Tales from the Coastline By Richard Knowles – A Beautiful Isle
The north coast of the Isle of Wight is where the border between land and sea is less defined. Rivers and creeks reach a fair distance inland, while mud flats and salt marshes feature heavily in the coastline between Yarmouth and Wootton and contain a rich and biodiverse wildlife.
Newtown, the ancient capital of the Island, sits at the head of what was once a thriving natural harbour with productive oyster beds. In 1318, Edward II granted Newtown a fair and market – a ‘rendezvous’ (Edward’s mother tongue was French) that, over the 400 or so years it lasted, became known locally as the Newtown Randy. Every once and a while, some public spirited person revives the tradition. As I recall, the last one was held in the late 1980s.
Tucked away off the main roads, Newtown is a hidden gem of a place that, in addition to its historical interest, has some great natural features. Now very quiet, the echoes of its busy past are still all around. Here and there, lengths of rusty iron chain left lying around are now intertwined with grass and sea beet.
Stretched across what are now large expanses of salt marsh, lines of slowly decaying upright oak timbers mark where sea walls long since breached once stood. A wooden walkway takes you across to what is effectively a small island with a boathouse where you can sit and simply enjoy the place.
During high tide, grey mullet can be seen darting around the piles of the old harbour walls and rooting around looking for sand-lagoon shrimps in the crystal clear tranquil pools of derelict salt pans where sea water was once evaporated to produce sea salt.
At low tide, the salt marsh is alive with plants that were once food and folk medicine staples for generations of local people, and which made the difference between starvation and survival, disease and good health. Many are now back in fashion as sea vegetables. The very tasty sea purslane and marsh samphire, not to be confused with the rock samphire more commonly found on the cliffs on the south side of the Island, grow in abundance in the fertile intertidal mud.
The eponymously named Scurvy grass was also used as a treatment for ague,an old name for malaria or any other disease involving shaking/shivering) and eaten as a general tonic.
The whole area is a National Nature Reserve and the National Trust have hides where visitors can watch flocks of both native and migratory birds. Although there’s usually a volunteer present during the day, a sign by the entrance is also updated regularly to show what’s around.
In October’s Beacon Richard will take a look at somewhere special on the east coast of the Island.