I didn’t go to the Isle of Wight to look for the Age of Sail (I went to sail round it on the Waverley and walk round it on my feet, both of which plans failed), but I can’t go anywhere without falling over something.
The first thing I came across was a monument to HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, which sailed from a point in the Solent just offshore in 1787 – copies of the monument are also in Sydney, and at Norfolk Island where the ship was wrecked.
Further round are the remains of the old church at St Helens – built close to the sea, it was already being eroded away in the 17th century, and in 1719 the remaining part of the tower was bricked up and painted white as a sea mark, a new church having been built further inland.
(No one really seems to know why holystones are holy – they might have been ideally full of holes, like pumice, they might have been used for special Sunday cleaning, or it might just be that the sailors had to go down on their knees to use them!)
Another plaque record that HMS Victory was anchored off St Helens when Nelson left England for the last time and came to join her in September 1805 – I was more surprised by this than I should have been, because it’s not far from Portsmouth at all, and an island isn’t really a separate place to a ship.
I spent my second day on the island all along the lonely south shore, so it was the afternoon of the third day that I came to Newtown and its notorious town hall – this was once a busy town and harbour, with two seats in parliament as a royal burgh, but the harbour silted up and the population drifted away, leaving it as a ‘rotten burgh’ in Georgian times, with eventually only 23 voters for the 2 MPs!