An outstanding local story teller of the Isle of Wight is Pat Sibley, who with Charles her golden long-haired dachshund, added human interest to every beach, down and ancient dwelling that she encountered in her 1970s walks across her island home.
Sibley, P. (1977) Discovering the Isle of Wight. Robert Hale, London


Entering Newtown, most first time visitors would say it was as very ordinary wooded place alongside a muddy creek. But with a story teller of Pat Sibley’s skill, her book ‘Discovering the Isle of Wight’ weaves a complete spell of literary beauty.

Following…. “the lane to Newtown proper, so we walked on with fields on either hand, rooks cawing, over an old bridge crossing a creeklet and came face to face with - the town hall. Newtown is a secluded little scatter of houses among quiet fields, without shop or pub, but its story is most curious.

In 1256 the Bishop of Winchester, to whom the land belonged, decided to build a town on the bank of the creek: by the end of the century some seventy people lived there. Soon there was a weekly market and an annual fair on the Feast of Mary Magdalen, later commemorated in an old ballad called 'Newtown Randy', which tells how a young man made a posy for his sweetheart

I bunched a rutty, big ez a plate
An garbed me up a dandy 0
To meet my maade by her mammy's gate
An away to Newtown Randy O.

Where they had gingerbread and kecksy brandy and saw "a learned pig called

In 1377 Newtown was raided and burnt to the ground by the French.

“…. but a small settlement remained, exporting salt, harvesting oysters and farming, until Elizabeth's reign when Newport, Yarmouth and Newtown were each allotted two members of parliament. Newtown had become a typical `pocket borough', such seats changing hands for thousands of pounds and the member seldom going near his `constituency', reckoned here to be seven cottages at one time.

An elderly farmer, asked if he had ever seen his member of parliament, proudly replied, "Oh ez zur, I zeed un plain once across turmit field, when I were a bwoy."

The Reform Bill put an end to pocket boroughs; the harbour, once reputed the best in the island, slowly silted up: the town hall fell into such dilapidations that early photographs show a building almost ruinous under a thick bower of ivy. From this state it was rescued in romantic fashion. In 1933 a masked figure appeared at the offices of the National Trust with a cheque from `Ferguson's Gang' for five hundred pounds, sealed with blood, together with some verses beginning:

We aint so many
We aint so few
All of us have this end in view -
National Trust, to work for you.

The secret of Ferguson's Gang has been kept to this day. The town hall, in the lane, is in excellent repair now and open in summer.

Remembering it was here that she came fishing with her father twenty years earlier in the summer of 1955, she recalled:

“vast spaces of saltings misted purple with sea lavender under a sky wide as the Fens'. A single redshank pottered along a ditch, spindly legs a brilliant orange in the sun, curlew cried and called, even the fish lined up. Gazing down from the broken sea wall, you could see the golden backs of bass rolling lazily through the water. We never caught a single fish that day, but it did not seem to matter.

I remember a brilliant spring morning out here on The Wall, the mud flats glistening with the new green of glasswort, the air full of flashing wings and bubbling cries. The black-headed gulls used to nest at the mouth of Clamerkin Lake, but now, driven out by the larger herring gulls, they breed on a small island in the middle of the creek, easily viewed from the salt pans, a seething, squabbling tenement of gulls. A jackdaw flies over low, on the lookout for an unguarded egg; only to be mobbed and chased away by a horde of angry scolding parent birds, their raucous cries sounding all across the marsh. Fussing, preening feathers, they settle back, each on his tiny, jealously guarded territory.

In a lull one can hear the small sweet song of a reed bunting, nesting inland of us, where a hedge marks the boundary between marsh and meadow. Far over there in long grass can just be glimpsed a group of black stalks, utterly still. Burnt stems of bushes? No, the dark necks of Canada geese on their nests. Among the fat bursting buds of sea pinks, an adder has sloughed his first skin”.


Visiting Shorewell, Pat Sibley tells the story of the young poet Algernon Swinburne, who when being coached in his studies by the Rector of Brooke, would often visit Northcourt Manor to see his cousin, Mary Gordon.

“He would ride with her over Brighstone Down, chanting his poems to the wind, or sit at her feet while she played Handel. But he was not considered a suitable match and spirited, beautiful Mary was married off to a colonel twenty-five years her senior. She bore him six children, led the usual life of a wealthy matron, shuttling between other such houses, with Scotland in August, but all the time the real woman lived on beneath the surface. She wrote novels, read poetry, conceived a passion for Iceland through reading William Morris's Icelandic Sagas and even taught herself the language.

Her children grown up, her husband dead, Mary Disney Leith was at last free to be herself: the woman who had once galloped her horse to the rhythms of "The hounds of spring are on winter's traces" sailed for Iceland, obviously revelling in her freedom, even in the storms of the voyage, for she wrote

0 the scoop and the upward heaving,
Dash and hiss of the smitten spray
And the downward plunge of the black bows, clearing
Through seething waters a wondrous way.

Landing there, she set out on a pony to explore this wild land she had come to love. Eighteen visits she made in all, from leafy Shorwell. On one of them she came upon a small chapel, where a new painting was being set up over the altar. The old one, a peasant picture of the Last Supper painted on wood, she bought, brought home, and gave to the village church in 1899, in memory of her son Robert killed in India”.

A copy of the painting is now set above a small wooden altar in the side chapel.

Oglanders at Nunwell

Educators tackling the topic of beauty of place through a literature-based curriculum have to answer the fundamental question, how do we transform a limited ‘ordinary’ experience so that it is turned into a source of interest and excitement willingly relived in a state of total involvement? The instillation of a greater truth in the beauty of place can come from a combination of genealogy with landscape. It not only reinforces a sense of historical continuity. It also heightens a sense of ordinary living, particularly if the family concerned has had a long running controlling interest in managing their own estate and building a home upon it. Nowhere in England can there be something more surprising within the ordinary than at Nunwell on the Isle of Wight. Here the Oglander family have lived since Richard d’Oglanders was given the manor of Nunwell by William Fitz Osborne shortly after the Norman Conquest. In a similar feudal state of vassalage, William Fitz Osborne had been made lord of the entire island, and Earl of Hereford, by King William I in return for his help in capturing it. The Fitz Osborne family fell out of royal favour in the next generation, and virtually disappeared from history. However, their minor vassals, the Oglanders lived on and on, sometimes sailing close to the wind of national politics, but for the most part maintaining a privileged position on the island alongside the pressing drudgery of their Nunwell community.

The first Richard d'Oglanders was lord of the Chateau de la Hogue in Normandy and a henchman of the Fitz Osbornes, and his descendents in the male line continued to live on their Nunwell estate until the direct line came extinct at the end of the 19th century. The family’s fortunes are available in A Royalist's Notebook, written by Sir John Oglander in 1632 and The Oglander Memoirs. Sir John encapsulated the families philosophy as:

"Fear God as we did; marry a wife whom thou canst love; keep out of debt; see thy grounds well stocked; and thou mayest live as happily at Nunwell as any Prince in the world" "We have kept this spot of ground this five hundred years from father to son; I pray God thou beest not the last, nor see that scattered which so many have taken care to gain for thee," he wrote to his grandchildren.

Pat Sibley takes up their story from the late 14th century.

“In 1377 French raiders landed at St Helen's, and sacked and burnt the original house together with forty others that had grown up round it. Newport was sacked at the same time. But Nunwell was rebuilt. In 1488 Sir Edward Woodville, Captain of the Wight, took a force of island men to Brittany where they were disastrously defeated at the Battle of St Aubin. Hardly an island family was spared bereavement: young George and Richard Oglander were both killed.

In 1499, Henry VIII, making a tour of the island, stayed one night at Nunwell, but twenty-three years later that house too was burnt down. The family moved a few hundred yards to a farmhouse then called East Nunwell and this was, the nucleus of the manor we see today. George Oglander, he with a passion for hawks, was nevertheless delicate and died soon after his mother.

"She made him many good broths and cullises [jellies] to strengthen his nature. So that when his mother died, all men. said that he would not live twelve months after, which proved true."

One can only hope that he was not dosed with "A Certain Cure for Consumption" which occurs in the Nunwell recipe book. "Take thirty garden snails with their shells, and thirty earthworms from a gravelly soil ... Place them in three pints of spring water with a handful of barley. Strain and sweeten with candied eringo [sea holly root]. Add a quart of milk from a red cow, and drink morning and evening."

At this time the Great Plague raged through London, but the island was free of it, and declared a protected area with no one allowed to land without a certificate of health - except the King. Charles I landed at Brading Haven and was escorted to Nunwell. At Carisbrooke, John's son William was knighted for his services to the royal family.

In 1627, while inspecting troops gathered for an attack on the Isle de Rhe, Charles I visited Nunwell; later he paid a second visit, when the menu included sweetbreads, oysters, prawns and woodcock, but by now he was virtually a prisoner in Carisbrooke Castle. Sir John felt the King's eventual execution as a personal blow. The little Duke of Gloucester, held in his turn at Carisbrooke, also came to stay, and after this further manifestation of Royalist sympathies, Sir John was arrested (for a second time) and taken to London. However, he ended his days at beloved Nunwell.

Meanwhile the actual house continued to change and grow. Sukey Oglander visited Italy and on her return had the new east front of the house pulled down and rebuilt to face south-east to gain more sunshine. She also employed Italian craftsmen whose work can still be seen. Early in the nineteenth century the fashionable John Nash was asked to draw up plans for modernizing the stables. Not content with those, he planned also to pull down `old-fashioned' Nunwell in order to raise a classical mansion with Corinthian pillars (like Appuldurcombe) in its place. But a new bride, Lady Maria, had lately come into the family and fallen straightway in love with the old house. Nash was thwarted, though he did persuade Sir William to tear out some "sombre and unhygienic panelling" and put wallpaper in its place. In spite of the Napoleonic Wars in which Henry Oglander lost an arm, this was a happy and prosperous time, seventeen servants being employed indoors”.

Nunwell eventually passed on the death of the last male heir to a cousin who eventually took the name of Oglander. It then it descended through the female lines, so there are still Oglanders to maintain a sense of history in place at tranquil Nunwell.