Welcome to Newtown. A National Nature Reserve and area rich in history.
This small tranquil rural hamlet was once a thriving... more » medieval town, with its own market and harbour.
In 1254 the Bishop of Winchester decided that the natural harbour and location of the land in the area made it ideal for a planned ‘new town’ which would become the capital for the Isle of Wight. A series of streets and roads were laid out with individual plots or burages where individuals through payment of an annual rent to the crown would be free to build properties and undertake business with no restraint from lords of the manor. These rights were reflected in the use of an historic alternate name for the town of ‘Francheville’ or ‘Freetown’.
However, the planned town was destined to be abandoned. The Bubonic plague came to the Isle of Wight in 1348 and wiped out a third of the population and the thriving Newtown was affected badly. In fact there is a local legend of the Pied Piper of Newtown which is similar to the more famous Pied Piper of Hamelin, with in Newtown’s story the rats being tricked to become stuck in the coastal mud and drowned by the tide and after reduced payment by the mayor the children taken into the woods by the Piper never to be seen or heard from again.
The Isle of Wight was invaded by the French on many occasions during the medieval period leading to a series of beacons being established across the county to be lit if invaders were sighted. This early warning system was coupled with an elite military horse riding force called hobblers who were charged with taking messages between communities should an invasion occur. Despite these best efforts, Newtown was invaded in 1377 and raised to the ground, coupled with the gradual silting up of the harbour and the inability of the farmland to be used for growing crops because of its heavy clay soils the town never really recovered and in 1674 there were only eleven houses recorded in the village increasing to twelve by 1774.
Despite the failure of the town to rebuild and its evolution into a rural hamlet it retained the right to elect two members to the parliament. Newtown was one of many ‘Rotten Boroughs’ across England and continued to send two members to the House of Commons until the Reform Act of 1832 which disenfranchised all such areas. The old Town Hall is testament to this fact and is rather a grand building for a settlement with around a dozen houses. Built in 1699 the Town Hall can be visited as it is part of the extensive ownership of land and properties of the National Trust at Newtown. You can see how the underlying clay soil has been unable to support the heavy stonework of this imposing building which has a definite leaning lopsided character.
Beyond the Town Hall close to the High Street is a property called Noah’s Ark. This stone building bears a sign with the borough seal of Francheville. The ship on the seal represents the importance of the sea and harbour to Newtown and the Lion symbolises the various Royal Charters which conferred its free town status. Until 1916 this property was the village pub being run by the Mews Brewery.
Next to house is an entrance to a field bounded on either side by hedgerows. This is the continuation of the historic High Street and when you walk through the area the hedgerows still mark the old burage plots and street pattern.
Turn left and walk along the High Street with its pretty cottages. These stone cottages were built on former burage plots and most of them bear the name of the original tenements.
The first is Hollis Cottage which was home to the last Riverman who lived in Newtown. Rivermen earned their living from the shellfish in the area (prawns, whelks, winkles, lobsters, crabs and oysters). Hollis Cottage has a Victorian post box built into its side wall and was also where the daily bread delivery was dropped off for the village during the C19th.
Half way along the High Street on the left hand side you will find the village pump. In the C19th a plan was put forward to provide the entire village with fresh water by sinking a well and providing a village pump. Works started as the well was dug it was found that any freshwater that was draining into it was being tainted and spoilt by salt water from the surrounding landscape. The project was abandoned and it wasn’t until well into the C20th that the village was connected to a mains water supply.
Nearby is the village Church. In 1837 this building replaced a much earlier chapel which had become derelict. The earliest church recorded on this site dates from 1407.
Opposite the Church are two brick cottages. Rose Cottage and Myrtle Cottage were built by the Pragnell family (descendents of Flemish C16th immigrants) who were local brick makers. The designs and distinctive yellow colour of the bricks in Myrtle Cottage acted as a shop window for their product which was made from clay found in Newtown Harbour. Clay and brick making was an important business in this area and the north eastern area of land between the harbour and coast is known as Brickfields.
Behind the High Street and between the Church and Marsh Farm House a second old highway called Gold Street can be seen. Today this is a field but you can still see the burage boundaries and shape of the street.
Marsh Farm House was built in 1830s from stone imported from a local quarry at Newbridge.
Continue on along the hedgerowed path to reach a large Bird Hide. This is often manned by National Trust Volunteers who can provide you with information on the importance of the area for wildlife (in particular birds), which is reflected by the level of designation that the area benefits from. It is part of a Special Protection Area (for birdlife), part of a Special Area of Conservation, a Ramsar site, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, part of the isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, part of the Hamstead Heritage Coast and since 1995 has been a National Nature Reserve.
The saltmarsh, mudflats, meadows, trees, woodland and hedgerows provide a wealth of habitats for wildlife and their sympathetic management by the National Trust allows animals, birds, insects and plants to thrive.
In World War II the saltmarsh of Newtown Estuary was disguised as a dummy airfield with its own search lights in an attempt to fool enemy bombers looking to damage Cowes, Southampton and Portsmouth.
Cross over the boardwalk bridge to the Black Hut. Looking right you can see a large area of saltmarsh boarding the creeks and estuary. This area was until 1954 grazed pasture as it had been reclaimed and drained in the early C18th when a seawall was built to encompass the area. However the combination of a high tide and southerly storm breached the sea wall and allowed the whole area to become inundated by sea water returning it back to a more naturalised habitat.
To the left you will see two lagoons these were salt pans another important industry in the area from medieval times through to the late C19th. On the right close to the Black Hutt you can see the brick remains of the former saltworks were the briny water from the lagoons was pumped into vats and heated to evaporate water and create salt. Today the saltpans provide an important habitat for rare species such as the Lagoon Shrimp and Brittle Stars. You can also see Terns, Grey Mullet and Eels in this area.
In the late C20th interest in the natural environment and how it is affected by people and change led to Newtown becoming an increasingly popular area for scientific research. In particular there was interest in monitoring the impact of the breach of the sea wall in 1954 on the saltmarsh and estuary. The Isle of Wight Natural History and Archaeology Society were involved in annual surveys of the area and this led to an increased appreciation of its importance and rarity. As early as the late 1950s it was suggested that the area would merit Nature Reserve status. This was brought into stark focus when in the early 1960s a proposal for a nuclear power station was put forward at Hamstead on the west of the estuary. This gigantic power station would have been eight times the size of Buckingham Palace and twice its height and would have dominated and spoilt this beautiful tranquil area. Thankfully, although the site was deemed to be excellent for such a scheme, the cost of connection across the Solent to the National Grid meant that an alternate site for a conventional power station was chosen at Fawley on the mainland coast in Hampshire.
In 1965 the land at Newtown was put up for sale and purchased by a syndicate of organisations interested in securing its environmental future. Once purchased it was given to the National Trust who were also given land at Hamstead where the proposed power station would have been sited. The area was run as a local nature reserve by the Isle of Wight Council until 1995 when it was given National Nature Reserve status and the National Trust took over the running of the area. less «