The Isle of Wight is an English island and a county, located 3-5 miles (5–8 km) from the south coast of the mainland, in the English Channel. It is separated from mainland England by the Solent and is situated south of the county of Hampshire. Various regular ferry services operate across the Solent: Southampton to Cowes is 10 miles (16 km), Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde Pier is 5 miles (8 km), Portsmouth Gunwharf to Fishbourne is 7 miles (11 km), and Lymington to Yarmouth is 4 miles (6 km). The island's holiday resorts have been popular since Victorian times as a holiday destination. The island is known for its outstanding natural beauty and for its world-famous sailing based at Cowes.
The island has a rich history, including a brief status as an independent kingdom in the 15th century. It was home to the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Queen Victoria built her much loved summer residence and final home Osborne House at East Cowes. The Island's maritime and industrial history encompasses boat building, sail making, the manufacture of flying boats, the world's first hovercraft and the testing and development of Britain's space rockets. It is home to the Isle of Wight International Jazz Festival, Bestival and the recently-revived Isle of Wight Festival, which, in 1970, was one of the largest rock music events ever held. The island has some exceptional wildlife and is also one of the richest fossil locations for dinosaurs in Europe.
It has in the past been part of Hampshire; however, it became an independent administrative county (although still sharing the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire) in 1890. In 1974 it was reconstituted as a non-metropolitan and ceremonial county with its own Lord Lieutenant and the name was adopted as a postal county. With a single Member of Parliament and 132,731 permanent residents according to the 2001 census, it is also the most populated Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom.
Isle of Wight is approximately diamond-shaped and covers an area of 380 km2. Slightly more than half of the island, mainly in the west of the island, is designated as the Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The island has 258 km2 of farmland, 52 km2 of developed areas, and 92 km of coastline. The landscape of the island is remarkably diverse, leading to its oft-quoted description of "England in Miniature". West Wight is predominantly rural, with dramatic coastlines dominated by the famous chalk downland ridge, running across the whole island and ending in The Needles stacks — perhaps the most photographed aspect of the Isle of Wight. The highest point on the island is St Boniface Down, at 241 m which is a Marilyn.
The rest of the island landscape also has great diversity, with perhaps the most notable habitats being the soft cliffs and sea ledges, which are spectacular features as well as being very important for wildlife, and are internationally protected. The River Medina flows north into the Solent, whilst the other main river, the River Yar flows roughly north-east, emerging at Bembridge Harbour at the eastern end of the island. Confusingly, there is another entirely separate river at the western end also called the River Yar flowing the short distance from Freshwater Bay to a relatively large estuary at Yarmouth. To distinguish them, they may be referred to as the Eastern and Western Yar.
The south coast of the island borders the English Channel. Without man's intervention the island might well have been split into three, with the sea breaking through
▪ at the west end of the island where a bank of pebbles separates Freshwater Bay from the marshy backwaters of the Western Yar east of Freshwater, and
▪ at the east end of the island where a thin strip of land separates Sandown Bay from the marshy basin of the Eastern Yar, east of Sandown. Yarmouth itself was effectively an island, with water on all sides and only connected to the rest of the island by a regularly breached neck of land immediately east of the town.
Island wildlife is remarkable, and it is one of the few places in England where the red squirrel is flourishing, with a stable population (Brownsea Island is another). Unlike most of England, no grey squirrels are to be found on the island, nor are there any wild deer. Instead, rare and protected species such as the dormouse and many rare bats can be found. The Glanville Fritillary butterfly's distribution in the United Kingdom is largely restricted to the edges of the crumbling cliffs of the Isle of Wight.
A competition in 2002 named the Pyramidal Orchid as the Isle of Wight's county flower.
The island is known as one of the most important areas in Europe for dinosaur fossils. The eroding cliffs often reveal previously hidden remains.