For such a short and narrow channel of water the Solent has played an important part in Britain’s history. Long visited by Romans, royalty, sailors and fun seekers alike, it continues to be a major shipping and recreational area.
The 20-mile long strait lies between the coast of the southern English county of Hampshire and the northern shores of the Isle of Wight. On the mainland side it stretches from Barton-on Sea, through the New Forest (a former royal hunting ground) and to Southampton, Gosport and Portsmouth (principal naval centres and ports) though there seems no definitive agreement on precisely where it ends and begins. Regardless, there have been many famous people from the Solent.
Similarly the precise origin of the Solent name seems lost in time though the first recorded reference, as Soluente , appears in 731AD on a goatskin document written by a monk. However evidence of human occupation since prehistoric times has been found around the Solent shores including a submerged wooden structure from around 6000BC. Much later, invading Romans and Normans were to leave their mark on the area too.
Double tide jeopardy
Once a modest river valley, the Solent gradually widened and expanded over thousands of years giving us the stretch of tidal water we know today. It’s unusual ‘double tide’ due to the tidal flow throughout the English Channel, has attracted (and at other times, confounded!) many maritime activities. Its waters are known for a high volume of vessel traffic which has also resulted in one of the highest density of lifeboat stations in the world.
Castles, invasions and shipwrecks
Due to the Solent’s strategic importance, during the 1500s King Henry VIII built a set of coastal defences at each end of the Solent fearing invasions from the continent. These included Calshot Castle, built on the western Solent shore while the blockhouses of East and West Cowes were built on the Isle of Wight – all of which can be visited today.
However a French invasion was attempted in 1543 and the two naval forces met in the Battle of the Solent during 19-20 July. While the French attack under King Francis I was ultimately repelled, the pride of the English fleet, the Mary Rose , was sunk killing all but thirty of its 415 crew in the Solent as Henry VIII watched from Southsea Castle.. In 1982, 437 years later, the beloved ship was finally raised from the Solent’s waters, one of the most complex and expensive maritime salvage projects in history. The only surviving 16th-century warship on display in the world, the Mary Rose ’s remains and artefacts can be seen in the Mary Rose Museum at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
In fact, due to its rich maritime history, the Solent is the site of large number of shipwrecks falling foul of adverse weather and conditions or careless navigation – for example, in 2011 a D-Day British ship was discovered, missing since returning from the Normandy invasion of June 1944. Since 1973 designated wreck sites have been legally protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act.
A holiday destination is born
The later development of the railways and the advent of paid holiday time for workers made both shores of the Solent a magnet for tourism and recreation, bringing people to the harbour and seaside towns of Portsmouth, Hayling Island, Southsea, Lymington and the Isle of Wight. In the 1840s Queen Victoria built a country residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight which enhanced the area’s popularity and tourism even further. Its panoramic views over the Solent were said to remind Prince Albert of the Bay of Naples.
A sign of its continual change, low tides and shifting pebbles have occasionally exposed temporary ‘new islands’ in the middle of the Solent. More recently this has led to an annual summer Brambles Bank cricket match being played in the middle of the eastern Solent!
Today the Solent’s bustling cities, towns and quaint villages boast many attractions - from Portsmouth’s 170-metre tall landmark Emirates Spinnaker Tower to the annual international sailing event, Cowes Week, on the Isle of Wight - ensuring the Solent remains a vibrant area rich in royal and maritime history, archaeology and recreation. All of this makes yacht charter in the Solent such a fulfilling experience.