It is generally reckoned to be the largest village in Europe, but when you take a closer look at Bembridge it is undoubtedly a fact that in this instance size really doesn’t matter. It’s the unique community spirit rather than the numbers who live there that has taken Bembridge to a level difficult to find in many other Island outposts.
Most people know about the famous Bembridge Windmill, dating back to around 1700, and the only remaining windmill on the Island. Then there’s the rebuilt lifeboat station, from where the RNLI launch to save many a life under threat from the notorious Bembridge Ledge, always a threat to boats that pass too close to the Island.
Bembridge also boasts its own small airport – home of the famous ‘Islander’ aircraft – its close Hovercraft connections, primary and middle schools, three churches, and on its eastern tip the Bembridge Coast Hotel, a hugely popular location for adult holidaymakers.
Then of course to complement its famous harbour, there are house boats full of charm and character, as well as Bembridge Sailing Club, dating back 1886, and now with one of the most attractive club houses to be seen anywhere. The harbour itself is surprisingly busy, bearing in mind those who come and go are ruled by the low tides. But that doesn’t deter pleasure craft as well as fishing boats from ensuring a constant flow to and from The Solent. And you don’t have to dig too much deeper to find a magnificent array of shops, a string of high quality business outlets that include a dental practice, a motor showroom, vehicle repairers, cafes and chiropractor.
Come to think of it, there’s not much that Bembridge hasn’t got. Many who live there reckon that if the village was cut off from the rest of the Island for any reason, it would be able to survive – at least until the suppliers had to make their way back in. But there is no point in having all the magnificent facilities, if there is no one to use them. And that’s another thing that tends to make Bembridge a bit special. The locals are loyal and the annual influx of mainlanders to their holiday homes, hotels or guest houses only serves to enhance the community spirit rather than damage it.
We asked a few business owners why they thought Bembridge was just that little bit different, and why it is such a popular location for locals and visitors alike.
Andrea Lesley, who runs her soft furnishings business from her unit at Weavers Yard, said: “It is special that the community do make an effort and try to support local businesses. It is part of the community spirit, and businesses do appreciate it. I find not just with my business, but the likes of the village butcher and the delicatessen are well supported, and obviously they couldn’t survive without that support, especially in what have been difficult times for everyone.”
Chris Littlewort, owner of the Bembridge Flower Shop for the past six and half years, said: “The great thing about Bembridge is that you don’t have to leave the village because it caters for everything from everyday needs to the more luxury side of shopping. It is a beautiful village, quite unique and vey thriving. If there was any reason why we couldn’t get out of Bembridge, we could survive quite easily – until the suppliers had to return. It is a village that needs its local support, because we simply couldn’t survive just in the busy holiday times. We have gone from strength to strength thanks to the backing of the villagers. I feel every business makes sure it does cater for the local community as well as visitors, which is very important.”
Hayley Walker, who moved to Bembridge four years ago from the mainland, has run her ‘The Sign Lady’ business for the past three years. She believes the influx of people from the mainland has actually helped the community spirit in Bembridge. Hayley explained: “I was quite surprised when I found out how many people from Kent and the London area live in the village. Many have brought their own ideas here but have also integrated into the community. I think that is what has helped make Bembridge the village that has everything. It is a special place when you consider it has lovely walking beaches combined with shops that are that little bit different, and would not be out of place in London.”
Robin Maconchy is founder and property consultant for chartered architects R.M. Associates, in Bembridge. The company was established in 1990, and Robin combines his business work with the chairmanship of the Bembridge Heritage Centre. He said: “We certainly have a great deal in the village, and there are probably not that many other places on the Island like it. As well as the shops, we have everything from estate agents to funeral director and of course architects. It is very much a village where everyone pulls together.
“There are a lot of holiday homes in the area, and of course there is the Bembridge Coast Hotel. We like to show visitors what the village has to offer, and there are now genuine efforts to get them out and about in the village, rather than just sit in the hotel and watch the sea. Walking tours of Bembridge have recently been introduced, and are proving popular.” Robin was also a founder member of the Bembridge Heritage Centre, and has been chairman for the past four years. He admitted: “Our biggest problem is that we do not have enough space to show all the material we have, all of which has been donated. The collection dates back from several hundred years ago to what is happening in Bembridge at the present time.”
Add to the amenities an excellent variety of public houses, restaurants, camp sites and coastal walks. Then there is always the excursion to the top of Bembridge Down for a bird’s eye view of the whole area, and it is easy to see why those who live there and who visit find it a quaint and most fascinating village.