The village of Bembridge on the Isle of Wight is famous for... famous for... famous for... Actually, the village of Bembridge is not famous for anything. If it were famous for something, it would be for being slightly more exciting than the village of Yaverland. It is, though, one of the biggest villages in Europe, and apart from it having a huge number of houses, there seems very little there. Apart from a harbour, lifeboat station, windmill and church, it seems just an excuse for a collection of homes.
Bembridge is considered to be on the 'posh' side of the island, as that is where, along with St. Helens and Seaview, some of the richer people live - folk who retire on the island for the summer sunshine, or own a house there to stay at during Cowes Week1. This is not so true today as it once was, but some parts still have a bit of a snobby atmosphere. As Lauri Say sang in his song The Isle of Wight For Me in 1968:
..There are two places you must visit, they're called Bembridge and Seaview,
Where the folks all want protection from scruffs like me and you.
Oh they won't stop you going there, and here's the reason why;
The maid comes out and scrubs the pavement after you've gone by...
What is at Bembridge?
Bembridge is about a square mile and has on its northern boundary a large, natural harbour. There are two sailing clubs - Brading Haven Yacht Club and Bembridge Sailing Club - and a marina within the shelter of the harbour basin. The population is around 5,000, but this rises in the summer when tourists visit.
Bembridge has five pubs, three hotels, a bank, two sailing clubs, two supermarkets, three churches, three hair salons, a post office, antique shops, a maritime museum, a pharmacy, two restaurants, a florist, two greengrocers, an undertaker, a vehicle repair businesses, a petrol station and car showroom, boatyards, an art gallery, a foil printing and wedding stationery business, a garden machinery business, plus various other shops and small businesses, totalling more than 110 in all.
Also in the village is the Roy Baker Heritage Centre, at the rear of the Library on Church Road. This contains many photographs of Bembridge, and information about the Lifeboat, the Windmill, and other places in the village.2.
The local youths of Bembridge have nothing to do, and so they hang around outside the opticians. Why they hang around outside the opticians is unknown, but apparently it is the most exciting part of Bembridge to hang around and do nothing.
The best looking part of Bembridge is, of course, the harbour, especially as it has a lot of houseboats there. Quite a few people live in houseboats in the harbour, but unfortunately not as many as there once were as quite a few were damaged during the 1987 hurricane3.
History of Bembridge
In 661 AD, Wulfere, son of Penda of Mercia, landed here on the Isle of Wight, taking it from the Kingdom of Wessex and ceding it to the King of Sussex. The lost village of Woolverton, near Bembridge, had been named 'Wulfere's town' after he started a settlement here4. Bembridge itself is said to have its name derived from 'Beam-bridge', as until the Brading Haven was reclaimed in 1878, Bembridge was almost separated from the rest of the Island.
The village apparently started off as 5 hamlets that eventually joined together. One of which was called Hardley.
Throughout Medieval times, Bembridge was known for exporting stone, and this, as well as fishing, farming and smuggling, was the main trade. The local fishermen, as well as catching fish, also caught shrimps, prawns and even rabbits! Bembridge limestone is a hard, white/cream coloured, freshwater limestone, and was used for building many medieval buildings, including Quarr Abbey5 and Southampton's town walls.
The French Invasion
On the 19th July 1545, Bembridge was invaded by the French under the command of Seigneur de Taix and the village set on fire. This was in order to provoke the English fleet in Portsmouth, who were able to see the flames, to come out and fight the French, but they did not, except the Mary Rose, which promptly sunk. The French did not stay in Bembridge long, though. They managed to take Bembridge, Whitecliff and St. Helens, getting as far as Yarbridge in Brading and building temporary earthworks just outside Centurions Copse. The English fleet, though, refused to leave the safety of Portsmouth. Also, the local militia, having repelled another invasion at Yaverland, were approaching and were using the Brading Parish cannon, called the 'Fire Engine' to bombard the French positions over Brading Haven. The French admiral had also calculated that it would take 6,000 men to keep the island over the winter when ships were unable to sail regularly from France, and could not spare that many, and so the French forces soon left.
Bembridge Harbour was originally just part of Brading Haven, and the sea extended down as far as Yaverland and Sandown. The whole peninsula was almost an island. Brading was used as a port in Roman times. In 1388 Sir William Russell had drained the southern half of Brading Haven, and in 1562 North Marsh was walled by George Oglander, with further walls built in 1594 and 1620. During this time, St. Helens was used as a port. However, after the flood of March 1630, Brading Haven was not reclaimed until 1878 at a cost of £420,000.
Bembridge was always too difficult to access as the only route to it was via marshes in Yaverland which flooded in winter. Even at the start of the 19th Century access to Bembridge was difficult, and as there were strong currents across the mouth of the harbour, the only safe time to get to Bembridge was via a 'horse boat', which only operated in low tide and in fair weather.
In the Victorian era, Bembridge grew from a tiny fishing village to become a fashionable resort. In 1853, a small steamer, the Dart, started to make two return passenger trips a day to Bembridge from Portsmouth, also calling at Ryde and Seaview. Duck-hunting was very popular with visitors. In 1879, the steam launch Blanche ran a passenger service between Seaview, Bembridge and Portsmouth, and the Brading Harbour Company started its service with the paddle steamer Tynemouth.
In 1864, the Bembridge Railway, Tramway and Pier Act was passed by Parliament, authorising the construction of land-reclamation works and the building of a pier. By 1878 over 800 acres of land were reclaimed, and a pier built. Bembridge Harbour Pier was only 250ft long, and quite narrow too. Despite this, it was used by ships such as the 46 tonne Tynemouth, and after the harbour had been dredged to allow larger ships, such as the 125ft. Island Queen in 1878 and in 1892 the 104 tonne, 137ft paddle steamer Princess of Wales, which was re-named the Bembridge. This was run by the Southsea and Ventnor Steamship Company. This later merged with the Southsea, Ventnor, Shanklin and Sandown Steamship Company to become the Bembridge and Seaview Steamship Company in 1912. Ships which called at Bembridge regularly on a passenger service included the Sandringham, Prince, Duke of York, Carrier and the 130ft Lord Kitchener. The largest ferry was the Alexandra in 1913, which was a 235 tonne ship and 171ft long.
Between 1862 and 1867, Bembridge Fort, on Bembridge Down just south of the village was built, at a cost of £49,000 - a lot of money in those days. It was built to counter the possible French Invasion by Napoleon III, but in the end no invasion came. In 1882, a railway line into Bembridge was opened, but that was closed in September 1953.
Bembridge soon became quite popular, especially after the introduction of the railway and with road access available for the first time. Bembridge at this time still did not have a water supply other than the pump in Pump Lane. This became quite a problem as the steamers calling at Bembridge Pier needed to refil with water. The problem was solved when water was pumped through the hollow tubes of the existing hand-railing along the embankment's promenade.
Bembridge became even busier when one of Britain's first golf courses, under the auspices of the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club, was set up in St. Helens in 1882. It has since closed.
Seaview, a village near Bembridge, had constructed its own pier in 1881. In 1914, the Seaview Steam Packet Company started another ferry service between Bembridge, Seaview, Southsea and Portsmouth. They bought the 130ft Alleyn, but the Great War started and all ferry services were suspended. During the war, Bembridge was used as a seaplane base.
After the war, steamer services resumed, but to a lesser than before the war. Fewer people wished to travel to Bembridge, and another problem was that the harbour was beginning to silt up again. Steamers could only reach the pier at High Tide, and it was easier to travel to the Island from Portsmouth by ferry to Ryde Pier, which could be reached no matter what the tide level, and take the train from there, changing at Brading. The ferry service ended in 1924, and the pier was demolished by 1928.
Bembridge still relied on the tourist trade, and after World War II it enjoyed a revival of the tourist industry. 'Bucket and spade' holidays were becoming popular nationwide. This, though, suffered seriously when the railway line closed in 1953. Small ferries still ran across the harbour to St Helens until 1993. Overall, though, Bembridge has returned to being a peaceful village - if a much bigger one. The beaches nearby are still beautiful, but now are unspoilt as they are rarely seen by tourists.
There is, though, a very small airport on the outskirts. Despite this, the Britten-Norman Islander, Britain's most successful aircraft since the Second World War, has been built here since 1963. Over 1,200 have so far been built.
Outside of Bembridge lies Bembridge windmill, a typical cap mill built in 1700, but it is the only one on the Island. The Isle of Wight was traditionally a watermill area. Bembridge windmill was a working mill until the Great War, producing flour, meal and cattle feed. During the Great War it was used as a shelter for the Volunteer Reserve, and in the Second World War it was used as the local Home Guard's Headquarters and as an army lookout post.
After the war the mill became the property of the National Trust, and is now open to the public.
Bembridge Lifeboat Station
There are several ledges on the eastern side of the Island, near to Bembridge, and many shipwrecks have occurred. Even the presence of the Nab and Warner lightships did not prevent ships grounding. Bembridge needed a lifeboat.
In 1867, the first Bembridge Lifeboat, the City of Worcester, was launched. She was a 32ft self-righting vessel, worked by oars but with a storm lugsail. She was bought by the inhabitants of Worcester after a ship's crew from Worcester was rescued by Bembridge men using their own boats. The lifeboat was launched by man-handling a carriage into the sea, but this was often difficult, especially at low tide, when it had to be carried over the 200 yard seaweed-covered limestone ledge.
The next Bembridge lifeboat was the Queen Victoria, launched in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. She was 35ft long and served until the third Bembridge lifeboat, also called Queen Victoria6, was launched in 1902.
In 1922, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution started work on the building of a pier not too far from Bembridge from which to launch a lifeboat. When finished, it was 250 yards long and so cleared all the nearby ledges, no matter the tide. A boathouse was built at the seaward end, and a new lifeboat, the Langham, was stored inside. The new lifeboat station was considered so efficient that the lifeboat stations at Brighstone, Ryde and Brooke were closed. It is one of the two remaining lifeboat stations on the Island, the other is at Yarmouth on the other end of the Island. In 1939, the Langham7 was replaced by the Jesse Lumb, which was replaced by the Jack Shayler and the Lees in 1970, which was replaced by the Max Aitken III in 1987. The lightships too have been replaced, by the Nab tower.
In the summer, on three afternoons a week and on Bank Holidays, the Bembridge Lifeboat station is open to the public.
Bembridge Phone Box
One thing that is distinctive about Bembridge is its phone box. Inside the phone box is the standard BT phone, but the phone box itself is unlike any other BT design. The reason for this is the fact that it is older than British Telecom itself is. The Bembridge phone box is a Post Office K.1 (Kiosk 1) phone box, and that was the first standardised design of phone boxes when they were built in 1921. The one in Bembridge is the one of only four surviving K1 boxes8, and has a very distinct shape, especially with its metal spike on the top.
And that, more or less, is the quiet village of Bembridge.