East Cowes is one of the quietest towns on the Isle of Wight as there are only three ways to get to there: the A3021, the Floating Bridge1 across the River Medina to West Cowes, known as Cowes, and the car ferry to Southampton.
An everyday problem that East Cowes struggles to cope with is that it has always lived in West Cowes' shadow. West Cowes is the town which is commonly known as Cowes; it has Cowes Week, it is the home of international sailing, and it holds the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes international power boat race. East Cowes, typically, is also the only town to never have had an Isle of Wight railway station.
Despite this, East Cowes remains an interesting and sadly ignored town. However, it has many features to be proud of.
The first thing you see when travelling to East Cowes on the ferry is the front of the GKN Westland Aerospace hangar. Upon this is the world's largest painting of a Union Jack flag. It was created in 1977 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and was retained by popular demand. It was in that hangar that many technical advancements were achieved (see below).
Even though East Cowes is a small and somewhat neglected town on the Isle of Wight, it has a lot to be proud of, and a unique history.
East Cowes Castle
Originally, East Cowes was known as Shamblord, and in Edward III's time (1327 - 1377) it was one of three ports on the island. For many years it was larger than West Cowes, but in 1540, when Henry VIII feared an invasion as a consequence of his breaking-away from the Catholic Church in 1538, two castles were built in the area, one in East Cowes, and a larger one at West Cowes. However, the East Cowes castle was abandoned by the end of the century, and no longer exists.
East and West Cowes were named after these castles, which were known as Cowes or Cowforts at the time. In 1575 a Customs House was built at East Cowes to monitor the port and to try and prevent the rife smuggling trade.
In the 1790s, two castles were built at East Cowes. One was called East Cowes Castle and was more of a mansion than a castle; it should not be confused with the original castle. It was built by John Nash, the famous architect who designed Regent Street and Regent's Park in London. Sadly, it no longer exists.
The other, Norris Castle, does still exist. It is a romantic castle featuring both square and round towers. Although designed as an imitation castle and not a real one, it is still impressive, especially with the enormous cellars below, and the spectacular sea view.
Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901), despite having Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Brighton Pavilion to live in, did not rate any of them to be suitable as a family home. In 1845, she purchased the original Osborne House and an estate of 342 acres from Lady Isabella Blachford. This was too small so Thomas Cubitt was contracted to build a new Osborne House on the site, to the design of Victoria's husband Prince Albert. In June 1845 the foundation of the new pavilion wing was laid, and it was occupied in 1846. The household wing was completed in 1848, and work was started on demolishing the remainder of the old house and building the main wing in its place. By 1851 all the construction work was complete, except for the Durbar wing which was finished in 1891.
Queen Victoria lived here as often as she could, and found that the Isle of Wight's ambience and weather were similar to the Bay of Naples in Italy. The house was three stories high, with a 90ft clock tower and a 107ft flag tower. The estate soon grew to be over 2,000 acres, and included a summer house, Swiss cottage, a museum and a mock fort. It was here at Osborne House that Queen Victoria died on 22 January, 1901.
For such a small town, East Cowes is home to some of the biggest speed machines the world has ever seen. These include:
The Bluebird boat which in 1938 increased the world water speed record to 130.94mph. Sir Malcolm Campbell was the driver.
HMS Cavalier, which for 20 years was the fastest ship in the Royal Navy, was built in East Cowes.
In 1947, the world's first fighter flying boat, the SRA-1, was built. This was the world's first jet-powered flying boat, and is still the fastest ever of its kind. It flew at speeds of over Mach 0.8.
In 1952, the world's largest ever flying boat, the Saunders-Roe Princess was built at East Cowes.
In 1954, the world's first hydrofoil, the Bras d'Or, was built at East Cowes, followed by the world's first hovercraft in 1959 - the SRN-1.
The world's largest hovercraft, the SRN-4, was built in 1967. It is capable of carrying 282 passengers and 37 cars at speeds up to 96mph2.
Black Arrow rockets, which formed part of the Isle of Wight space programme, were built in East Cowes in 1966. In 1971 an East Cowes-built Black Arrow rocket put the Prospero satellite into orbit.
Much of the work for the Thrust2 car was done in East Cowes, although it was put together at Wootton, also on the Island. In 1983, this vehicle increased the land speed record to 633mph, a record that stood for fourteen years until ThrustSSC broke the land sound barrier in 1997.