Nestled in the centre of the Isle of Wight at the first bridging point of the river Medina sits our capital town of Newport. No longer new and no longer a port, Newport became our major town when the port of Newtown was deserted toward the end of the 14th century, although its roads were laid out by the then Lord of the Isle of Wight, Richard de Redvers, in 1135.
Pleasure boats still use the river in Newport but it has silted up far too much to be of use as a commercial port. However the town does have the best shopping centre on the Island and runs a close second to Ryde & Cowes for nightlife options.
The tower of St Thomas’s Minster glistens in the distance as you approach the town; newly restored and resplendent in her warm yellow stone. All roads lead to Newport’s Coppins’ Bridge Roundabout and from there lead out to every corner of the Island. Our only piece of dual carriageway leads north from here towards St Mary’s Hospital and HMP IW – one of the largest and safest prisons in the country.
Once the home of the weekly market, Newport now has a Farmer’s Market on a Friday in St Thomas’s Square and a small commercial and crafts market on Tuesdays in St James’s Square and it is these two squares that make the heart of Newport town. The High Street that runs from west to east (one way street) and hosts a range of local and chain stores such as Waterstones, Monsoon, the Body Shop and BHS. Look down the High Street from the west and you will spy the old Guildhall with its iconic clock tower on the corner of Quay Street. Once the local courthouse and designed by John Nash in 1813, this building is a good place to begin a tour of the town.
Opposite the Guildhall, leading off of Quay Street down beside Calvert’s Hotel, is Watchbell Lane or ‘Diagon Alley’ (as in Harry Potter) as we have jokingly named it because of its cute, ‘olde worlde’ style shop fronts and the (disused) wooden covered walkway running across it from the hotel. It is well worth a look and you can continue on down Hollyrood Street to the river Medina from here.
Or you could meander down the wide expanse of Quay Street to the harbour beyond and find Quay Arts, our art gallery and theatre centre in a line of old warehouses – great well-priced food and drinks and a lovely shop full of local art and craft work. In mid-June this area, and the whole town, is heaving with festival goers as the IW Festival mushrooms about half a mile down on the east bank of the Medina. This year its on June 9nd to 12th.
Church Litten is Newport’s largest open space, in between the town and the M&S/Morrison’s Superstores. Once the garden of the vicarage that was bombed in the last war, you can find a memorial to one of the last ever chimney sweep boys, Valentine Gray, here. The local library and bus station are just beyond this park as is the new purpose built shopping complex that now dominates the centre of the town.
Just opposite you’ll find Thompson’s - an original concept restaurant on the Isle of Wight by Chef Robert Thompson. With a contemporary ‘open kitchen’ set in a beautifully renovated listed building, here you can sample culinary delights from a former Michelin starred chef and watch him while he creates his own amazing dishes – all for affordable prices.
Nodehill, or Upper St James’s Street, is an interesting road to explore. It leads due south from the shopping centre (and the bus station) and would have been the main road into the town once upon a time. Apparently it got its name because the bodies (noddies) of an invading French army were buried here hundreds of years ago. Gruesome tale aside this road houses an interesting array of little local shops and businesses and at its head is the former library, now a sixth form college, that was built by Sir Charles Seely, founder of the first lending libraries.
Scarrots Lane and Gray’s Walk (named after Valentine Gray) - just off of St James’s Street - are also interesting alleys to discover, with quirky local shops and interesting arcades .
The Wheatsheaf and The Castle are two of the oldest buildings and pubs in the town – the former has a wooden rose in the ceiling under which the royalists met. Charles I was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle just to the west of Newport and he is reputed to have stayed at the Old Grammar School that is on the corner of Lugley St and Lower St James’s Street while the Treaty of Newport was being negotiated. Built in 1610 and possibly the oldest building in the town, Charles I is said to have left there in 1648 to be taken to London for execution, knighting the headmaster just before he climbed into his coach.
The Romans built a villa in Newport, not far from the banks of the Medina just to the south of the town. Park in M&S car park and you can walk down Medina Avenue and then up Cypress Road to the villa remains and museum (it’s impossible to park in the road). It’s a relatively small site but the hypocaust bath suite is quite superb.
If you want a swim you can head for the Medina Leisure Centre just north east of the town on the Fairlee Road and it is here that our best and biggest theatre is also housed. Just off of the Coppins Bridge Roundabout are the Cineworld cinema complex and the William Coppin Lloyds Bar - a mecca for night owls.
Newport has something for everyone; a great shopping centre, a lovely art gallery, two theatres, great restaurants and pubs and a thriving nightlife community. Make sure you add it to your itinerary.