Wootton Bridge as it is today. Picture by Laura Holme.
WIGHT LIVING THESE days most of us think of Wootton as somewhere we pass through travelling between the surrounding towns of East Cowes, Newport and Ryde.
Wootton seems to be a large suburb — population 4,000 — on an east-west axis of commerce and communication.
However, Wootton is a lot older than we might first imagine. A thousand years ago Cowes, Newport and Ryde didn’t exist but Wootton did. It was The Solent outlet of a north-south inland trade system. And this settlement’s history goes back at least another 5,000 years.
Archaeology suggests Wootton Creek has been occupied by modern humans since they colonised the Solent Valley as the Ice Age retreated around 12,000 years ago.
Remains of hunter-fishing communities exist from the original human immigration in the Stone Age. As The Solent became a sea, the flooded creek and coastline became a source of seafood.
Research along the estuary and coast has shown careful exploitation of seafood, such as the construction of fish traps, since the Middle Stone Age some 6,000 years ago.
So we can imagine a community attuned to the sea, to fishing, to messing around in boats.
This developed into ferrying and piloting trading vessels as the Bronze Age stimulated trade.
The Island lacked the geology to smelt bronze. The relatively rich communities of Wroxall (51 families in 1086 with a taxable value of £22) and Whitwell (the combined inventory of Stenbury and Whippingham gives 29 families and a value of £12) needed to trade food and wool for the new metal tools and weapons.
Perhaps the Eastern Yar seaway from Godshill to the sea became silted? At some point, it became easier to send goods overland to the marine harbour at Wootton so it became one of the outlets for the produce of the Island’s deep south.
The manor-settlement of Wootton is first recorded in the Domesday survey of 1086 as Odetone. Its Anglo-Saxon name suggests a farmstead in cleared woodland. There were four families of villagers with perhaps enough cattle to pull three to five heavy ploughs if we combine the entries of Orram and Odetone but were they ploughing the thick heavy clay or engaged in trade?
Considering the manor had an annual value of £3 a year, whereas most agricultural Domesday manors were valued in shillings, suggests Wootton was a significant port.
Wootton Creek was situated between the Medina Estuary and Brading Haven, which separated off the island of Yaverland. The tidally flooded creek estuary provided the next best anchorage for the eastern Wight.
In 1086, the incoming tide would have flooded up to modern Havenstreet where the lowest possible ford crossing would have been at what the Anglo-Saxons called Brielesford or Briddlesford. The Old English name implies a river ford 'only passable by a horse or on horseback’.
We have to recall our streams and rivers were deeper, wider and more extensive a thousand years ago.
Ten families of peasants were recorded for the Domesday record at Briddlesford, compared to Wootton’s four, but only produced a tax value of 20 to 40 shillings from 1066 to 1086.
The main overland trade route from the Medina ports passed south along the top of the downs to the anchorages at Brading (four families and valued at 20 shillings) and Yaverland (12 families paying £3 to £4 in tax).
Wootton’s real importance then was as a seaport. Ancient paths and waterways from the rich southern uplands led down to the rich cereal farmland and dairy and cattle meadows at Godshill and the Eastern Yar valley to climb from Arreton over the central chalk ridge to descend to the harbour at Wootton.
Then, the centre of Wootton was much further north, near where we still find its medieval church and manor farm, much closer to the sea coast.
The creek’s feeder streams, the Blackbridge, Chilling-wood and Deadman’s brooks that drained the northern plains below the eastern central chalk downs, offered a level way to take pack animals through the forest to the ruins of Roman Combley villa and the Saxon settlements of Duxmore and Ashey.
The easiest climb was at Combley over Arreton Down. The royal manor of Arreton, (29 families, paying £12 tax) provided the commercial and religious hub of this north-south trading community.
The founders of the modern Wootton Bridge were probably the Cistercian monks introduced from Normandy by Baldwin de Redvers. Baldwin was the fourth Norman Lord of the Wight.
In 1132, he founded the abbey at Quarr. The watermill at Wootton is recorded in the abbey’s foundation charter. The Cistercians were enthusiasts about the latest wave of technological ideas and innovations. They bridged the creek to create a huge natural millpond. This drove the wheels of the water mill as it slowly released the trapped incoming tide.
In 1536, the abbey was dissolved and the mill passed to the local Norman gentry family, who leased it to a succession of millers and mill owners.
It must have been a strange life for the millers, with two four to five-hour shifts of work after each high tide, night and day, with the tide peaking at different hours each day.
As a crossing point, the mill was a good location for an ale house. In 1775, this was recorded as the Greyhound but in the 1800s was renamed the Sloop Inn.
In 1900, the mill was equipped with two wooden wheels, 24ft in diameter and 6ft wide. The mill remained capable of producing eight and a half sacks of flour an hour until it finally ceased production in 1945.
By the 1900s, Wootton had grown to about 70 inhabitants but had radically altered position. The medieval manor farm, St Edmund’s Church, rectory and Sunday school all now lay to the north of the village. The village, now renamed Wootton Bridge, had by now adopted its familiar east-west axis.
• Thanks to the Domesday Book, Wootton Bridge Historical website and A. D. Mills’s The Place Names of the IW.