Anyone raised in a small holiday-resort town will know how isolating it can be. Think about your own hometown. Now imagine it's surrounded by deep water, with irregular bus services, dodgy phone signal and a rich/poor divide perpetuated by the second home owners who leave it deserted for 11 months of the year. That's the Isle of Wight. It's a very weird place to grow up.
My memories are as follows: saving up pocket money for weeks on end to pay for the ferry across to Portsmouth to go to a gig. Any sign of unfavourable weather leaving you marooned for the foreseeable future, meaning any mainland plans were utterly shit-canned. Flight to catch? Not today. Big sister's wedding to attend? No can do, friend.
Also: ordering something online and finding out they don't ship to the Island. Some bastard coming into school on Monday after an overseas shopping trip and smugly recounting his fucking Little Chef ham, egg and chips. Having family and friends made redundant as the holiday season gets shorter and less lucrative each year. A whole bunch of other tedious shit you don't have to deal with if you live anywhere that isn't a little block of rock floating roughly six miles away from modernity.
It was like this when I was born over two decades ago, and it's still like this – or worse, even – in 2014. Why? It all comes back to the ferries. They're the only link to the outside world, and unless you're one of the rich Islanders with yachts, or a second-home owner – of which there are plenty – the island's ferry prices quite literally trap you there.
Local rumour (and the Google search I just did) cites the Solent as the most expensive stretch of water to cross, per mile, in the world. The WORLD. We, as a population, relentlessly complain about prices, but it's ultimately a futile campaign; ferry companies hold the monopoly and they can pretty much charge whatever the hell they want.
Every now and again, the debate over ferry prices and possible alternative links to the mainland sparks up, before quickly petering out. But recently, the situation quite literally exploded all over my Facebook. The entire island – or at least those with internet access – is up in arms on various Facebook groups, the biggest of which is called " Isle of Wight Fixed Link Referendum", a page that boasts over 4,660 fans, or roughly 3 percent of the entire population.
This all started when two businessmen proposed a plan for a fixed link to the mainland. The undersea tunnel would cost £1 billion and charge £20 return for Islanders. That's a third of the £81 it currently costs for a "Long Break" (two or more nights) return ticket on the Wightlink car ferry crossing, so you can see why people got so excited.
Andrew Turner, the island's MP, promised that if there's enough interest in the proposals a referendum will be held in early 2015. Predictably, as is the nature of referendums, this has divided the island into two.
Firstly, the Island Purists. They do not want the fixed link. They want the Island to stay as it is, thank you very much. They believe stuff like this:
I spoke to 27-year-old Stuart Brown, from Ryde, who's one of the more outspoken critics of the fixed links, going as far as to set up the Facebook group " Fix the Ferries First, Not a Fixed Link". He said: "For me, there are too many unknowns and variables to support such a venture. The Island is a castle and the Solent is the moat that protects us. Once you let down the drawbridge, the castle falls. I just don't want that to happen. I want to protect the island life. It's one of a kind..."
"Protect" is the key word for the Island Purists. But what does the Island need protecting from, exactly? Well, for a start, all that crime on the mainland. That's a worry. Then, apparently, way more cocaine and heroin will definitely be smuggled across the border. This is presumably because all drug dealers currently do not know how to book a ferry. Then, of course, there are the mainlanders themselves. Those dirty Englanders, Welshmen and Scots, corrupting the Island with their outlet stores and Jongleurs comedy clubs and 21st century way of living.
That said, those skirting on the separatist end of the scale do also have some valid fears. For example, would the Isle of Wight's hospital end up closed or downgraded if transport to the mainland – and, therefore, a load of bigger hospitals – was improved? And although there's no real reason to believe that Pompey's car-jackers are suddenly going to up sticks to the Island for their weekly fix of joy-riding – and subsequent arson of – mid-priced family cars, there is certainly a higher level of burglary and car crime in other South Coast towns compared to the Island. So I suppose some of those crims might make their way over.
The essence here is that, for all its faults, the Island is a beautiful place, and residents worry that making it cheaper for outsiders to get there could threaten everything it has going for it.
It's unsurprising that these Island Purists exist in large numbers. I mean, we call it "the Island", while the rest of England is lumped together as "the mainland". Traditionally, Island-born are "caulkheads", while mainlanders who move to the Island are "overners". Many families stay there generations, leading to accusations of inbreeding (accusations I can neither confirm nor deny). The Island is safe. The mainland is the unknown. The unknown is scary.
Enter the other group: the Fixed Linkers. This lot are in support of the proposed tunnel – or, really, any kind of permanent link – to the mainland. They see it as the solution to a host of problems – for example, unemployment. People will be able to apply for jobs on the mainland, spurred on by an easy, cheap commute, and business should improve on the island itself, thanks to the arrival of more day-trippers. The tourist trade might start to pick up again. More culture and entertainment will be available to Islanders. Most importantly, the ultimate goal will be achieved: an alternative link would force ferry prices down.
Alex Watts, a 26-year-old from Lake, has been pro-fixed link for years. He runs an entertainment business on the Island and told me his income is hugely affected by the extortionate price of the ferries. "It's really hard to perform to the same faces every week," he sighed. "It's bad in the on-season; off-season, it's shit. No one wants to come across and watch us because it's too expensive."
His story is typical of Island trade. The expensive ferries stop business expansion while simultaneously working to put off prospective holidaymakers. As Alex suggested, who would bother coming to the Island when they can get to France for the same price?
Natalie De Gruchy, 24, is a born and bred Islander. She lives down the road from Sandown, one of the Island's prime tourist beach towns. "Sandown is deteriorating at a serious pace," she told me. "You're lucky to get a seasonal job, and even then you'll get laid off. Young people stay at home getting more and more bitter, or just move off."
What does she think of those against the fixed link? "People against the fixed link are thinking of their generation, not about that of their kids and grandkids. It's a selfish attitude and these people are living in a bubble. Mine is the opinion of all my friends, and most people my age."
But will the referendum bring about a fixed link? Will anything actually happen? Well, so far there are two e-petitions filed to the Department of Transport – the one for the fixed link, which has 3,562 signatures at the time of writing, and the one against, with 1,285. It's looking likely that the support will be there for a fixed link, but we'll have to see next year.
Of course, all these what ifs and buts and fears and hopes mean very little. There's no proof for what would happen with or without a fixed link. Maybe crime would rise, but then maybe unemployment would also stay exactly as it is now. We really can't tell until something is built.
All that's certain is that the Island cannot remain as it is – people held under ransom by ferry companies. Something has to happen soon, even if it's just subsidised ferries for Islanders. Like other seaside towns, the Island has come under serious strain over the past couple of decades; the places that were once vibrant during the summer months have less to offer every single year. Independent shops that I see opening up on the high street are closed by the next time I go home to visit. My friends who've stayed behind struggle to hold down jobs, or to even secure a seasonal one in the first place.
What the Island Purists fear most is change. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the place needs. If the economy continues to fail, the Island isn't going to remain the peaceful, beautiful haven they all know it to be. Even more of the next generation will leave in their droves, and it'll be left a ghost island, cut off and stranded out at sea.
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