Evidence for early human life in the Freshwater area is revealed in a few scattered finds of flint implements. Flint-working sites – consisting of cores, hammerstones, blades, waste flakes, retouched flakes and scrapers – have been observed at Freshwater and Freshwater Bay. A polished stone axe was found in a field nearby to Farringford.
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, dated c.2865-2290 BC, on Tennyson Down suggests a settled population in the area. The archaeologist Dr. David Tomalin proposed the existence of a social group in the ‘Western Yar gap’, which extended from the mortuary enclosure on Tennyson Down in the west along a barrow on Afton Down to the east. Tomalin notes 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”(David Tomalin, ‘The Neolithic and The Bronze Age’, in H.V. Basford, The Vectis Report. Newport, 1980, p.15-26). 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 island’s unusual wealth of barrows on chalk downland attests to continuing human activity during the Bronze Age. The Isle of Wight Sites and Monuments Record notes a hoard of artefacts found at Moon's Hill in 1942, containing three spear-heads, three daggers and seven flanged axes. The County Archaeologist, Ruth Waller, suggested that this collection was “a founder’s hoard or a ritual deposit”.
There is little evidence of human activity in Freshwater during the Roman period. However, a hoard of about 250 coins from the 3rd century AD was found in 1863 in an urn in the grounds of the Farringford estate. More Roman coins, pottery and shale were found during trenching in Gate Lane, Freshwater Bay, in 1962.
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 (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, 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 the nave of the church (H. Taylor and J. Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Cambridge, 1965). However, John 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”(John Margham, ‘Freshwater: Man and the Landscape’, Proceedings of Isle of Wight Natural History & Archaeological Society, Volume 12, 1992). 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”.
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. 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 peninsula with the rest of the island. 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 nineteenth century 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 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.
Bronze Age: A period characterised by the use of bronze, early writing systems and embryonic features of urban civilisation. Follows the Neolithic Age.
core: In archaeology, a lithic core is the primary piece of stone left after the detachment of one or more flakes from a lump of source material or tool stone, usually by a hammerstone. It is therefore the result of ‘lithic reduction’.
hammerstone: A hard cobble used to strike off lithic flakes from a lump of tool stone during the process of lithic reduction. It is an almost universal tool that appeared early across Europe, Asia and North America.
Mesolithic Age: Also called the Middle Stone Age, this culture existed between the Paleolithic Period (Old Stone Age), with its chipped stone tools, and the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age), with its polished stone tools.
Neolithic Age: Also known as the New Stone Age, c.10,200 BC – 2,000 BC, when stone tools became more finely worked.
pier: An upright support for a structure or superstructure, such as an arch or bridge. Sections of structural walls between openings can also function as piers.
quoins: Masonry blocks at the corner of a wall.
retouched flakes: A stone chip reshaped into a useable tool.
scraper: A stone tool with one straightened or sharpened edge that was used in woodworking and softening animal hides.
tithes: From the Early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century in England and Wales, a tithe was a tax on one tenth of annual produce or earnings, used to support the parish church and clergy.
waste flakes: A stone chip produced by the production of a stone tool.
Based on the ‘Analytical Record’ of Farringford by Robert Martin: