Tales from the coastline – Sandy sandwiches and pirate treasure!
I don’t get over to the east coast of the Island nearly as much as I should, so an opportunity to revisit places I saw as a child still evokes memories of school holidays, sandwiches containing real sand and hunting for pirate treasure.
Bembridge Harbour is one such place, with its stretch of embankment just over half a mile long that has a mix of natural and man-made features.
Walking east along the footpath, you hear the rattling and jangling of boat masts behind the newly creosoted fence of Brading Haven Yacht Club. The stone bishop’s mitres sat atop the gate posts each side of the entrance to commemorate St Wilfred who, in the seventh century, landed at Brading and brought Christianity to the Isle of Wight.
The remains of the much larger body of water that separated ‘Bembridge Isle’ from the rest of the Island at that time, still extends across to Brading as marshland and water meadow either side of the Eastern Yar River.
After centuries of attempts at reclamation, the embankment completed in the 19th century now marks the landward side of today’s harbour. The brackish lagoons just to the south are home for wintering wildfowl and a variety of plants and small creatures that can only survive in the half-fresh, half-salty water.
The shoreline of the harbour comes up to the embankment where gnarled oaks, hawthorns and sycamore grow alongside blackberry bushes only a few feet from the water’s edge, and plants that thrive in the intertidal zone. Here, both rock and marsh samphire grow in close proximity and patches of wild fennel spring up from the shingle.
The strand between low and high water is a beachcomber’s paradise. Littered with the detritus of hundreds of years of human activity, lengths of rusting chain, pieces of ancient glass and stoneware lay among the mud and rocks.
Bembridge is very much a working harbour, where crab and lobster boats rub fenders with pleasure craft. The latter part of the year is the peak season for crab fishing. A few of the traditional ‘inkwell’ traps and the more modern ‘parlour pots’ might be awaiting repair on the pontoon, but most will be on the sea bed awaiting a visit by the tasty crustaceans.
One doesn’t have to venture far to enjoy the fruits of the sea. The pontoon has a floating café and shop moored alongside, where a group of ladies pick the meat from crabs and lobsters, landed every day by the local fishermen.
Venturing further along the embankment, the water’s edge is lined with a hotchpotch of houseboats. There are still a couple of converted boats that saw wartime service. Other houseboats are purpose-built and reflect a more modern design. All combine to make a glorious mix of colours, styles and decorative taste. The frontages are filled with the muted greys and brown hues of repurposed driftwood, and the bright colours of other sea borne flotsam.
While the harbour’s slightly untidy feel contrasts sharply with the neatness of the village of Bembridge, a little further up the hill it seems to revel in its eclectic mix of the historic and the contemporary. As a child on holiday I loved it. My next visit will be with my grandson. He may not go for sandy sandwiches, but he’d hunt for pirate treasure all day.
By Richard Knowles