The Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight is England’s second largest, and most populous, island. Roughly diamondshaped, and with a population of around 138,000, it is four miles off the coast of Hampshire and is separated from the mainland by the Solent. Its history can be traced back to Bronze Age times, and the island was ruled by the Romans and Saxons before coming under Norman control. It became part of England in 1293. Its location made it vulnerable to invasions in the period when England and France were enemies, so King Henry VIII fortified the island at the time when the nearby town of Portsmouth was becoming the home of the Royal Navy. It retained its strategic significance over the centuries, and was bombed during World War II. After that, however, it didn’t attract much media attention.
The Isle of Wight was known mainly as a holiday resort favoured by Queen Victoria, who had her summer residence and final home at Osborne House, and as the home of the annual regatta at Cowes. It was regarded as a rather sedate, oldfashioned place, devoted mainly to agriculture and tourism, and rich in literary, historical and maritime associations. Nineteenth-century writers, from Charles Dickens to the poets Algernon Charles Swinburne and Alfred Lord Tennyson, Victoria’s Poet Laureate, spent time there, and even Karl Marx is said to have composed parts of his Communist Manifesto during his visits. In the Victorian era, many other notable figures visited the island, and its fame as a holiday destination grew. In the twentieth century, however, affluent holidaymakers began to seek out more exotic places, and after 1960 the traditional workingclass seaside holiday went into decline, due to the growth of cheap package holidays in Spain. Yet in the 1960s the island suddenly achieved international fame because of the open-air pop festivals held there in 1968, 1969 and 1970. In 1967, the Beatles had recorded “When I’m 64”, for their famous Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. It’s a conventional, even old-fashioned song, in which the singer imagines his life once he’s married and settled down. He sings; “Every summer we will rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear/ We shall scrimp and save …” In other words, a typical lower-middle-class existence – and by the 1960s the Isle of Wight had become popular with families from that social group. Some had even settled there, and never suspected another “invasion” might occur. In 1968, however, a group of promoters decided to hold an open-air pop festival on the island. 15,000 people attended, and despite complaints from residents about the longhaired young people who came to see the event, it was a success. The promoters decided to hold a similar event in 1969, with the singer Bob Dylan topping the bill. Dylan had rarely performed in public since a motorcycle accident in 1966, so interest was high, and a crowd estimated at between 150,000 to 250,000 “invaded” the island. Dylan confounded expectations by his conventional appearance, visited Tennyson’s grave and Osborne House, sang a short set at the close of the festival and flew home. Again, residents complained about the disturbance to their quiet existence, but that didn’t stop the promoters from organising another festival in 1970.
This, the largest, and most famous of the Isle of Wight festivals, was filmed by American documentarist Murray Lerner, but due to various legal disputes the film wasn’t released until 1996. It captured not only performances by many of the leading artists of the time, but an event which seemed to be on the verge of chaos. Attendance was estimated to be around 600,000, and tensions between the authorities, the promoters, Isle of Wight residents and the crowd were high. The hippy ideals of “peace and love” seemed far away, with French anarchists seizing the stage microphone and urging spectators to tear down the fences and make the event a “free festival” (some did). Many of the young people caught by Lerner’s camera crew look very unhappy, and some of the performers seem to wish they were somewhere else; one of them, Jimi Hendrix, died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks later.
As a response to this, in 1971 Parliament passed the Isle of Wight Act, preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence. There were no more pop festivals until after the millennium, and the Isle of Wight reverted to its quiet way of life. Gradually, it developed new forms of tourism appealing to changing tastes, especially holidays focused on the island’s rich natural heritage, including both wildlife and geology. It has been called “England in Miniature” due to its diverse landscapes, and more than half of the island is designated as the Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Isle of Wight pop festival is held annually, in a far more controlled environment, but if all that is a bit too noisy, you can choose the annual Walking Festival instead. Sailing, camping and cycling holidays are also available. Transport links from the mainland are frequent and convenient; the Isle of Wight remains popular with visitors, and no-one worries about “invasions”, whether military or pop, any more. For those interested, there are many clips from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival available on YouTube.
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