The Isle of Bembridge
As recently as the 16th century, Bembridge was almost an island, all but cut off from the rest of the Isle of Wight by the River Yar. Some 1,500 years earlier the river and estuary were deep enough for a harbour at Brading Haven, where Roman trading vessels could moor. Yet by the time the Tudors came to the throne, it had begun to silt up, a process later completed by the Victorians who drained the land for grazing. The Isle of Bembridge was no more but now joined to the rest of the Isle of Wight by a soggy hinterland.
Nominated for its beaches, strong community spirit, village shops and more, Bembridge was crowned ‘Village of the Year‘ in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards 2019.
Brading marshes, The Barnsley Trail
Points of Interest
Bembridge Windmill, St Helens Duver, Becky Samuelson (artist), W.W. Woodford Butchers, Captain Stan’s Bembridge Fish Store
Seaview Community Shop, Seaview Hotel, Delysia Farm, Best Dressed Crab, Bembridge Farm Shop and No 8 cafe, Woodford Butchers, Captain Stan’s Bembridge Fish Store.
The Isle of Wight’s first community shop opened in the winter of 2017. Stocked with Island produce, from milk to cheese and beer, the shop has quickly become a focal point of the village.
Seaview Village Community Shop opened in response to the steady closure of local businesses in the village – Seaview once supported three banks, a butchers and a bakery.
The shop stocks a wide range of goods, from basics and essentials to local cheeses, bread, jams and milk and more exotic treats, such as colourful pasta and biscotti from Italy.
‘We realised that if we were going to maintain the village then we needed a village shop,’ says Becky Hardie. Staff (all are volunteers) wear aprons with an embroidered design of three strands of knotted rope which represent that the shop is funded by the community, is run by the community and is for the community.
‘More people live in the village than you think – that became pretty obvious because once we opened the shop, they came in for their newspapers and milk.’
With its cosy lounge and friendly bar, the Seaview Hotel is the hub of the village and has established a reputation for fine food. Accommodation is on the first and second floors.
The hotel restaurant is the only one on the Island to boast a Michelin award – the Bib Gourmand, which has been held consecutively over 4 years. This accolade is for food pitched just below the quality of a Michelin star but which offers creative and affordable food, with an emphasis on local and regional sourcing.
Three courses are typically priced at £28 and can include Green Barn Farm goat’s cheese souffle, locally-shot wood pigeon, local vegetables and duck and local poached quince and bay leaf ice cream
‘People like to enjoy good food that isn’t going to break the bank,’ says Tracy Mikich, marketing and business development manager at the hotel. ‘We liked the ethos and spirit of the Bib Gourmand.
‘Across the Island people are looking to identify a ‘Wight cuisine’, which is regional, modern and distinctive. We’re all trying to capture the spirit of the Island on a plate. By supporting your local producers you help to nurture the local economy.’
The hotel also rents out electric bikes to guests and non-residents and has teamed up with CycleWight to produce local bespoke routes that keep away from the busier roads.
3.5 miles, 90 minutes
The Barnsley Trail is a circular route around these two adjacent villages which offers fine views of the sea and farmland.
From the distillery walk downhill and bear right along the footpath. The path crosses fields where you have a good chance of spotting a buzzard or a kestrel and then climbs to pass through Nettlestone and head for the sea.
The path drops down to Seagrove Bay – you can walk along the beach into Seaview but at high tide the sea laps hard against the sea wall and you must follow the coastal trail which runs parallel and just inland.
At the far end of Seaview, just past the yacht club, footpath R91 runs along the sea wall and is particularly delightful. Just north of Seaview you take footpath 95; when you reach the entrance to a holiday village, the path skirts to the left and climbs up Nettlestone Hill before turning right along R114, which is shielded from the B3330 and gives fine views down the Barnsley Valley to the Solent.
Access: Bus route 8; coastal trail
Visit the studio & gallery of Becky Samuelson and you can’t help thinking you have seen her landscape and seascape paintings somewhere before. The field with wild flowers running down its edge, is that above St Helen’s Duver? Are those the rockpools at Seaview?
You can nearly- but not quite – put your finger on where Becky’s paintings depict. ‘Sometimes I think there must be more artists per square inch on the Isle of Wight than anywhere else,’ she says. ‘We all share the same wonderful light. The geology is so different that you go to another part of the Island and you have a completely different landscape to paint.’
‘I loved the Impressionists as I grew up,’ says Becky, ‘but I wouldn’t put myself in that camp. But I do like the feel of the brushstroke and the way it works with the colours.’
While Becky trained as an occupational therapist, she had loved art at school. She chose to return to it when her son was born. ‘It started as a hobby and it snowballed,’ she says. Her first exhibition opened when her daughter was just two weeks old – she winces as she recalls that. Her studio, located in her garden, was built after her young children, while playing murder in the dark, hid behind a sofa and wiped clean a pastel painting she had placed there.
She now – usually – works a 9-5 in her studio. ‘Sometimes I get an idea in the middle of the night and come down and write it down,’ she says. ‘The planning stage is quite long, you have to think about the composition.’
Unlike many artists, Becky flits between oils, watercolours and acrylic. ‘I find it interesting to have all the options and opportunities they present,’ she says.
Visitors are welcome at Becky’s studio at Hilbre Road, St Helens.
The smallest smokery on the Island can be found tucked away by the entrance to this delightful farm shop.
To describe the smokery at Delysia Farm as the size of a garden shed would be to overstate matters…imagine a large dog kennel made of larch with two flues or chimneys attached.
Inside it, John Day finds space to smoke haddock, pheasants and home-made applewood cheese which you will find on sale in the adjacent shop. The crab and lobster on sale have usually been caught by John off Bembridge Ledge the same day.
Delysia feels and looks as though it has been around for years yet John and partner Diane have been here just three years (before that, John enjoyed a successful career as a showjumper).
Their smallholding mainly features chickens, geese and ducks while they also source local vegetables. Along with Scotch eggs, local sea salt and honey, these are squeezed into their grotto-like farm shop.
‘We try and sell things you just won’t get in the supermarket,’ says Diane.
2 miles; 1 hour
Bembridge Harbour is extremely easy on the eye and a walk around its waterline allows you to inspect some of the more unusual residential accommodation on the Island and explore an exquisite coastal corner bursting with wildlife.
Get off the bus no 2 at the stop at the north end of the harbour and bear right down Esplanade Road. To reach the harbour walk straight ahead where the road turns left. Bear left to reach the narrow causeway across the harbour.
In front of you are the remnants of the old sea wall. The new one is walkable at all but the highest of high tides. Behind it is a magical sliver of salt marsh that has built up and which is a playground for herons, egrets; meanwhile turnstones and waders such as sandpipers feast in the sandbanks on the seaward side.
The causeway leads onto St Helen’s Duver, a spit of sand and shingle that has been deposited across much of the River Yar in a process taking hundreds of years. A short walk over the sandy grasslands leads to the coast (there are coast path signposts to guide you).
The rockpools exposed within the limestone ledges here at low tide are among the best on the Island and you have every chance of seeing dogfish purses, whelk egg cases, cuttlefish shells and shore crabs.
Inland, if you cast your eye on the ground you may see the black-and-yellow striped Argiope spider, which springs itself on summer grasshoppers. The north end of the bay is bookended by the tall, slender remains of St Helen’s Church: built around 1220 it was closed for use in 1703 and bricked up to serve as a seamark.
The Best Dressed Crab Seafood Café and shop is a hugely popular café/diner specialising almost exclusively on fresh seafood caught nearby. If you can’t hang around, the shop does a fine take away service.
If you’ve walked to St Helen’s Duver, retrace your steps to Esplanade Road, and keep south for 365 meters along the edge of the harbour to the café. It’s hard to think of a more idyllic location: the café is moored off a pontoon and has outside decking for good weather. Even in high winds or rain, it’s a snug place to enjoy locally caught shellfish – crab, lobster – that are presented in huge portions.
The houseboats, some spruce, some rather dilapidated and crumbling into the mud, that line the harbour bring to mind a scene from African Queen.
While some of the houseboats look as if they have been around forever, they are a relatively recent phenomenon, growing in number after WWII when their small contingent included a racing yacht named The Wander Bird, which famously sailed ‘the wrong way’ around Cape Horn.
Numbers tripled after the war, when 12 personnel landing craft arrived in the Harbour. They were seen as a cheap alternative to a ‘real’ house, since there was no mains electricity and the only fresh water was from the standpipe at Dustbin Corner (so called because of the row of pig bins that used to stand at the entrance to Marsh Farm).
Attitudes towards them have certainly changed for the better in recent years. Today, there are around 25 boats and with the appeal of a change in lifestyle and being flood-proof, and fitted with mains gas and electricity, they are increasingly sought after.
Bembridge Farm Shop is a friendly shop selling local produce on the ground floor is complemented by a cosy café upstairs.
‘Everything has just morphed, it started off as just a fruit and veg shop,’ says Jane Holman, owner of the Bembridge village’s farm shop. ‘It began when I couldn’t get lentils in the village one night and I thought there was a demand for whole foods and health foods. It was certainly a leap of faith at the time.’
Today you can buy everything from local hispi cabbage to squash and Island garlic.
An enticing, atmospheric vegetarian café is upstairs, adorned with yesteryear photographs that betray Jane’s family farming roots in Somerset. Take a seat and enjoy a brownie or full breakfast, with a range of vegan and gluten-free options.
‘I was brought up with the understanding of the need for good food – not necessarily expensive food, but good food.’ Jane observes a policy of zero waste. ‘We used the oddly-shaped vegetables that no-one ever buys and put them in the soup, they’re delicious,’ she says. ‘If anything is left over at the end of the day I give it a friend who feeds it to her pigs.’
For several years, Jane would forage for food for the shop – though recently she had wound this practice down. But she continues to believe living off the land – and seashore – makes perfect sense.
‘There’s is so much there to be gathered – baby dandelions and wild garlic are wonderful for salads,’ she says. Along the shoreline, Jane has gathered rock samphire, rocket and seabeet, which tastes like a saltier version of spinach.
Woodford the butcher is something of an institution in Bembridge, selling all the meats you would expect and managing to combine tradition with moving with the times.
Walk into Woodford Butchers and the chances are you will be hit with the smell of baking sausage rolls. They always seem to be just coming out of the oven and gently laid in a counter across the shop from cuts of pork and beef.
‘The meat is cut up here, everything is made on the premises,’ says Graham Hawkins, who has owned the shop for the past 10 years and worked in it for 28 years (a butchers shop has operated on the site since 1903).
‘The shop came up for sale and I didn’t want to see it go,’ says Graham, who employs two grandsons. Graham lays great emphasis on what he describes as ‘traditional’ butchery skills, with the meat hung on the bone for three weeks in order that it matures and gives full flavour.
All meat is sourced on the Island. ‘Our chickens are free of antibiotics and growth hormones,’ he says. ‘It’s the way I’ve been bought up. It’s the natural way of doing it, you make sure you look after the animal. If you do, it is less stressed and it tastes better. I just want to support this Island and its food. If we don’t do that, we lose our farmland.’
Want your fish as local as local can be? Buy it at Captain Stan’s where Mike Curtis regularly sails out early in the morning of the east coast of the Island for the daily catch.
It’s not just the smell but the spectacle that greets you when you walk into this fish store. Laid out across a huge ice counter are local brill, wild bass, grey mullet, turbot and lobster.
The shop is run by Mike and Ruth Curtis. Mike sets sail before dawn on the Shooting Star, a 26ft vessel that used to pot for lobster and crab in Hebridean waters.
Mike describes the Shooting Star as ‘a passive hunter’. By this he means that it catches the fish it encounters within its limited operating range. Greenpeace is among the environmental groups that consider this to be fishing in a low-impact, sustainable way.
If you’re unsure just how to prepare the fish you buy here, just ask – the Curtises have some great recipes to try out, including one for Jamaican seafood curry.
Half a mile north of the centre of Bembridge village, standing high above the marshes, you will find a lonely 17th century windmill, the last one standing on the Island.
Superbly situated and impossibly romantic, it’s easy to see how JMW Turner chose to depict Bembridge Windmill in his work (his unfinished painting of 1795 shows the windmill teetering at the edge of the sea which at time encroached much farther inland than it does today; Brading Haven was drained in the 1880s). Between Easter and November you can climb the tower and learn about the milling process in the small exhibition within the windmill.
This walk from Bembridge Windmill meanders through the (often watery) hinterland of Brading Marshes.
Explore marshes and small wildlife-rich coppices before making your way to Brading train station.
Three miles/ 1.5 hours
Brading Marshes RSPB reserve is a silent, open expanse of land that has a touch of magic about it, with paths threading through reedbeds and clumps of woodland and hedgerows thick with old oak, ash and hazel and home to buzzards, yellowhammers, red squirrels and the embattled green woodpecker.
Gazing down on this enchanting landscape from the south is the chalk edifice of Bembridge Down and the Victorian era Palmerston Fort. Then the land tumbles away to become spirit level flat. You pass raised, dyke-like banks smothered with mosses so green they verged on luminous.
Flocks of sparrows and wagtails and even a wayward pheasant may shimmy among the trees. Look out for little egrets perched by a pond; meanwhile alders dipped their roots in the streams and the mires are dark and still.
Directions: Head downhill from the windmill to a gate at the bottom of the field where a new path has been laid through Centurion’s Copse. Follow waymarkers along Footpath BB21 to Quay Lane in Brading. Cross the railway line to reach the train station.