknowledged that my first night on the island was likely to be a hungry one. Either way, my best bet was to wander down to the pub in hope they were still serving food.

After ten minutes of weaving along a dark, pavement-less road I eventually arrived at the pub. I was pleasantly surprised to enter a warm, brightly-lit, wooden-beamed, friendly local pub sporting a strong selection of ales. There was also a rather enticing looking menu. “Are you still serving food?” I asked the barman, optimistically. He looked around me at the clock behind me. “Yeah, you’ve got twenty minutes,” he said. “We stop serving at nine.” Excellent, I thought to myself. I then began drooling over the menu. “The specials are up there,” said the bar man pointing at the chalk board behind him. I then began drooling over the specials. All the food sounded spectacular.

And so it was, at 9pm, I found myself sat in a delightful, little local pub with a delicious local ale while tucking into an exquisite dish of slow roasted belly pork with baked apple, mash and cabbage. I paused from my meal and took a swig of my pint. “After all the trouble of today,” I thought to myself, with a satisfied grin, “it turned out nice again.”

*Despite only being in my mid-thirties, I do actually enjoy Radio Four.

**Well, I say I ‘groaned’. To be honest, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind by this point and without thinking said, “I’m fucked then.” My little blooper didn’t register until I’d driven off, so I didn’t have the chance to apologise.