to Isle of Wight History Centre Archive of Monthly News Items
As previously featured in the History Centre

October - December 2009

October 2009
Historical writings are scattered with brief remarks that are more tantalising than informative. Such is the case with Sir John Oglander's 17th century reference to the location of Brading's medieval quay. Over the years it has given rise to much speculation as to the precise position of the quay. For the first time, archaeology has been employed to try and locate some associated structure, unfortunately without success.
  The medieval quay became redundant in the 1530s when reclaimed land left it dry. It was replaced with one at the bottom of Quay Lane that survived into the 19th century. The common assumption among Brading locals has been that Oglander was pointing to the quay running parallel with the High Street, in the centre of the town. He could not have experienced it himself so the comment is presumably based on the recollection of his elders. He also gives an indication of the capacity of the harbour with "....before that ye Mearches weare Inned a Shyppe of 40 Tonnes myght Come up to Bradinge Towne..."
  In an attempt to verify the location, Brading Town Council sought the help of the County Archaeological Service. Three excavations were carried out at the rear of housing fronting the High Street, with the assistance of local volunteers. A fair amount of medieval pottery was recovered but there was no evidence of a quay. This could be because it was further out from the street but it's more likely the Oglander quote has been misinterpreted.
Brading alluviumAlluvium deposits establish where waterways once existed. This geological map covering Brading shows the alluvium deposit coming in from the right with a 'finger' stretching up towards the town. However it stops well short of the High Street and shows no indication of running parallel to the street. This evidence would seem to be verified by the archaeology. They found no alluvium deposits in their main excavations but did find some in one additional dig further east, off Quay Lane.
  What evidence there is might suggest Oglander was saying the quay came up towards the middle of the High Street, in which case it could be at a right angle to the street. Wherever it was, there is a strong possibility it was timber built, perhaps leaving few remains.
The excavations did uncover one mysterious feature that has yet to be explained. The item is over a metre across and made of firm red clay. The part excavated item to its left seems to be of similar design. One suggestion is that it's a salt pan, although at this size it wouldn't be very productive. Another idea is that the two pieces would make a mould of some sort but there are no other finds to support this theory. The IW Archaeological Service would welcome suggestions.excavation feature

November 2009
The sounds of particular transport systems become familiar after a while but few have been around as long as the noise of the rumbling chain ferry. It has been the soundtrack for residents commuting between East and West Cowes for generations. In reaching its 150th year, the floating bridge service has passed from a being just an essential utility into a symbolic link to the Medina's Victorian era.
  The system of hauling or winching pontoons across narrow waterways dates back to medieval times. These were mainly established to transport goods and cattle rather than foot passengers, who could be simply rowed across. It is perhaps surprising that Cowes survived without the need for this sort of facility until well into the 19th century. The first commercial ferry service was for foot passengers via rowing boats, established by the Roberton family in 1720. There remained no way to transport goods across until the 1840s, when they supplemented the service with a pontoon pulled across by a horse-drawn winch.
  The coming of steam enabled a vessel to haul itself over a chain via onboard motive power. The first steam chain ferry was built at Plymouth in 1831. The floating bridge met a fairly specialist need, with probably less than twenty services eventually established in Britain. Of these around seven remain.
  In 1859 the Island's Floating Bridge Company was formed, buying out the ferry rights from the Roberton family to put the first Cowes chain ferry into operation. The company appears to have become immediately profitable. In 1868 the Steam Packet Company acquired the ferry rights. The service remained in private hands until 1901 when the West and East Cowes Urban District Councils took it over. In all there have been eight ferries built. The first to be built locally came from J S White in 1896. The first diesel-electric powered ferry was brought into operation in 1936 and the existing diesel-hydraulic version was built in 1995. The service has been occasionally maligned over the years but has proved as reliable as any other transport system. There seems to be little prospect of an alternative method of crossing in the medium term, so the floating bridge is likely to be around for years to come.
  By a strange coincidence, recent research has raised the possibility of another chain across the river at exactly the same point, hundreds of years earlier - but that's another story.

early ferry serviceRowing boats loading and unloading passengers at East Cowes in the 1790s. This is presumably the Roberton ferry service. Three boats suggests we are looking at 'rush hour'.
early ferry serviceThis is thought to be the first Cowes chain ferry. The same ferry is also pictured with subsequent adaptations to provide an open upper passenger deck.

Photo: East Cowes Heritage Centre

December 2009
It can be assumed there were Iron Age roundhouses within Island settlements but until now there has been no archaeology to identify one with certainty. The Somerton discovery may turn out to be of considerable importance.
  The excavations arose out of a planning application for development on land adjacent to the BAE Systems plant. There had been no previous evidence of prehistoric activity on the site but Roman and prehistoric finds in the surrounding area were enough to justify some preliminary archaeology across grassland within the proposed development area.
  The archaeology consisted of fifteen trenches of 40x2 metres covering around 3% of the site. The most significant discoveries came at the southern end of the site. Here there were sufficient pottery finds to confirm Iron Age occupation. One trench uncovered the edge of a curvilinear feature which was interpreted as a drip gully running under the eaves of a roundhouse. A post hole within the feature provided additional evidence. A short distance away another trench revealed post holes which might indicate the type of four-post granary often associated with Iron Age roundhouses.
  The only other possible roundhouses on the Island have been tentative indications at the Brading Roman Villa site and on the Yaverland 'Time Team' dig, neither of which have been confirmed. The Somerton site would appear to offer the possibility of uncovering the layout of at least part of an Iron Age farm settlement, which would be a first for the Island. The planning recommendations are unknown as yet but it seems likely comprehensive archaeology will be proposed before development can begin.
  The recent geophysical survey of the Medina environs suggested many possible archaeological features to the east of Somerton Farm. An Iron Age settlement to the west adds further intrigue to a district that is commanding increasing archaeological interest.
roundhouse and graneries Impression of an Iron Age roundhouse with accompanying granaries, although their finished appearance can only be speculation. They were constructed using timber wall posts and roof rafters. It is thought the walls were completed with wattle and daub and the roof was probably thatched. Smoke from a central hearth may have seeped out through the thatch or from a hole at the apex.