Jo Moon and Mark Featherstone find a warm welcome in beautiful Bembridge Harbour.

The West Coast has the sunshine’, according to the Beach Boys, but ‘the East Coast girls are hip’! A visit to California might be out of reach, but time spent in the welcoming Bembridge Harbour on the east coast of the Isle of Wight is guaranteed to give you ‘Good Vibrations’!

Claiming to be the largest village in the UK and crowned Village of the Year in 2019, Bembridge is situated in the large, picturesque natural harbour of Brading Haven, with the 550-berth Duver Marina offering visiting boats a unique experience. It’s one of those places you’ve heard about and always intended to visit, and we thoroughly recommend that you do. This is a stunning part of the coastline, boasting three sandy beaches, two vibrant sailing clubs and plenty of amazing places to explore, but its real charm is the friendly atmosphere with a laid-back East Coast bohemian vibe.

Bembridge Windmill.

Bembridge Windmill

Bembridge bonhomie

Walking around Bembridge, I was reminded of my time working on PlayStation in San Francisco Bay, spending weekends enjoying the downtown upbeat vibe of Sausalito, a town with a thriving arts scene and an eclectic mix of houseboats in the wetlands. Bembridge has around 25 houseboats, which are a photogenic mix of innovation and shabby chic, including a now-derelict WWII motor torpedo boat, all of which grace the southern side of the harbour. The village centre is equally as charming, with brightly coloured cafés and gift shops. Provisioning won’t be an issue here as there is a Co-op, an excellent farm shop and a fishmongers, and in every one of these fine establishments we were welcomed like long-lost friends.

Relics of the harbour’s history.

Relics of the harbour’s history.

Relics of the harbour’s history.

Bembridge is on the coastal path in the middle of a 12-mile section that starts at the classic seaside town of Sandown, crosses the chalk cliffs of Culver Down with the Yarborough monument at its highest point and finishes in the Victorian promenades of Ryde. Leaving the long hike for a return visit, our weekend began with an evening stroll along the Mill Causeway starting at Bembridge Marina, which cuts a swathe between the marshes, where black-tailed godwits congregated for their evening supper on a low tide, their proud orange plumage standing out from the vivid green of the marsh grasses. This area of the harbour was reclaimed in the late 19th century with the arrival of the railway to Bembridge and is home to a host of sea life and birds, particularly migratory and wetland birds, who winter among the diverse habitats of salt marshes, shingle, dunes and intertidal mudflats. Indeed, this is the first RSPB site on the island and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Iconic houseboats in the harbour.

Iconic houseboats in the harbour.

We reached the common, which once was the prestigious Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club, built in 1882 and patronised by the future King Edward VII. Woolly black Hebridean sheep gazed upon us with great disinterest as we walked along the Gaggen Path, so called after the press gangs who came ashore to try to boost crew numbers. No such tactics were needed here – the offer of a pizza and half a cider at Steve’s Bar in Duver Marina was equally as effective.

Friday night at Steve`s Bar

Friday night at Steve`s Bar

Bembridge beach © Charlsey /Shutterstock

Bembridge beach Isle of Wight in the English Channel off the Hampshire coast. © Charlsey /Shutterstock

Loverly Duverly

A holiday atmosphere greeted us at Duver Marina. Families and couples were seated at parasol-shaded trestle tables enjoying a convivial beer in the warm sunshine. Steve’s Bar is well stocked with beverages and serves the delightfully named ‘Mermaid Gin’, made just 10 minutes up the road at the Isle of Wight Distillery. We took a stroll along the very long visitors’ Duver pontoon, which accommodates up to 140 vessels, where powerboats and RIBs moored happily alongside sailing yachts of all sizes. Groups of boat owners and families congregated around their boats, shooting the breeze with their neighbours with a glass of wine in hand and impromptu suppers waiting on deck. The facilities here are far from luxurious, but the showers and WCs are clean, and the essentials such as tea, coffee and wine can be purchased from the Galley Locker in the harbour office. The Duver Café serves excellent breakfast rolls and sandwiches, and fresh stone-baked pizzas at the weekends. Along with Steve’s Bar next door, it has outside seating only, but there is a large marquee for shelter if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Duver Marine Art Gallery.

Duver Marine Art Gallery.

The Tackt-Isle club house at Duver Marina.

The Tackt-Isle club house at Duver Marina.

The marina’s sister company, Bembridge Boat Storage, has dry stack facilities for boats up to 10 metres and will have your boat ready and waiting for you if you call ahead. For visitors who are trailing, there is a nominal charge to use the slipway, or if you want to keep your trailer free of salt water, you can arrange for the forklift to launch for you.

The Best Dressed Crab Company.

The Best Dressed Crab Company.

An evening stroll along the mill causeway.

An evening stroll along the mill causeway.

A phone box with a twist.

A phone box with a twist.

St Helens

We crossed through the sand dunes to St Helens promenade, with pretty beach huts lining the soft white sand towards the old tower of St Helens Church, painted white and used as a seamark since Napoleonic times. Once a busy Roman port, at one time the sea made its way up as far inland as the ancient town of Brading, and in the 16th century, ships would come in for shelter and provisions. The water of St Helens had excellent keeping qualities and would remain fresh for a voyage to the West Indies and back. Legend has it that Nelson’s last sight of England was of St Helens Church as HMS Victory set off for Trafalgar having stopped for supplies.

St Helens sea fort in the Solent. © Stephen Butterworth/Shutterstock

St Helens sea fort in the Solent. © Stephen Butterworth/Shutterstock

Naval history abounds here, and to our right squatted the ugly circular walls of St Helens Fort, completed in 1868 and one of the Palmerston Forts that encircle Portsmouth. The beaches here are fantastic, and after a bracing swim we adjourned to the Vine Inn overlooking the quintessential village cricket green for a hearty meal and a warm-up before heading back to Duver Marina to catch the water taxi. One of three, the catamaran taxi will take you anywhere within the harbour and rather unusually took us straight onto the beach at Bembridge.

St. Helen’s beach overlooking Bembridge.

St. Helen’s beach overlooking Bembridge.

A warm welcome at Framptons.

A warm welcome at Framptons.

The only windmill left on the island. © Christine Dodd - Shutterstock

The only windmill left on the island. © Christine Dodd – Shutterstock

St Helens Church Tower, St. Helen’s, Isle of Wight`. © M Rose - Shutterstock

St Helens Church Tower, St. Helen’s, Isle of Wight`. © M Rose – Shutterstock

Bembridge Lifeboat

Having spent 34 years in RNLI service, we always head for the local lifeboat station, and this one is truly iconic with spectacular views across the Solent. Hunched at the end of a long walkway, the lifeboat house resembles a huge bathing machine, and right on cue, like a Victorian lady lifting her crinolines to descend the steps, the Tamar ALB slowly emerged on its 70th shout of the year. Stopping to take in the spectacle of the boat splashing into the water, marine explorers rummaged along the shore, taking advantage of the low tide to peer into the vast shallow pools of this rockpool mecca. Goby fish, anemones and the famous Bembridge edible crabs are plentiful, but there are lots of rarer species too – so much so that the area around Bembridge has been recommended as a Marine Conservation Zone to protect the tongue-twisting likes of the kaleidoscope stalked jellyfish and the short-snouted seahorse, to name but two.

View of Bembridge Lifeboat Station © Nelida Zubia

View of Bembridge Lifeboat Station © Nelida Zubia

The perfect spot

Although there’s plenty to explore onshore, with its easy access to the eastern Solent, Bembridge is also the perfect jumping-off spot for adventures further afield like Chichester, Langstone and Portsmouth, all within a 10-mile radius. An additional advantage is that it’s a good hour closer to the Continent than mainland marinas at the same end of the Solent. But if it’s downtime you need, this is a great place to go to step out of the whirlpool of life, rewind back to simpler times and let those good vibrations restore you!

A handy tidal gauge on the visitor`s pontoon.

A handy tidal gauge on the visitor`s pontoon.

Access by sea

Bembridge Harbour is a largely drying lagoon accessed via a dredged channel with a sandbar at the start of the main outer entrance due south of Portsmouth Harbour, marked by buoys and the smallest of the Solent Forts, St Helens, which carries a tidal gauge in the spring and summer months. There is also a clever live tidal height feed on the harbour website and outside the harbour office, so there should be no excuse for running aground, but if in doubt, access on a rising tide and follow the numbered buoys. On the approach from the north, beware of Ryde Sands, and from the south, keep well clear of the Bembridge Ledges. On big spring tides, beware of a strong current through the harbour.

Top five things to do

Paddleboard safari – hire kayaks, paddleboards and canoes at Tackt-Isle Adventures, Duver Marina: 01983 875542.

Fossil hunting – the island’s ‘Dinosaur Coast’ stretches for 20 miles from Yaverland to Compton Bay.

Top tip: Look for heavy dark stones with a shiny surface and a ‘bubbly-looking’ interior at low tide or after rough weather.

Bembridge Windmill

Built in the early 1700s and painted by Turner, the only surviving windmill on the island is now a National Trust property.

Brading Roman Villa

Overlooking Sandown Bay, this is one of the finest Roman sites in the UK and features beautifully preserved mosaic floors.

Bembridge Fort & Downs

An unrestored Victorian fort set on the dramatic chalk cliff. The downs have a wealth of military history with 19th-century and WWI fortifications.

Cruising Destinations

Cowes

A pretty little town, world renowned for yachting, with a bustling harbour and plenty of eateries.Soak up Victoriana in East Cowes with a visit to Osborne House.

Yarmouth

An historic harbour with a picturesque pier overlooked by Yarmouth Castle. Plenty to do for families and the best place to get onto the cliffs to take those must have shots of The Needles.

Lymington

This Georgian market town`s cobbled streets echo with history and has a vibrant  waterfront where commercial boats sell fresh fish.

Southampton

A fascinating mix of modern and medieval, this is the place for culture vultures and history buffs alike.  The SeaCity and the Solent Sky Museum are a must for the Titanic and aviation stories.

Portsmouth

A very accessible and compact city on the flat, the historic dockyard is the UK`s premier destination for naval history with warships and submarines galore.

Hayling Island

The home of windsurfing, the leisure facilities here are fantastic and this is a great place for a traditional seaside holiday to enjoy walking, cycling and swimming.

Poole

This is a bustling town with lots of al fresco waterside eateries and a picturesque old town and quayside set against the stunning backdrop of the Jurassic Coast.

Useful info

Facilities

  • Shower & WC
  • Galley Locker
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Water & electricity on visitor pontoon

Fuel

  • Closest fuel: Gosport/Cowes

Spinnaker Chandlery

  • (Bembridge) 01983 874324

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