Cowes is an English seaport town on the Isle of Wight, an island south of Southampton. Cowes is located on the west bank of the estuary of the River Medina facing the smaller town of East Cowes on the east Bank. The western town is sometimes referred to as West Cowes where distinction is needed - such as at the two differing ferry termini. However the unqualified name 'Cowes' invariably means the western town. This article describes both towns.
The two towns are linked by the Cowes Floating Bridge, a chain ferry. The combined population was 16,925 in the 1991 census, a figure that is easily doubled during the regatta in early August (see below). Each town comprises a civil parish.
Cowes is renowned for sailing, Cowes Castle being home to the world famous Royal Yacht Squadron, which ranks amongst the world's elite yacht clubs. The town gives its name to the world's oldest regular regatta, Cowes Week, which occurs annually in the first week of August. Later on in the summer, powerboat races are held.
East Cowes is the site of Norris Castle, and Osborne House, the former summer residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Prince had a major influence on the architecture of the area, for example on the building of St Mildred's Church in Whippingham, East Cowes, which features distinctive turrets imitating those found on a German castle. Both towns' architecture is still heavily influenced by the distinctive style of ornate building which Prince Albert popularised.
Northwood House was the home of the Ward family. It was donated under trust to the town in 1929, the grounds becoming Northwood Park. William George Ward was a close friend of the poet Tennyson and in whose memory the poet wrote six lines.
During the reign of Queen Victoria, who made her summer home at Osborne by acquiring and rebuilding Osborne House, East Cowes was the subject of planned estate of grand houses, groves and parks. The scheme, not finding the finances it needed, was folded, but a few residences built in the early stages still survive to this day such as the former Albert Grove residences of Kent House and Powys House on York Avenue.
In East Cowes Norris Castle was designed in the Norman style by James Wyatt in the late eighteenth century. The building survives and today remains a private home. In 1798, the architect John Nash, began building his home, East Cowes Castle, where he later entertained the Prince Consort and other prominent guests. East Cowes Castle was notable for its Gothic towers and turrets, and elaborate castellation. Nash died in 1835 and is buried in the tower of East Cowes Church which he also designed. East Cowes Castle was demolished during the 1960s, although the ice house remains and is visible in Sylvan Avenue.
West Cowes and East Cowes became a single urban district in 1933.
To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Queen's coronation in 1977, the main hangar doors of what was then the British Hovercraft Corporation (a successor to Saunders Roe) were painted with the world's largest image of the Union Flag, which can still be seen today.
Local industry in both Cowes and East Cowes has always centred on the building and design of marine craft and materials associated with boatmaking, including the early flying boats, and sailmaking. It is also noted as the place where the first hovercraft was tested. East Cowes was also once home to the manufacturer Saunders Roe, who built the flying boat The Saunders-Roe Princess, as well as the Black Knight rocket and the Black Arrow satellite carrier rocket. Major present-day employers inclde BAE Systems Integrated System Technologies (Insyte), which occupies the site of the old Somerton Aerodrome at Newport Road, Cowes; and GKN Aerospace in East Cowes. The former Saunders-Roe factory at Venture Quays- which still boasts the world's largest Union Flag now produces wind turbines, which can be seen laid on the quay for shipping out. Due to local objections no wind turbines have been allowed to be erected on the Isle of Wight.
East Cowes has been more characterised by industry than West Cowes in which yachting predominates, which some would argue has produced a cultural rift, leading to East Cowes being referred to derisively as Narnia by the West, due to the alleged eccentricity of its inhabitants.