Archaeology and History

Evidence for very earlier human life in the Freshwater area is revealed in the few scattered finds of flint implements ( SMR no. 52 - MIW51; 53 - MIW52; 73 - MIW72; & 74 - MIW73). Flint-working sites, consisting of cores, hammer-stones, blades, waste flakes, retouched flakes and scrapers, have been observed in Freshwater and at Freshwater Bay (SMR no. 2551 - MIW2601 & 2552 - MIW2602). A polished stone axe was found in a field west of Bakers Farm in Easton.

Archaeological evidence in the Historic Environment Record shows that Neolithic life was concentrated around the three main rivers of the Island and that there were also significant clusters of activity in the vicinity of the mouths of the four estuaries in the north and in areas along the south coast. The existence of a mortuary enclosure on Tennyson Down (SMR no. 56 - MIW55 - radiocarbon date: 2865 to 2290 cal BC) suggests a settled population, whether dispersed or more nucleated, in the area. Tomalin proposed the existence of a social group in the Western Yar gap, whose territory extended between the mortuary enclosure on Tennyson Down in the west and a long barrow on Afton Down in the east, " marking perhaps the extent of their forest clearance on the east and west hill slopes of the West Yar gap". He continues to note the possible "continuity of settlement areas" from the Mesolithic to the early Bronze Age on the Island, one significant area being the West Yar, where " activities appear to have centred in an area around the chalk gap". This area has special significance for Farringford as the only way across from Freshwater Isle to the main Island was by way of a ford somewhere between Blackbridge and Freshwater Bay. In this case, the name 'Farringford' is likely to have been an Anglo-Saxon version of an earlier name for the area today between Easton and Freshwater Bay. The unusual wealth of barrows on the Island attests to continuing human activity during the Bronze Age and, in the Freshwater area, like the rest of the Island, they are mainly found on the top of the chalk downland. The SMR records a hoard of Arreton Down type artefacts at Moon's Hill (SMR no.51 - MIW10493). Found in 1942, the hoard includes 3 spear-heads, 3 daggers and 7 flanged axes. The County Archaeologist, Ruth Waller, mooted the possibility that " this deposition was a founder’s hoard or a ritual deposit."

There is little evidence of activity in this area during Iron Age or Roman times, but this does not deny the existence of settlements in the area, which may exist under built-up areas. A hoard of approx 250 3rd century coins were found in 1863 in an urn in Farringford. These were mostly copper alloy, although a few were silvered (SMR no. 57 - MIW56). Roman coins, pottery and shale were found during trenching in Gate Lane in Freshwater Bay in 1962 (SMR no. 80 - MIW79). Roman pottery (Vectis ware, BB1 and amphora) was also noted at Freshwater Bay (SMR no.2552 - MIW2602). Included among these finds was a Gaulish silver drachm. South of Alum Bay Old Road, a bead rim and samian base sherd were found by Robert Walker in 1890 (SMR no. 54 - MIW53).

The period from 400AD to 1066 is even more barren in archaeological evidence of human activity for the Freshwater area. However, place-name evidence and the origin of the parish system indicates that Freshwater contained significant and sufficient settlement for a parish to be established, with a mother church, based upon the geographical limits of 'Freshwater Isle'. Although it may have been based upon an earlier form of administrative land unit, the parish of Freshwater, like several other large parishes, was established in Saxon times. On the Isle of Wight, these Anglo-Saxon parishes tended to be very large areas. They generally stretched from the north coast of the Island down to the South coast, so ensuring each parish possessed an amount of each of the different agricultural soil types: the clay pasture/woodland of the north; the chalk downland of the central ridge; the fertile sandstone soil of the south part, suitable for arable; and finally a stretch of north and south coastline. Eight large parishes were originally marked out across the Island: Freshwater, Shalfleet, Calbourne, Carisbrooke, Whippingham, Arreton, Newchurch and most probably Brading. Each of these had a mother-church, sited roughly in the centre and which acted as its social and religious centre.

The Saxon church of All Saints, Freshwater, was one of a group of six Island churches that were donated with various tithes by William Fitz Osbern, Lord of the Island, to the Norman Abbey of Lyre at some time between 1066 and 1071, when he died. There is still a very small amount of Anglo-Saxon fabric in the structure of the church today, although most of the rest of the church mainly dates to the 13th, 15th and 19th centuries. The identification of Saxon work is based on the Saxon use of long and short quoins in three of the piers in the nave of the church [Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Taylor, H. & Taylor, J., Cambridge U.P, 1965] However, Margham quite rightly points out that “it is likely that the church was rebuilt and rededicated in the late Saxon period or even immediately after the conquest – long and short quoins are an indication of Anglo-Saxon workmanship rather than Anglo-Saxon date.” He concludes that these features can be “seen as part of the phenomenon of the ‘Great Rebuilding’ of England’s churches, which took place in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.” [ Freshwater – Man and the Landscape, Margham, J., Proceedings of Isle of Wight Natural History & Archaeological Society, Volume 12, 1992]

Until the 20th century, the whole area comprised a number of scattered small hamlets and settlements, and their dispersed nature only emphasised further the rural, introverted character of this region. The isolated geographical position of Freshwater also reinforced the insular frame of mind of the local inhabitants. Communication with Yarmouth was by means of a rowing ferry; the bridge was not built until 1860. Access by road was only available by a detour to the south across the causeway near Freshwater church or via the shingle neck of land that connected the Freshwater presqu'ile with the Island 'mainland'. The opening of the bridge route via Yarmouth made Freshwater easily accessible and this was further augmented by the opening of the railway route from Newport to Freshwater in 1888.

The majority of the inhabitants were directly or indirectly involved in agriculture, that, in some areas of Freshwater, still remained tied to the traditional medieval strip field system. The 1837 Tithe map [Tithe map] shows that about 80% of the enclosed farmland was under arable cultivation while the Downs still provided rich pastures for sheep. There were several small fishing communities as well as a small amount of employment available in the digging of chalk, sand and tobacco pipe clay. The only significantly substantial houses in the area were King's manor, Afton Manor and Farringford house.

The Freshwater area was still sparsely populated in the 1850s, when the Tennysons bought Farringford. However, the rapid development of Totland and Colwell as seaside resorts in the 1870s and 1880s saw an infilling between the small settlements as buildings sprung up in the central area of Freshwater. Many trades and services were established to supply and maintain the growing number of residents and holiday visitors. The population saw two significant increases: one, accompanying the building of the various forts in the 1860s, and the other in the 1880s.

For detailed account, see the historical note on Freshwater Parish

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