Bembridge: making landmarks in history

It has often been described over the years as the biggest village in Europe. One of its most famous inhabitants said it was ‘the perfect place to live’, and of course it has its own harbour, life boat station, windmill, airport and an eclectic mix of shops, cafes and restaurants to suit all needs.

Welcome to Bembridge, tucked away on the north east side of the Island, and indeed an island in its own right until the late 19th century. Bembridge manages to combine the tranquil with the bustling; a village where people stop to pass the time of day or hurry along to buy their fresh fish, meat and bread.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the more notable landmarks that help to make Bembridge somewhere a bit special, for both those who live there, and the many thousands who visit every year:

Built in the early 1700s, Bembridge Windmill is an important part of the Island’s heritage. At the time, Bembridge had been cut off from the rest of the Isle of Wight. Inside the windmill kiosk is a copy of an unfinished painting by artist J.M. Turner. During his visit in 1795, he’d begun a watercolour of the windmill, showing the sea lapping at the bottom of the hill on which the mill stands.

For two centuries the windmill provided a vital service to the local community and for those who worked within.

Bembridge found itself no longer isolated by the 1880s following the drainage of Brading Haven. The arrival of the railway saw the advent of cheap flour and by 1897 only cattle feed was produced. The mill last operated in 1913 and by the following harvest, the men had gone to serve their country in the Great War. The mill never re-opened after that.

During the 1930s repairs were carried out and by the late 1950s locals had paid for further restoration work. It was handed over to the National Trust in 1961. Nowadays, the windmill is a Grade I listed building and is the Island’s only surviving wind-powered mill. You can still explore all four floors, which extend up to the top of the mill, where you will get a great sense of how these amazing buildings functioned.

Bembridge Airport opened its doors in 1920 on land owned by Bembridge Farm. During the following year the airfield became a licensed aerodrome and by 1933 was listed as approved by the Automobile Association with a 600-yard runway.

In 1934 Spartan Airlines began airline services and with terminal facilities set up, other airlines operated into Bembridge. These included Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation and Channel Air Ferries. During World War II Bembridge was closed and the landing area was obstructed by ditches to prevent the use of the airfield in the event of invasion.

Since the Second World War, Britain’s most successful aircraft, the Britten-Norman Islander has been built at Bembridge since 1963. In spite of this, from the turn of the year in 2011, only non-commercial aircraft have been able to use the airport because its licence had expired. Bosses decided not to renew it following a lease term dispute with the landowner.

Bembridge Fort was one of the many Palmerston Forts built around Portsmouth during the Second French Empire. It was used as a safeguard against a perceived threat of French invasion. Building began in May 1862 and five years later was completed at a cost of £48,925.

The fort was first armed, but the guns were later removed. Between 1880 and 1900 Fort Bembridge was used as an experimental test facility for anti-torpedo and anti-submarine devices. During the Second World War Fort Bembridge was used as a co-ordinating point for the batteries at Nodes Point and Culver Down and two Allen Williams Turrets were constructed on the top of the fort. The MOD stopped using the fort in 1948 and it was sold to the National Trust in 1967.

The derelict Victorian fort is now open for volunteer-run guided tours. Part of it was occupied by a factory, but in 1998 this went into liquidation and suddenly moved out. Part of the fort was then let to a different company, one that makes crop spraying equipment and they still operate to this day.

To most of us the Lord Yarborough monument on Bembridge Down is taken for granted, as it keeps a watchful eye on the surrounding area. Lord Yarborough’s summer residence was Appuldercombe and, after his family, his first love was the sea. Lord Yarborough’s most famous ship was the ‘Falcon’, a fully rigged ship which was launched in June, 1892. Discipline was very strict and ran on Royal Navy lines. He even got his crew to sign a paper volunteering to be flogged if the need arose. In 1827, he got involved in the Battle of Navarino, running errands for the Admiral.

In 1825, he was appointed Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes and during his time as Commodore, cruising and yachting flourished and the club grew in reputation and in numbers. While on the Falcon, he was badly injured by being thrown across a sea chest during a gale and was further disabled by a bout of influenza and, after this he decided to sell his pride and joy and buy a smaller vessel, the ‘Kestrel’.

Lord Yarborough died suddenly in 1846 on board the Kestrel whilst in Virgo. The Royal Squadron Committee put up £200 towards a Nautical Monument or Sea Mark at some appropriate spot on the Island to perpetuate his memory. The Monument was built as a result of their subscription. It still stands boldly to this day to remind yachtsmen of the first Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron to whom they all owe so much.

Initially the Monument was sited further to the west on the downs, but was moved to its present position to allow the moated fort to be built in 1867 by Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, as part of the defence system of the Solent.

Bembridge Harbour was originally part of Brading Haven and the sea extended down as far as Yaverland and Sandown. Bembridge was always nearly impossible to access, as the only route to it was via marshes in Yaverland which flooded in winter. At the start of the 19th Century access to Bembridge was difficult and as there were strong current 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.

The construction of the railway, plus its associated land reclamation also heralded the start of significant industry, shipping and commerce in the local area. Regular mainland boat connections were established, many boat building and engineering businesses developed and the Harbour underwent a busy and industrially developed stage from the late 19th century to around the 1950s.

The railway closed in 1953. As a result, track beds and railway buildings became redundant, available for a variety of other uses. Track beds quickly became footpaths, buildings became used by marine orientated businesses such as the Ariadne Sailing School and the boatyard workshops. Until recently the crane that stood on the base at St Helens Quay was still being used by various boatyards.

Standing proudly just around the corner at St Helens Duver is the tower of St Helens Old Church. The old church dates from 704 when Bishop Wilfred brought Christianity to the Island. Falling into a bad state as far back as the 16th century, by the 18th century it had become so ruinous that a new church was built in 1717 about a mile inland and the old church allowed to go to ruin, the tower being the only part left standing. The new church was re-built in 1831 and in 1862 a new chancel was erected.

The first Post Office the village had was situated in the High Street, where the Bakery shop is now. The Post Office was opened in the 1880s and was managed by Miss Osbourne who was assisted by her sister. Before this time, mail came from Brading, brought over on foot. The village would have had a receiving house where letters could be taken for onward delivery and mail could be collected.

Before 1840 the sending of mail was a very expensive business, and often open to abuse. The recipients, who had to pay the postage, would accept the letter, read it in front of the postman and then disclaim it. The Post Office lost a lot of revenue through this and during the early part of the 19th century, several different ideas were tried out.

The introduction of the Penny Black in 1840 revolutionised the Post Office, allowing the ordinary people to use the postal system. Bembridge in the 1840s was a collection of tiny hamlets, so mail into and from the village was incredibly minute. Most of the letters that survived today from this time are from the clergy, solicitors, nobility and mail from abroad.

Early letters are eagerly sought after by postal historians and mail from the Island changes hands for many pounds. On Miss Osbourne’s retirement in the 1920s, the Post Office moved to the Point. This proved a very unpopular decision and upset the villagers who disliked the walk.

Bembridge Coast Hotel has altered beyond recognition from the private dwelling it originally was at the beginning of the 20th century. The original house has been incorporated into the hotel complex, built in 1905 for Sir Paul Waterlow and named ‘Fuzze Freeze’, Fuzze being the local name for gorse bush that grew in abundance in the area.

After the end of the Great War, the Rt. Hon. Richard Farrer Baron Hershell, esquerry and Lord in Waiting to H.M. King George V bought the house for £6,950 and renamed it Fetlar House. Queen Mary was a frequent visitor to the house as was Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s daughter, who often popped over from Carisbrooke Castle.

Captain and Mrs. Pease took over the property in 1927 paying £7,500, and for a short period in 1940 patients from the Royal National Hospital for Consumption occupied the chalets, but a year later the whole camp was taken over by the Admiralty and used as a Naval Base.

The base was known as HMS Blazer. The ship had two 4.7” guns backed up by two rocket guns. Later the base was fitted with a mobile radar set. At first the Royal Marines ran the ship, using the area for training in cliff climbing. The marines left the ship for more active service before D-Day and the base was then run as a gunnery school. There were about 250 naval personnel on the base including Wrens. The navy, during their stay, built several buildings and made concrete paths. At Christmas the base invited many children from the village for a party and of course to meet Santa himself.

After the war the site was returned to the Yelland family and once again people were able to enjoy themselves after six years of war. The Yellands bought the land and some of the houses around, Smoglands and Hollywood, the house with the green tiles. In 1965 the whole site was sold for a six-figure sum to the Warner Brothers and since then the site has been improved and upgraded to become a first class adults only facility.

Golf has been played on the Island since 1882 when the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club was started by an enthusiastic group of people from Bembridge who created a golf course of nine holes on the Duver at St Helens.

By 1893 the ladies had their own golf course on land reclaimed from the sea in 1880. Originally nine holes were laid out but later increased to 18. The club had great help from Mr Tabuteau who was the honorary secretary for the first eight years.

On October 1, 1893, the Hon. Mrs Dudley Wood drove off the first ball on a course that had sand bunkers, bushes, a road and a small stream which had to be crossed over no less than ten times. The length of the first nine holes was 1,839 yards and the second nine 1,615 yards. The first captain was Mrs MacDonald Moreton who was succeeded in 1894 by H.R.H Princess Beatrice.

The club had a professional, B.Daish, who held the record for the course of 62; the ladies record being 78 by Mrs Westmacott. The list of original members was 26, but by 1902 this had risen to 90 with 40 annual ticket holders.

There was a very fine Club House which was built adjacent to the first tee. The groundsman for the course was a Mr Attrill and after him Willie Occomore, both from Bembridge.

By 1913 there were eight other golf courses on the Island; most of which had a ladies section and there was even an Island Golfing magazine called ‘Fore’. Sadly the summer of 1914 saw the last game on the course; the Great War had started and the Club House was taken over by the R.N.A.S who had a base on the Point.

If you walk along the old railway track from St Helens towards Bembridge, the course was to your right although it’s hardly recognisable as such today. In its day it was a splendid course judging by some of the holes like Cockleshell, the Column, to name just a few!

One of many famous Bembridge inhabitants was the late Cliff Morgan, the former Wales Rugby Union captain, BBC Broadcaster and Commentator who lived in the village with his wife for more than 10 years before he sadly died aged 83, following a long battle with cancer, in August last year.

Cliff was also fondly remembered for his work as the Head of Outside Broadcast for the Beeb and as a founder captain of the ever popular TV programme “A Question of Sport”. Speaking to Island Life magazine before his passing, Cliff said: “Bembridge is a wonderful place to live. We have our own bakery for fresh bread, a butcher’s shop with wonderful meat, an excellent fishmongers, and an equally good farm shop – everything you need.”

It’s a view shared by hundreds of Islanders.