Wight Conservation - History and Archaeology


Wight Conservationís landscapes reflect the long history of manís habitation on the Island as well as telling some of the complex geological story. The ridge of chalk downs stretching from west to east across the south of the Island, which dominates much of our estate, is some 60 million years old and was thrown up by the same upheavals that brought the Alps on the continent into being.

The landscape that we see today has been formed by manís activities over thousands of years. Indeed, it is the management in pursuit of agriculture and economic activities such as quarrying that has given the special character that we cherish today. (LINK: Woodland Management) No part of our estate is truly wilderness, untouched by human hand, and, although the management priorities today include wildlife and habitat diversity, many of the methods employed reflect our forebearsí need to use nature to their advantage, first for survival and later for economic progress. Without careful and sustained management, the estateís diversity would quickly deteriorate as dominant species take over.


The earliest signs of manís activities on the estate that we have so far identified are Neolithic flint workings that would have produced tools needed in abundance for a whole range of agricultural, woodland and domestic operations. Recent archaeological survey work carried out by the National Trust (Ventnor Downs Historic Landscape Survey - CKC Archaeology) has identified Wroxall Down as being part of a settlement occupied for well over 4,000 years.

Bronze Age

But the first civilisation to leave significant marks on the landscape is the Early Bronze Age people (c2,400 to c3,000 BCE) with their burial barrows that are such prominent features on the downs across the Island. These cemeteries were often fashioned on false crests so they would be visible from below - a constant reminder, no doubt, of mortality. It seems that the layout of the barrows may well have formed the boundaries between lands of tribes or families and it is interesting to note that the current division between the modern civil parishes of Wroxall and Ventnor runs along one of these ancient boundaries.

Early Trade

These people were far from isolated, living in societies that enjoyed trading and cultural links with other ancient civilisations as far away as the Mediterranean. A burial urn found in one of the Mottistone Down cemetery barrows by the Rev. Greenís excavation in the early 1800s has decoration similar in style to pottery of the same period from the Ionian islands of Lefkas. (LINK: The Prehistoric Ceramics Research Group) www.pcrg.org.uk

These people would have had a good working knowledge of the tides, currents and weather of the Solent and the Channel. The waters would have been no less treacherous to navigate than they are today. Some recent experiments have shown that primitive craft of the period would have been quite seaworthy and capable of coping with rough seas.

Sheltered by St Martinís Down, Luccombe Down and Ventnor Down from the winds, the broad, flat coombe (or valley) of Wroxall has always been favoured farming land, watered by springs and tributaries that rise in the area as the headwaters of the Eastern River Yar. In the drier, hotter climate of the Early Bronze Age, our ancestors adopted the terracing method of cultivation - remains of which can be seen today Ė to preserve water. As well as burying their dead on the downs, they would have grazed their cattle, sheep, pigs and goats on this high ground. Their settlements would have been in the valleys in much the same areas as todayís villages and farmsteads.

Saint Boniface

Christianity was late in coming to the Isle of Wight, but St Boniface Down, which borders Wight Conservationís Wroxall estate, is a reminder that one of the greatest missionaries of the early Medieval period visited the Island. Born in 657CE, St Boniface entered Nursling monastery near Southampton and became a monk and a priest. He would have seen the Island whilst undergoing his training and novitiate and, knowing that Christianity was only just taking root there, could well have conceived his missionary work. No doubt he would have made several visits, cutting his missionary teeth on the hesitant islanders hedging their bets as to whether to give up their pagan worship - some of the barrows show evidence of Christian burial from this period. As he walked and meditated along the Wroxall Horseshoe, looking across the Channel, perhaps inspired the greatest of his lifeís work as a missionary on the Continent. (LINK: www.stboniface.org.uk/whowas.htm)

Norman Conquest

Some 400 years later we know that Wroxall Manor Farm estate belonged to King Haroldís mother before the Norman Conquest, after which it passed to the Crown. (LINKS: Society of Medieval Archaeology -  www.socmedarch.org ; The Medieval Settlement Research Group - www.britarch.ac.uk/msrg)  Its descent can be directly traced through a number of families to Lord Yarborough (of Appuldurcombe) in the 1840s.

Of special interest is Wroxall Copse  which is probably the woodland mentioned in the Domesday Book for this manor. It is a good example of woodland pasture - Domesday refers to pig grazing - which existed as a long strip between the down and the arable land below, very much as it does today.

A legal dispute in 1617 regarding grazing and other rights on these downs indicates that the area was a valuable agricultural resource for livestock and that the various quarries and earthworks were an important source of building and road making materials.


Ploughing up the downs for arable cultivation goes back to the Napoleonic wars when there was an urgent need to increase food production to fee the nation in war time conditions. This was repeated during World War I and again in 1939-45 and meant that a valuable habitat was lost. Similarly, the planting of conifer forests after the timber shortages of World War I has changed many landscapes across the country, Wight Conservationís Brighstone Forest being a good example.

Concern for the beauty of the downland goes back over 80 years when 221 acres of St Boniface Down were presented to the National Trust by Llewellyn Evans. Today, our conservation priorities are conserving the historic landscapes and natural beauty as well as improving habitats and biodiversity. Conservation grazing with the fold of Highland cattle (LINK: Highland Cattle) is returning the downland to its ancient usage before it went under the plough in the interests of national survival.

Wroxall Cross

The indications are that Wroxall Cross farmhouse was built in the 1780s; there are similarities in some architectural features and building materials with Appuldurcombe House which was extended about that time.

When Wight Conservation purchased the old stone farm buildings they were unused, unoccupied and badly in need of maintenance Ė modern farming methods has made such accommodation largely redundant. They have been rejuvenated by retiling all the roofs, and strengthening and re-pointing where necessary. All the buildings are now in use. The big barn acts as a lecture/conference centre. The old hayloft and dairy have now been converted into 2 self-contained dwellings and the latter is now available for self-catering holidays. The modern barns have all been repaired and are employed as cattle shelters, machinery storage or stables. Electricity has been laid on to all buildings.

Ventnor Railway

In the 1860s the railway came to Wroxall from Ventnor. This meant the constructing of a tunnel under the estate, a remarkable feat of Victorian engineering which is still in good condition today, though it is now only used to carry water and other services. Like the other lines on the Island, this was a speculative venture to encourage expansion of Ventnor as a holiday destination. The Victorians, like earlier peoples, recognised its favoured climate. The story of its construction well illustrates the financial and engineering problems that new railways encountered and the vision and determination of their promoters to overcome them.

World Wars I & II

Wight Conservationís estate has been in the front line in time of war in more recent years. One of the barrows in the Mottistone Down cemetery, used as a beacon at the time of the Spanish Armada and later, was adapted as an observation post in World War II. The concrete base of a building can still be seen.

More dramatically the Wroxall estate witnessed some fierce aerial battles between 1939 and 1940 with the downing of five German aircraft. The enemy prize was the knocking out of Ventnor Radar; one of the original wooden towers can still be seen from the estate, thought it is now used as part of the National Air Traffic Control Network.

Ventnor Radar Station features in the 1960s film The Battle of Britain. It was only ever put out of action for brief periods.

Two bombers, a Junkers 88 and a Dornier 217, crashed on St Martinís Down, as did a ME 109 fighter whose pilot is still alive today. He was captured by two elderly members of the local Home Guard, armed with a rifle and bayonet between them, who demanded souvenirs. In order to placate these menacing gentlemen, the pilot broke his prize Luftwaffe sun goggles in half so neither would do better than the other.

Greatwood Copse is the site of another crashed ME 109 which went down a well (the pistons can be seen in the Isle of Wight Military History Museum), and a further Junkers 88 ended up in Wroxall Copse. (LINK: http://www.warbirdart.demon.co.uk/echoes.html)

Amongst other defences countering what must have been some very dramatic raids was the now extremely rare Alan-Williams turret still in its original location on the estate. Like static tank turret, it could be rotated through 360 degrees and would have been armed with a machine gun that could be elevated for use in the anti-aircraft role. This was one of the many emergency defensive measures put in place in 1940 after Dunkirk when invasion loomed and everything was thrown into the battle for survival. (LINK: The Defence of Britain Project - www.britarch.ac.uk/projects/dob/ )

1987 Great Storm

Nature, of course, has a hand in causing often dramatic changes to the environment and plays a part in the making of the history of the landscape. Within the last two decades the Great Storm of October 1987 caused the destruction of a huge number of trees across the Island, many from salt deposits rather than wind blow. At the time this was seen as something of an environmental disaster, but in a number of areas this has been turned into an advantage. The damage caused to the conifer planting on Mottistone Down (dating back some 70 years Ė see above) gave the impetus to clear the site and begin the process to recreate the original chalk downland. (LINK: Grassland Management)

Wight Conservation is proud of these historical connections and works closely with English Heritage, the Isle of Wight Archaeology Service and other bodies to record, conserve and repair archaeological and historical features.

John Patron

Further useful links:
Council for British Archaeology

English Heritage

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