Jane Austen may have visited the Isle of Wight but none of her heroines ever exclaimed ‘Oh! Bembridge!’ in the way they were inclined to breathlessly talk of Bath or Lyme Regis. They really should have done. Bembridge has everything you’d want for an elegiac holiday: gorgeous beaches to wander along while pondering the meaning of life, an abundance of high-quality shops to potter around and a slightly faded – but not too faded – ambience.
What to see and do in Bembridge
High Street and around
The soul of the village is to be found in the High Street, which features several excellent independent stores, from a baker and a butcher to a fishmonger and a wholefood shop; it is with good reason that Bembridge won Countryfile Magazine’s ‘Village of the Year’ award in 2018.
Located on Church Road, at its junction with the High Street, the church of the Holy Trinity is made of Purbeck stone and features an elaborate clock and lancet windows. It was built in the mid 19th century and replaced an earlier incarnation (a rare, failed effort by John Nash) that, made of the more friable Bembridge stone, began to collapse.
Half a mile south of the village centre, at the very end of High Street, is the lonely Bembridge Windmill. The last of its kind on the Island, this is the archetypical windmill, standing 38ft high with four sails pinned to a circular, tapering four-storey structure built from stone rubble, all topped with a wooden cap.
Built in the 1700s, it operated as a flour mill and flourished until the advent of the Bembridge train line, which brought cheap flour from afar. In spring and summer you can climb the stone steps within the tower and take in the remarkably complete wooden machinery that survives from its days of practical use, including a turning wheel, windshaft and grain bins. There’s also the chance to learn about the milling process in the small exhibition within the windmill. A small kiosk outside sells hot drinks, cakes and ice creams.
The village has three beaches, all of which are fetchingly attractive, but their geology is unsuited to lounging as they comprise stones, pebbles and shells. On the western shoreline, Bembridge Beach tumbles into the coast from the spit at the edge of Bembridge Harbour; softer sand reveals itself at low tide.
To the east, Bembridge End Lane Beach, which bumps into the pier and lifeboat station, has a little more sand. Both of these beaches are perfect for beachcombing, with attractive backdrops of woodland framing the view inland. The pier, meanwhile, is 250yds in length and juts out into the water around the eastern periphery of the village and to some extent marks a logical geographical boundary to the community.
The second of the Island RNLI lifeboat stations (the other is in Yarmouth) stands at the far end of the pier; the station can be visited in summer. The coast remains accessible to the east of the pier, where it fragments into a series of wave-cut platforms around the appropriately named Ledge Beach: Bembridge Ledge, Long Ledge and Black Rock Ledge and the marshy shingle of the Foreland. Rock pooling comes into its own here at low tide.
Another opportunity facilitated by low tide is a walk all around the Bembridge coast, from the lifeboat station to the harbour and the Pilot Boat Inn, a distance of around 1¼ miles that takes around 40 minutes. Beyond the ledges, and further to the southeast of Bembridge is Whitecliff Bay, a 200yd crescent of sand and shingle tucked below a high ridge and which offers a rear-view vista of Culver Down. The beach is accessed by steep paths via the holiday park behind it. From the shoreline you can also gain tidal access to Horseshoe Bay.
From the village windmill, it’s almost impossible to resist walking down the hill for half a mile to meander through the (often watery) hinterland of RSPB Brading Marshes, exploring the small wildlife-rich Centurion’s Copse that is visible from on high. This silent, open expanse of reclaimed marshland and wetland habitat stretching between Bembridge and Brading has a touch of magic about it as the land tumbles away to become spirit-level flat.
Flocks of sparrows and wagtails and even a wayward pheasant may shimmy among the trees. Look out for little egrets perched by a pond and lapwings, stylish birds with a raffish ‘quiff ’ or quill. Meanwhile, alders dip their roots in the streams and the mires are dark and still.
Though it feels like a vast woodland, you can explore the network of paths here inside an hour. Paths thread this way and that through the copse, past reed beds and clumps of woodland and hedgerows thick with old oak, ash and hazel, home to buzzards, yellowhammers, red squirrels and the embattled green woodpecker. You pass raised, dyke-like banks smothered with mosses of a fluorescent green that verges on the luminous, while a hilly curtain, in the form of the chalk edifice of Bembridge Down to the south and the woods above Brading to the west, give a faint impression that this is a lost world.
The Eastern Yar finally meets the sea at Bembridge Harbour, a vast expanse of water spanning 250 acres from the beach at St Helens on the north bank to Bembridge Point on the southern side of its mouth. At low tide, the estuary shrivels to a trickle and any vessel within is marooned until ebb turns to flow. When empty, the harbour is a stirring spectacle of muds, mosses and wide-open skies. The harbour has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest on account of these intertidal mudflats, sand dunes and, offshore, underwater sandstone ledges.
Watery flora you might catch sight of along the shallow shores include the submerged slender stems of the nationally rare foxtail stonewort, while on land you may see thrift, autumn squill and the delightfully named suffocated clover (the name comes from the tightly packed, overlapping nature of its white stalks and flowers). You can only imagine how vast this seascape must have seemed to arrivals and locals in Roman times when the estuary was five times larger than today.
The harbour is extremely easy on the eye. Woods overlook it from both headlands and a line of beach huts adds a parti-coloured dimension to the view. Behind the harbour is a magical sliver of salt marsh that makes a joyous playground for herons and egrets, while turnstones and waders such as sandpipers feast in the sandbanks on the seaward side.
Behind the boats and across the narrowest point of the harbour are the remnants of the old sea wall, long collapsed, its sea-smashed foundations spanning, in intermittent fashion, the middle waters of the harbour and visible at low tide. The new sea wall is visible too and bisects the harbour, running in parallel to its predecessor; it is walkable at all but the highest of high tides and is a handy way to walk from Bembridge to St Helens Duver.