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Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight is an English island and county, off the southern English coast, to the south of the county of Hampshire.

Popular from Victorian times as a holiday resort, the Isle of Wight is known for its natural beauty and as home to the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, a town that hosts a world famous annual regatta. Colloquially, it is known as "The Island" by its residents.

Transport and Communications

By far the main form of access is by boat from the mainland, with regular vehicle ferry services and passenger services being available through the ferry companies:

  1. Red Funnel - operates a car and passenger service between Southampton and East Cowes. High speed passenger-only services to Southampton operate from "West" Cowes under the name of "Red Jet".

  2. Wightlink - operates a car and passenger service between Portsmouth and Fishbourne (near Ryde), and between Lymington and Yarmouth. It also operates a passenger-only service between Portsmouth Harbour (train station) and Ryde Pier Head (train station) under the name "Fast Cat" (known as the Vomit Comet by the locals due to its colour), so named because the boats used are catamarans.

  3. Hovertravel - carries passengers between Southsea and Ryde aboard a hovercraft.

There are regular proposals for further routes, and during Cowes Week additional services have been known to operate, notably a fast catamaran service between West Cowes and Lymington.

Tourism and Heritage

The heritage of the Island is a major asset, which has for many years kept its economy going. Holidays focused on natural heritage, including both wildlife and geology, are becoming a growing alternative to the traditional seaside resort holiday. The latter has been in decline in the UK domestic market, due to the increased affordability of air travel to alternative destinations.

Tourism is still the largest industry on the Island. In 1999, the 130,000 island residents were host to 2.7 million visitors. Of these, 1.5 million stayed overnight, and 1.2 million visits were day visits. Only 150 thousand of these visitors were international visitors. Between 1993 and 2000, visits increased at a rate of 3% per year, on average.

At the turn of the nineteenth century the island had 10 pleasure piers including 2 at Ryde and a "chain pier" at Seaview which was destroyed by a storm in 1950. The piers at Shanklin, Ventnor and Alum Bay shared a similar fate. The Victoria Pier in Cowes succeeded the earlier Royal Pier but was itself removed in 1960. Today only the railway pier at Ryde and the piers at Sandown, Totland Bay (currently closed to the public) and Yarmouth survive.

As well as more traditional tourist attractions, there are many walking or cycling holidays through the attractive scenery. Almost every town and village plays host to hotels, hostels and camping sites. Out of the peak summer season, the island is still an important destination for coach tours from other parts of the United Kingdom and an annual walking festival has attracted considerable interest.

Airports

There are two small airfields for General Aviation:

  1. Bembridge Airport
  2. Isle of Wight Airport at Sandown

These are busy with day-trippers in summer, travelling by light aircraft.

Roads

A sign used to greet visitors to the Island disembarking from the car ferry at Fishbourne, stating:

Island roads are different. Please drive carefully

It is a joke amongst local residents that the reason Island roads are different is due to a lack of maintenance by the council. Nevertheless the lighter traffic, quieter roads and slower speeds are noticeable to the visitor and are one of the reasons the Island has remained attractive to tourists from the busier mainland. The island has 489 miles of roadway.

There are no bridges or tunnels to the mainland, whether by road, rail or foot, and there remains strong local opposition to any plans for building them.

Trains

The Isle of Wight is home of the smallest train operating company in the United Kingdom's National Rail network, the Island Line. This runs some 8½ miles from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin, down the eastern side of the island via Brading and Sandown. These are electric trains, using former London Underground rolling stock.

The island also has a steam-operated heritage railway, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. The steam railway connects with the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction. This was part of the former Ryde to Newport line.

Before the days of Dr Beeching in the 50s / 60s the island boasted a comprehensive railway network based on a triangle of lines connecting Ryde, Newport and Sandown. Branch lines led from Sandown to Bembridge and from Newport north to Cowes and west to Yarmouth and Freshwater. Two other lines ran to Ventnor:

  1. an extension of the Island Line from Shanklin

  2. a branch of the Newport-Sandown line via Godshill and Wroxall, terminating at different levels above the town.

Today much of the old rail network has been converted to cycle ways including the Newport-Cowes and Newport-Sandown sections. Other sections can still be traced on the ground including the two tunnels where the Ventnor lines were taken through the downs.