The minuscule hamlet of Newtown stands at the heart of a National Trust-owned nature reserve. It is unusual in that it is a rare example of a medieval new town that failed economically due to a combination of plague, changing river flows and those ever-marauding French neighbours. In the early and mid 14th century, Newtown was the most important port on the Isle of Wight – something that seems rather improbable to the modern-day visitor – with an oversized town hall the only surviving nod towards the community’s former stature.
While Newtown has withered over the centuries, it escaped development and regeneration and many of its original green lanes and small paddocks have survived, along with a grid-like street pattern radiating out from the shore like those at Yarmouth and Newport.
Make sure not to miss the Old Town Hall (National Trust), a red-brick house resting on large pillars and dating to 1659 (though the town gained borough status much earlier, in the 13th century). As Newtown’s stature and importance waned, so did the fortunes of the hall, to the point that it became a town hall with no town. In fact, by the end of the 16th century, the ‘town’ had become one of the notorious ‘rotten boroughs’. This shoddy status was removed in 1832 when the seat was abolished by the Great Reform Act.
The town hall was rescued from physical collapse in the 1930s by the intervention of the eccentric Ferguson’s Gang, a group of masked women who remained anonymous but devoted their time to raising funds to buy property for the National Trust. They would burst into Trust meetings and plant a sack of cash on the table, Robin Hood style, with strict instructions on how it should be spent.
Just up the road from the hall, the church of the Holy Spirit is the epitome of the rural idyll, with a symmetry to its Gothic porch and arched windows that gaze out upon a lush churchyard. Unlike the hamlet in which it stands, the church offers a relative injection of young blood, having only been built in 1835. Indeed, so lovely is the church that architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘the finest early 19th-century church on the Island’.
A short walk from the path to the west of the church leads through Newtown National Nature Reserve to the shoreline; road’s end is a boardwalk to an attractively positioned bird hide. The lagoon-like waters of the inlets of Newtown Creek were once saltpans until breached by a fierce storm in 1954. In spring and summer the whole area is a delight, fringed with the blue tinge of sea aster and the purple of sea lavender. The adjacent coastal meadows are infilled with green-winged orchids and classic hay meadow species such as the superbly named corky-fruited water-dropwort, whose white flowers sit atop a bolt-upright stem that’s 3ft in height, and, in a nod to one of the trades that once was active here, dyers greenweed (confusingly, yellow in colour), which was used for dyeing cloth.
The England Coast Path (a nationwide project) is being implemented on the Island and is expected to improve access around Newtown. The existing Island coast path route frustratingly keeps the hiker at arm’s length from the coast at times, but the enhanced extensions will give access to more coast via the hay meadows behind the hides overlooking the creek and Newtown River. In the meantime, you can access more of the coast here via footpath CB16A (by the town hall car park) which leads around the south side of Newtown. The coastline is gorgeous – soft, green rolling hills tumbling to the foreshore, while the New Forest makes for a wooden-framed horizon across the Solent.