"The Island is separated from the mainland by a channel known as the Solent. It is of unequal width, varying from three quarters of a mile to five, the narrowed point being near the Needles at the western extremity of the Island. From Yarmouth to Cowes the width is from two to three miles, the New Forest bounding it on the north. Off West Cowes the distance to the Hampshire coast is only about a mile and a half; but the Solent here opens out at the mouth of the Southampton river, making a span of water of about five miles in extent. It then becomes narrower at Norris Castle Point and widens as it approaches Spithead, Lee-on-The-Solent and Stokes Bay lying on the English coast, and Osborne, Wootton, and Ryde on the Isle of Wight side. The channel widens again after passing Ryde, Spring Vale, Sea View, and St Helen’s, to Bembridge Point.

The Island covers an area of 95,680 acres, or 150 square miles, and its circumference is about 60 miles. It forms a part of the county of Hampshire, with which it is still associated for assize and sundry other purposes, though for civil administration it became a separate county under the Act which gave rise to County Councils. The Solent is supposed to have derived its name from the word “solvent,” which is said to have been applied to the strait because of its influence on its north and south coast lines, in dissolving the land and rock and increasing the width of the channel. That this eating away process has been going on for ages may be written down as a fact, for history points to the time when at low water men and horses could walk across the channel. This was in a remote period, when the Greeks obtained tin from Cornwall. When the Romans took possession they described it as an island, and at that time there was probably no ford at any point. Certainly there is nothing of the kind now, for at the lowest tides the Solent is navigable by the largest of her Majesty’s fleet of ships.

An esteemed correspondent corrects us in this version. He writes : “It is, I believe, a well-established fact that the Romans had constant communication between the mainland and the Island, passing over what we now call the Solent. Whether it was fordable at that time at low water, or passable by causeway the same as at St. Michael, is perhaps difficult to say, but their principal route was from Lepe on the mainland over to Gurnard Bay on the Island, and this you may say is the eastern end of the Solent. There is a very old verb, derived from the Saxon, now, excepting in a few places, nearly obsolete, viz., ‘ to wont,’ that is, to be accustomed, or used to do a certain thing. There are these phrases still in use in some places, ‘he is wonted to it, or to do it,’ ‘they won’t mind when they are wonted to it,’ ‘they will soon get wonted to it,’ &c. The word Solent in Latin is the third person plural of the present tense, indicative mood, of the verb Seleo, signifying ‘they are wont,’ or wonted, or accustomed. The passage across the Solent undoubtedly in use by the natives long before the Roman period, and is it not most probable that the Romans applied the term ‘Solent ‘ to the action or custom of the natives, in crossing there, and the word remains as the name of the place where they crossed, the verb becoming changed into a noun by the prefix of the article ‘ the ? ‘“

The form of the Island is almost indescribable; it might be called an irregular rhomboid or lozenge. From east to west its length is 22 miles; its breadth at the widest part, from Cowes in the north to St. Catherine’s in the south, is 13 miles. The Needles rock, west, are situated at 50° 40’ N. lat., 1° 34’ W long. ; the Foreland (Bembridge), east, is in 50° 41’ N. lat., 1° 5’ W. long. West Cowes, north, is in 50° 46’ N. lat., 1° 17’ W. long. ; St. Catherine’s Point, south,  is in 50° 35’ N. lat., 1° 18’. W. long.

The Island is divided into two nearly equal distances by a range of hills; these hills, or downs, run through the middle of the Island, with varied and pleasing undulations, from the Culvers at the extremity of Sandown Bay to the Needles or Freshwater Downs. This chain of hills is intercepted, about midway, by the river Medina, which cuts through the hills at a place four miles southward of its mouth. At the point of this interception the town of Newport, the capital of the Island, is situated, and one mile from this town, under the shadow of the down in a south-westerly direction, nestle the historic castle and town of Carisbrooke. There is another range of hills along the south coast of the Island, rising at Shanklin, and reaching round, through Bonchurch and Ventnor, to Blackgang, which is separated from the Freshwater Down by a valley ten or twelve miles in extent.

The river takes its rise at the foot of St. Catherine’s Down, and meanders through the beautiful Island for a distance of twenty miles, at first as a very small rivulet, afterwards as a considerable stream, and by the time it reaches Newport it is a tidal river, bearing to the new-port ships of several hundred tonnage. It broadens into an estuary by the time it reaches Cowes, where it is lost in the Solent. This river so divides the Isle of Wight that for ecclesiastical and sanitary purposes it is regarded as the boundary line, and the districts are severally defined as East and West Medine. In each of these two districts are 16 parishes. In the West Medine: Brighstone (or Brixton), Brook, Calbourne, Carisbrooke, Chale, Freshwater, Gatcombe, Kingston, Mottistone, Newport, Northwood, St. Nicholas, Shalfleet, Shorwell, Thorley, and Yarmouth. In the East Medine: Arreton, Binstead, Bonchurch, Brading, Godshill, Newchurch, Niton, Ryde, St. Helen’s, St. Lawrence, Shanklin, Ventnor, Whippingham, Whitwell, Wootton, and Yaverland.

In the neighbourhood of Niton, on the south coast of the Island, rises another river, called the Yar. This runs a deviating course of about twelve miles and loses itself in Brading Harbour, at no point being more than a few feet in width - ten or twelve at the utmost. In the west of the Island is another small river, and this also is called by the same name, the Yar. Its source is near Freshwater Gate, and it empties itself into the Solent at the ancient town of Yarmouth. There are several other streams, one running through Wootton Creek into the Solent, another emptying itself into the same channel at Newtown, and another called the Lugley.

One of the most charming characteristics of the Isle of Wight consists of the beautiful bays with which the coast is indented. The principal of these are Sandown Bay, Freshwater Bay, Shepherds Bay, Ship Bay, Brixton Bay, Chale Bay, Alum Bay, Totland Bay, Gurnard Bay, and Thorness Bay; and the headlands which stand out boldly from the mainland of the Island are prominent objects from land and sea. These are chiefly Dunnose, the Culvers, Bembridge, the Needles, and St. Catherine’s Point. At St. Catherine’s and the Needles lighthouses have been erected; off Bembridge is stationed the Warner lightship, and several miles further eastward the Nab lightship, which can be seen by vessels coming up Channel and in danger of running on the ledges of rocks which shoot under water from the Culvers and Dunnose headlands."
{The History}

The Minerva Isle of Wight Pictorial and Guide - circa 1900