The Needles and Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Needles and Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, UK

0 Conversations

The Needles, Isle of Wight.
Needles you cannot thread — One of the Wonders of the Isle of Wight1

One of the Isle of Wight's most iconic landmarks is the Needles, the three chalk stacks off the Island's westernmost point. These mark where the English Channel meets the Solent, the stretch of water that separates the mainland from the Isle of Wight. The Needles have caused the loss of many a ship, and today are guarded by an iconic lighthouse. The westernmost point of the Island, close to the Needles, is a triangle of chalk cliffs known as the Needles headland. South of the Needles is Scratchells Bay with High Down above, while to the north is the famed multi-coloured Alum Bay and the location of the Needles Pleasure Park, with Headon Warren beyond.

This area, now mainly owned by the National Trust as well as the site of a small theme park, has been the site of a Stone Age settlement, the cause of many lost ships, a heavily-fortified military outpost, the birthplace of radio, the first place flown to in a rain storm, the testing-place of Britain's space programme, the inspiration for poets and artists including Alfred Lord Tennyson, WH Auden and JMW Turner, as well as a James Bond novel and even had its own species of moth, the Isle of Wight Wave moth, sadly believed to be extinct since 1931.

Official Recognition

The Needles are part of the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Tennyson Heritage Coast. The area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for natural and geological reasons and contains three Grade II-listed buildings and four Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

The Needles

The Needles themselves are three chalk stacks out to sea off the Island. The easternmost is close to shore, then there is a wide gap, west of which are two more chalk stacks, the westernmost having, at its end, the Needles Lighthouse, just north of which is the smaller Goose Rock. The first stack was connected to the Island by an arch until 1815, when the dome of the arch fell, cutting the stack off from the Island. Between the first and second stacks stood the tall, narrow Needle Rock that gave the Needles their name. This was 120 feet (36.5m) high and also known as 'Lot's Wife', but collapsed in 1764, the impact reportedly heard as far away as Southampton and Portsmouth.

The Needles are perhaps the most breathtaking example of the Wight-Purbeck ridge. This is a spine of chalk that stretches from Culver Cliff on the Island's east coast across the middle of the Island to the Freshwater cliffs and the Needles on the west coast. It then continues underwater beneath the Solent to Swanage, Dorset and the chalk cliffs of the region of the Isle of Purbeck2. The underwater stacks are known as the Needles bridge. The chalk then reaches the similar, but smaller, Old Harry Rocks in Dorset3 and the Pinnacles, rocks off the chalk cliffs located between Dorset's Old Harry Rocks and Ballard Down.

'Threading the Needles' is an expression meaning passing between the Needles rocks, normally between the first and second stacks. Despite the expression, it is possible; indeed a hovercraft threaded the Needles in honour of Prince Charles' visit. It is extremely unwise as the number of shipwrecks in the area attests.

Between Easter and October visitors can take a short boat trip around the Needles from Alum Bay, weather depending. This is heartily recommended.

Artistic Influence

Prominent romantic landscape artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) painted the Needles several times, particularly in his 1795 Fishermen at Sea, his first oil painting displayed at the Royal Academy in 1796 and now displayed in the Tate Gallery. Romantic painter John Martin (1789-1854) painted Scratchell's Bay in 1839.


Several ships have been wrecked off the Needles over the centuries, 20 of which have been identified. Recognising their importance, in 1976 the water around the Needles became the fifth site in Britain classified under the Protection of Wreck Act, one of only 46 historic protected wreck sites in English waters.

Their remains are protected and displayed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology locally in the Fort Victoria Underwater Archaeology Centre, Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre in Arreton and Southampton's SeaCity Museum and overseas including Amsterdam.


On 12 October, 1627 a Dutch East India Company convoy of seven ships, including the Campen on her maiden voyage, were heading to the East Indies when a gale struck, forcing the ships into the shelter of the Solent. Five made it safely around the Needles. One, the Vliegende Draecke survived threading the Needles' gap between the stacks and Needle rock and, although her hull was holed, beached safely off Alum Bay. The Campen smashed against the middle stack and sank, and although her crew survived, most of her cargo, silver intended to be traded for Asian spices, was lost with the ship. The first shipwreck to be reported in an English newspaper, the Duke of Buckingham arranged for much of the ship to be salvaged by Jacob 'The Diver' Johnson in an early diving bell. Assisted by local merchant, Robert Newland, five cannon, 6,660kg of lead, and 2,635 coins were recovered.

The Campen and a further 8,000 silver coins were located in June 1979 by the Needles Underwater Archaeology Group, with some relics now on display in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.

HMS Assurance

HMS Assurance was lost off the Needles on 24 April, 1753. She was a 5th rate Frigate4 built in 1747 in Bursledon, near Southampton, Hampshire. She was on a voyage carrying home Edward Trelawney, Governor of Jamaica and fourth son of the late Bishop of Winchester, along with his family and personal fortune of £60,000.

In order to navigate the difficult Needles Passage, the ship's Master, David Patterson sailed closer and closer to the outermost Needle, hoping to avoid the Shingles. Trelawney enquired how close to the rock they would be, getting the reply So close that the fly of the ensign might touch the rock. Unsurprisingly, the 100-foot frigate crashed into the rock, and was a complete loss. The crew, and all but £4,000, was saved but Patterson was sentenced to three months in the Marshalsea, a London debtors' prison.

HMS Pommone

In 1811 the six-year-old 1,076 ton HMS Pommone sank. The British Ambassador to Persia, in a hurry with vital intelligence regarding the war with France, decided to take a short cut to save time and ended up sinking the ship, although the crew, passengers, her guns and some horses that were a present for George III from the Shah of Persia were all rescued. The wreck of the Pommone lies on the remains of the Assurance; the two wrecks were discovered in 1969 by local diver Derek Williams.


On 25 January, 1890 the Irex, the largest sailing ship ever to be a total wreck on the Island, was lost on the Needles. On Christmas Eve 1889 the 2,347 ton Irex began her maiden voyage. Her steel hull was 302 feet long, her masts 220 feet high, and she had a crew of 34 plus two stowaways. She was caught in a hurricane, and driven towards the Needles. As the Irex, thrown off course by the storm, approached the Needles, Captain Hutton mistook the warning light from the Needles lighthouse for a pilot boat's light, and guided his ship towards it. By the time he had realised his mistake it was too late. The Atlantic waves carried the steel hull onto the chalk bed, smashing the hull, which flooded. Captain Hutton gave the order to abandon ship and, with the First Mate, began to release one of the lifeboats. A giant wave broke over the ship, killing them both instantly. The Boatswain, meanwhile, was attempting to rescue the ship's log, but another wave swamped the cabin and he too was drowned.

At 9am the Irex was spotted by men at the Needles Battery, who informed the Totland lifeboat, the Charles Luckombe. Another ship, Hampshire, had by this time seen the Irex and was coming to her aid, although the storm prevented them from approaching the Irex. As the lifeboat came near, a wave almost smashed it under the bow of the Hampshire. The crew of the lifeboat felt it was impossible for them to rescue the crew under these conditions, and was towed back to station by the Hampshire.

When it was realised that the lifeboat had failed, the rescue efforts turned to the rocket apparatus5 that had by now arrived at the Needles Old Battery. At 1:15pm the coastguard fired the rocket, against the gale, at the wreck which was 300 yards out. The shot somehow found the wreck, but was caught in the rigging. The crew had no choice but to climb the rigging in order to free the rope. One lost his grip and fell to his death. The rest of the crew managed to free the rope, a process which took two hours.

At 3pm the chair was ready to take men off the wreck to the fort above. By 12:30am all but one of the surviving crew had been brought ashore. The only remaining member onboard the Irex was a lad called Jones who was too scared to make the journey, yet Coastguard Machin and a seaman named Isaac Rose descended to the ship and carried him ashore. The Coastguard and men at the Needles Old Battery rescued 29 out of the 36 people aboard. On the wreck is a plaque to the five men and two boys who died.


The last large shipwreck at the Needles took place on 5 January, 1947. The 3,874 ton Varvassi, a 32-year-old Greek steamer, drifted onto the Needles Bridge when her engines broke in initially foggy, later gale conditions. She came to rest 100 yards from the lighthouse. The 37 crew onboard were rescued by the Yarmouth lifeboat but the ship was wrecked and remains a hazard in the area, although her cargo of timber, tangerines and wine was much more welcome for Islanders still undergoing rationing.

Other Wrecks

In 1691 the galleon St Anthony was lost in Scratchells Bay. In 1705 the fifth rate HMS Looe was lost off the Needles. In 1773 the Conway sunk here, followed by the Philicay Racket in 1774, the Roberts in 1781, Apthorp in 1785, La Maria in 1786, the Coastguard vessel Swan6 and the Countess Hoberton in 1793. On 12 December, 1799 HMS Guernsey Lily was lost in the Needles Channel.

In 1811 the Pilgrim sank here, with the Tjsemboelvert in 1852 and the Steam Yacht Dream in 1868. Thereafter the Isle of Wight Sunday Schools Committee raised funds for a lifeboat to be stationed at nearby Totland Bay, with a Coastguard team at Freshwater Bay. Despite this, in 1891 the Gudrun sank on the Shingles, her six crew all drowned. In 1894 the Ganymedes was wrecked. In 1898 a German three-masted schooner Ernst was wrecked and destroyed on the Shingles. On 23 July, 1909 the 9,060 ton German liner Derfflinger ran into the Shingle Bank off the Needles. She was trapped for two days before tugs pulled her free.

Of course it is not only ships that have been wrecked off the Needles. On 8 August, 1940 160 German aircraft launched an attack on Coastal Convoy CW9, with the area of the Needles in the thick of the dogfighting between the RAF and Luftwaffe. Two German and one British aircraft crashed. Three days later 176 aircraft attacked Dorset, with a Messerschmitt and a Hurricane crashing, another German plane crashing on 25 August, two German bombers and two Spitfires crashing in the area in September, two German fighters, including Major Helmut Wick and five Spitfires in November. In 1941 four Heinkels, a Mosquito and, in 1942, a Bristol Beaufighter came down in the area.

The Lighthouse

The waters around the Needles are treacherous, as only a narrow navigable channel 1,830 metres wide separates the Shingles bank and the chalk Needles rocks. Through this gap the tide leaving the Solent reaches speeds of five knots, while Atlantic storms up the English Channel can exceed 100 mph with waves reaching 40 feet up the lighthouse.

The first lighthouse was first built in 1786 on the Needles headland. This had 13 lamps generating a light directed by 13 concave copper-plated reflectors. Despite this, ships kept sinking near the Needles, as the light, 462 feet above sea level, was frequently enshrouded in fog. Here it stood until 1859, when the wooden structure was removed and rebuilt in Totland. It was eventually demolished in 1985.

In 1857 the outermost Needles stack was partly dynamited to form a platform, on which the 109-foot new lighthouse was built, completed in 1859. It was designed to withstand hurricane force winds and 20-foot high waves, although 40-foot high waves have been reported and spray often reaches the top. Manned by three men and visible up to 17 miles, it has a unique pattern of a two-second flash followed by two seconds eclipse followed by 14 seconds of light then two seconds of darkness, before the pattern repeats. The light is also colour-coded to mark safe and dangerous channels. Potentially separated from the Island for weeks at a time, only one lighthouse keeper quit, after an argument with his fellow keepers over cricket. In September 1993 an electric cable was laid in December 1994 from the Old Battery, along a trench, threaded through the last Needle and into the lighthouse, allowing the lighthouse to be fully automated. The Needles lighthouse was then abandoned, having been one of the last three manned lighthouses in the British Isles. Today the lighthouse is a Grade II listed building.

The Needles Headland

Towering above the Needles stacks is the Needles headland, a narrow peninsula of perpendicular chalk cliffs that stretch from the Needles to Alum Bay and Headon Warren and High Down to the East. The cliffs have been hollowed by the sea to form caves, three of which are called Lord Holm's Parlour, Lord Holm's Kitchen and Lord Holm's Cellar after Sir Robert Holmes, Governor of the Island and Captain of nearby Yarmouth Castle between 1667-92, who is believed to have entertained guests in the caves.

Scratchells Bay to the south of the Needles is the most inaccessible beach on the Isle of Wight. The only access is a treacherous voyage by sea or a 400-foot drop from above. When in 1736, John Baldwyn of the nearby Hampshire port of Lymington learned that his wife had sworn to dance on his grave, in his will he asked to be buried at sea in Scratchells Bay.

The cliffs are surprisingly popular with birds, and so in the 18th and 19th centuries cliffsmen earned their living by descending the cliffs, collecting eggs and feathers as well as rock samphire, an edible plant that grows on the cliffs. A far more lucrative trade was smuggling, and so three armed coastguard garrisons were set up in the area, with gun fights between smugglers and coastguard taking place in the area in 1817 and 1834. On the whole it was a peaceful part of Britain, popular with Alfred Lord Tennyson who lived nearby in Farringford House and after whom Tennyson Down is named.

There is a Bowl Barrow on the Down, dating from the Bronze Age, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

In 1975 the National Trust bought the headland. This was part of its Project Neptune campaign to purchase and preserve the nation's coastline. In 1977 it purchased the neighbouring Headon Warren and in 1985 the Needles Coastguard Station. The National Trust now owns 15 sites on the Isle of Wight, 28% of the Island's coastline and 10% of the Island overall. The area is popular with walkers, including those attempting the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.

Aviation History

On 16 July, 1910 aviator Robert Loraine7 became the first man to fly in a rain storm and the first man to land an aeroplane on the Isle of Wight, having flown through a heavy rain storm at the Bournemouth Aviation Meeting and getting lost. It took him half an hour to return to Bournemouth in his Farman biplane.

The Forts

The first records of the area's defence are invasion beacons on High Down and Headon Warren dating from 1324, with a Royal Navy heliograph signalling station on the Headland established during the Napoleonic Wars. The first proposal to build a fort at the Needles occurred in 1855 and the first fort, the Grade II-listed Old Battery was constructed in the early 1860s, with tunnels down to sea level constructed in 1885. A further battery, Hatherwood Battery, was built at Headon Warren between 1865-69 to defend Alum Bay and prevent an enemy from landing troops there. In 1893-95 the Needles Old Battery was felt to be too small to be equipped with the latest, larger guns and was replaced with a neighbouring battery, the Grade II-listed New Needles Battery. The Needles Old Battery's guns were considered obsolete and chucked off the cliff in 1902. They were recovered by the National Trust and put on display in 1983 in a ceremony presided over by Prince Charles.

In 1913 Britain's first anti-aircraft gun was tested at the Needles Old Battery, shooting at kites towed by a destroyer.

Visiting the Old Battery also provides you with an excellent view of the Needles. A short walk from the parade ground down some steps and along a tunnel leads to the battery's searchlight position in the cliff, right over the stacks.

Radar Station

During the Second World War, the Needles Batteries were still in use, armed with 9.2-inch (233 cm) guns for use against enemy ships, anti-aircraft weapons and searchlights. Despite this, the Needles Batteries were unable to work effectively at night. This changed when on 29 July, 1941 the Triple Service CD/CHL Radar became operational at New Needles. Initially manned by the army, by February 1942 it was in the care of the RAF. In January 1944, the Old Needles Battery also had Radar, manned by the Royal Artillery to defend the Needles Passage at night.

Although Radar dramatically increased both batteries effectiveness against enemy aircraft and ships, but it also brought an increased danger of attack. Deep trenches were dug, 700 land mines laid across the beauty spot and barbed wire was strewn everywhere. Fortunately the greatest danger faced by the men at the Needles was not an invasion, but the weather. Twice men were blown off the cliff to their deaths on the rocks below.

On 5 June, 1944, the batteries watched part of the D-Day Invasion force pass the Needles on its way to the Normandy beaches.

Rocket Station

Between 1955-71 the Needles Headland was used by Saunders-Roe as their rocket engine testing site. On 28 October, 1971 a British Black Arrow rocket from the Isle of Wight put the British Prospero satellite into a Polar orbit, making the United Kingdom one of only five countries in the world to have launched their own satellite with their own technology8. This was the world's most reliable space programme as there had not been a single failure. However in 1971, not foreseeing the demand there would be for satellite technology, considering the imminent explosion in demand for international telecommunications satellites and satellites for other uses, the Government decided to abandon the space programme. Forty years after Britain ended its space programme, NASA would abandon its iconic space shuttle.


In 1955, the same year that the Black Knight rocket programme began at High Down's cliff top location overlooking the white cliffs of the Needles, Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Moonraker was published. It featured a missile based on a cliff-top location overlooking white cliffs. Many believe that the Needles rocket base was the inspiration behind the story.

Alum Bay

The pearly blue of the chalk is beyond description by words, probably out of the power even of the pencil... the tints of the cliffs are so bright and so varied, that they have not the aspect of anything natural. Deep purplish red, dusky blue, bright ochreous yellow, grey, nearly approaching to white, and absolute black, succeed each other, as sharply defined as the stripes in silk.
– Sir Henry Englefield, 1812.

North of the Needles Headland is the beach of Alum Bay. The bay itself is now best know for being one of the Island's première tourist attractions and the location of the Needles Pleasure Park at the top of the cliff. The Alum Bay cliffs themselves, next to Alum Bay Chine9, are known for their sand of 21 different shades and colours. This is also the spot where Marconi created the telecommunications revolution.

Alum Bay is named after the aluminium-potassium sulphates once found on the cliff. Approximately 20 million years ago in the location of the Isle of Wight, the ocean's bedrock was buckled, so that the seabed's layers were moved from horizontal to vertical. This was the geological upheaval known as the Alpine orogeny, most famous for forming the Alps.

In effect by walking north from The Needles, a short distance passes layers made over 70 million years; chalk formed in the Cretaceous, Eocene rocks at Alum Bay and Oligocene clay at Headon Warren. Alum Bay has provided a large number of fossils of squid, cuttlefish, snails and fossilised fruits and plants. These are largely ignored in favour of the sand.

Alum Bay Sand

Made of quartz, mica and felspar, the presence of other minerals such as haematite (red), limonite (yellow/brown) and glauconite (green) turns the sand into a wide variety of colours, with different quantities and combinations, and even different-sized sand grains, giving the sand in the cliff many hues with are visible in vertical stripes. Although it was common in Victorian times for tourists to climb the cliff to collect the sand they want, for safety and conservation purposes this is now discouraged and instead visitors are requested to purchase sand that has fallen through natural erosion and been collected.

History of Alum Bay

The oldest evidence of settlement is the Bronze Age Bowl Barrow which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The bay was largely ignored until the Island's Governor, Sir Richard Worsley, obtained a licence to gather 'a certain Oure of Alum' for the pottery and glass trade in 1561, although the alum works itself was located in the more hospitable Parkhurst Forest. When this was exhausted, between 1790-1908 white sand from Hatherwood Point was collected to be exported to London, Bristol and Worcester as it had a reputation for being the finest sand in the kingdom for glass and porcelain manufacture, used even by Josiah Wedgwood.

Alum Bay has been a tourist attraction since the 1790s, painted by JMW Turner in 1795. The Alum Bay Hotel opened early in the 19th Century. Although in 1830 steam ferries regularly travelled to nearby Yarmouth, the railway did not connect Yarmouth and Freshwater with the rest of the Island until 1890. A Newport-Freshwater stagecoach service began in 1860, however there was no easy way to get to Alum Bay itself by land until the completion of the Alum Bay New Road in 1873, enabling transport from Totland Bay and Yarmouth.

In 1860 the Needles Hotel opened. Popular with royalty, as from 1846 Queen Victoria lived on the Island at Osborne House in East Cowes, it was soon known as the Royal Needles Hotel.

The easiest approach to Alum Bay in calm weather was by sea, to which end in 1869 the Alum Bay Pier Act was passed by Parliament. The first pier was a simple wooden structure that could not keep up with its unforeseen popularity with constant steamers calling, and so a second Pier Act was passed in 1887, with a replacement 370-foot long pier opening in August 1887. This was run by Alfred Isaacs, a descendant of one of the first lighthouse keepers, who with his family owned land nearby. Several paddle steamers would call at Alum Bay in the summer. There were a range of bathing machines and small boats available for visitors to hire, as well as a café on the pier and a golf course constructed nearby. From the top of the cliff to the beach below, a path comprising 232 steps was constructed.

Sadly in 1909 the Royal Needles Hotel was burned to the ground, and with the Great War and the following depression, the tourist trade went into decline. The stables of the Royal Needles Hotel was converted into a restaurant by Frank Cotton. In 1924 he sold the Royal Needles Hotel's land and restaurant to the Needles Hotel Company, rivals to the Isaacs family, who owned the pier, much of the rest of the Alum Bay area and The Hut café. In 1925 the pier was closed, and in the winter of 1927 broke in two. While the Isaacs were recovering from this financial catastrophe, the Company outbid the Isaacs and bought the beach and cliffs south of the pier, although the Isaacs owned the well that was Alum Bay's water supply.

The Second World War disrupted the tourist trade when the Needles headland was used as a military training area, and many of the buildings were damaged. However tourism began again in 1946 and in 1950, on the death of Sam Isaacs, the Isaacs family sold their land to the Needles Hotel Company, with Jim Isaacs as its Managing Director until his death in 1968. The presence of the rocket site in the 1950s was a boom to the area as it improved the road.

In 1971 construction began on a chairlift to take visitors from the clifftop to the beach. Opened in April 1973, it travels 250 metres across and 51 metres down to the site of the pier. It is capable of carrying 2,000 passengers an hour, 1,000 each way. Other attractions include the Coloured Sand Shop, Alum Bay Glass, crazy golf and even a couple of rides in addition to restaurant and bar. The area also includes a replica invasion beacon and the Marconi memorial.

On Saturday 14 July, 2012 the Olympic torch arrived at the Needles Pleasure Park and enjoyed a ride on the chairlift to Alum Bay below before returning to the top of the cliff.

Alum Bay and Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi was the inventor of the radio. In the early 1880s, a time when all telegraph transmissions needed wires connected to Morse Code printers, he experimented with sending messages by wireless. Founding his own company in June 1896, the following year he set up a transmitter in the Royal Needles Hotel, located on the cliffs overlooking Alum Bay. A 168-foot high mast was constructed at the top of the cliff and Marconi successfully transmitted messages to a tug anchored in the bay using what he called 'the world's first permanent wireless station'. The following year he transmitted from Alum Bay to Bournemouth and Poole, and even from Osborne House to the Royal Yacht, with the furthest transmission that year 40 miles away. In 1898 he sent the first radio message to be paid for, from Lord Kelvin, and in 1899 he contacted Alum Bay from 70 miles away at sea. He also experimented with his receiving relay modifying the Branly's coherer which allowed the automatic printing of the Morse signal by pen onto a paper tape. On 15 November, 1899, while sailing home from America, he used news received by wireless from Alum Bay to compile and compose the first newspaper published at sea, The Transatlantic Times.

Success was not to last. In 1900 the manager of the Royal Needles Hotel raised Marconi's rent by £1 a week. Marconi chose to leave, sending his last transmission on 26 May, 1900. After being based temporarily at Knowles Farm, Niton on the Island, he moved to the Lizard, Cornwall. In early 1898 Marconi described his time on the Island with the words:

The best results we have obtained were on the small tugboat... in very tempestuous weather in the month of November around the Isle of Wight where we had at times about two feet of water in the cabin, and ourselves and all the instruments were practically drenched with sea water. Many of the sailors and engineers of the tug seemed very anxious about their personal safety on that particular occasion.

Headon Warren

The northern side of Alum Chine lies Headon Warren. This is a clay cliff and sand heath hill that reaches 397 feet above sea level. The Warren is the site of two Scheduled Ancient Monuments, two Bowl Barrows as well as a more impressive Round Barrow. The area is also a prize fossil hunting area, with 42 species of early mammals including primates discovered here, as well as fish and shells.

The bottom of the cliff leads to Hatherwood Point, a rocky cliff edge. Still a quiet, desolate spot, the most prominent building are the remains of Hatherwood Battery, which are slowly but surely sliding down the clay cliff into the sea beyond.

It is known that the area was settled in the Stone and Bronze Ages, with the Barrows or tumuli evidence of this, and it is believed that Henry III ordered the top barrow to be excavated to see whether it contained treasure in 1237. In 1977 Headon Warren, including Hatherwood Battery, were purchased by the National Trust as part of the Neptune Project.

Animal and Plant Life

As its name suggests, Headon Warren and the Needles Headland are overrun with rabbits. Indeed, records dating back to 1225 list professional rabbit catchers in the area, and the local Coneymen exported coneys10 to London. The reason for the Island's rabbit trade was that foxes are not native to the Island and only introduced in the 19th Century, and so the rabbits, themselves introduced shortly after the Norman Conquest, were able to breed unhindered. In fact it was a popular boast in the Tudor period that the Island had No hooded priests, no lawyers, no wolves and no foxes11.

As well as ferrets, the coneymen used the traditional fisherman's method of catching the coneys. They would take a king crab, attach a candle to its back and light it, force the crab deep into the rabbit hole with a long stick and have nets around all the other burrow exits ready to catch the fleeing rabbits. The crab was then retrieved using a string attached to one of its legs. Another mammal found in the area is the red squirrel, an endangered species in Britain with the Isle of Wight one of the last bastions of red squirrels as the south of England has instead been overrun by greys.

The heathland of Headon Warren supports a large number of rare plants, and is one of the two acid heath sites on the Island. Plants found in the area include heather, two types of gorse, grassland, yellowort, autumn gentian and rare early gentian – almost exclusive to the Island – the rare ox tongue broom rape – found only in two other places in Britain – centaureas and orchids. It is also native to mining bee colonies and rare butterflies. Sadly the Isle of Wight Wave moth, the Island's unique moth that once frequented this area, has not been seen since 1931 and is now believed to be extinct.

The waters of the Needles and Shingles are popular with bass, squid, Dover sole, conger eels, thornback ray and turbot, together with sharks, pout, skate, rays, cuttlefish, pollock, mackerel, bream, tope, codling, whitling and dogfish. At least twice a whale has washed ashore near the Needles; one was briefly grounded in 1814. In 1842 a 75-foot fin whale was bought by Charles Dabell and taken to Blackgang Chine, where it became the star attraction in what is Britain's first theme park; the skeleton is still on display today. The area is also popular with many birds, including guillemots, cormorants, herring gulls, shag, kittiwakes, stonechats, rock pipits, scoters and the Dartford warbler. Sadly the area is no longer home to puffins.

The Needles, Isle of Wight.
1The number of wonders depends on the postcard bought, normally between six and nine.2The Isle of Purbeck is not an island, but a peninsula in Dorset.3This is the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.4This refers to the rating system in use at the time for Royal Navy ships. Frigates were designed for speed and maneuverability rather than the sheer firepower of ships of the line – the 1st to 4th rate ships. A 5th rate of this period had between 40 and 50 guns.5The rocket was an Island invention designed to send a rope from shore to a ship in danger, so that a chair attached to a rope could carry the men onboard to safety.6The Coastguard have been based in the area since at least the 18th Century. The Coastguard was originally a paramilitary force enforcing customs laws, they maintained armed garrisons in Freshwater Bay, Totland Bay and Alum Bay to combat the Island's rife smuggling trade.7Best known for inventing the word 'joystick'. He was the first man to fly the Irish Sea in 1911.8The other countries are the USA, the former USSR, China and France.9A chine is an Isle of Wight and Dorset term for where a river meets the edge of a cliff and gradually, over time, erodes the cliff to form a V-shaped gorge.10Rabbits were commonly called coneys, only the young were known as rabbits.11The Island today has priests in Quarr Abbey as well as both foxes, which were imported to be hunted, and lawyers.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by



h2g2 Entries

External Links

Not Panicking Ltd is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more