A brief history of Bembridge Harbour
Bembridge Harbour is the sole remaining intertidal part of the former much larger Brading Harbour (or Brading Haven) which extended over three kilometres inland, with a quay near Brading town. Sea walls constructed in 1338 (Yarbridge), 1562 (Bexley Point) and 1594 (Centurion's Copse – Wall Lane) steadily reduced its estuarine area. The largest and most recent enclosure via the construction of an embankment in 1879 linking St Helens to Bembridge by both rail and road, resulted in the Harbour boundaries seen today which measure only one fifth of the original River East Yar estuary.
Approximately two hundred years ago, St Helens would have been a small coastal village associated with shipping, fishing and the general small scale maritime economy. Bembridge was much smaller than today and over ten kilometres away by road. The main link between the two, until the Embankment Road and Railway links were built, was by boat. 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, long before other UK branch lines. As a result of this closure track beds and railway buildings became redundant, available for a variety of other uses. Track beds became footpaths, buildings used by marine orientated businesses such as the Ariadne Sailing School and boatyard workshops. The crane that stood on the base at St. Helens Quay was still being used by various boatyards many years later. The Embankment saw businesses come and go such as the pilotage service run by Ernie Wade and the boatbuilders Keith Nelson (Thorneycroft). Other boatyards remain albeit with a shift towards maintenance and repairs and the Embankment is still home to two yacht clubs.
The Duver Side
The Duver side of the harbour has also seen businesses come and go over the years. Boatyards operate similarly to their counterparts on the opposite side of the harbour and commercial hovercraft were built and maintained on part of the old Woodnutts site until 2012. The Duver, once the home of a nine-hole golf course, is now enjoyed as an open public space, maintained by the National Trust (NT).
Other areas became residential. St. Helens Station was converted into a house and over the years buildings such as the Spithead Hotel, Bembridge Station and the disused Mill at St. Helens were demolished and rebuilt as homes. The St. Helens Quay area, along with the former gasworks site, has been cleared of empty sheds, buildings and gas holders, these being replaced with numerous homes. The majority of these developments have taken place within the last 30 years as the demand for housing in the area has increased.
Ownership of the Harbour was formerly under the control of The British Railways Board, as inheritors of the former railway line and its associated infrastructure. This was passed to the Bembridge Harbour Improvements Company (BHIC) under the Pier & Harbour Order (Bembridge Harbour) Confirmation Act 1963, and BHIC now acts as the Bembridge Harbour Authority (BHA). Bembridge Harbour differs from several others on the island and south coast of England in that it is not a 'Trust Port'. Trust Ports are typically independent, self governing statutory bodies with no stakeholders or owners.
The two dune systems at St Helens Duver and Bembridge Point, situated either side of the harbour entrance provide protection from the worst impacts of northerly storms. They consist of blown sand and shingle. The bed of the inner harbour is composed of estuarine mud and silt, which, in its eastern part is also mixed with fine sand. A band of Bembridge limestone outcrops just on the northern boundary of the outer harbour area.
Coastal Sediment Transport (CST), eroding west to east from Whitecliff Bay to the Bembridge Lifeboat Station, deposits gravels and sand in the harbour mouth. This particularly occurs during winter storms. Conversely, a small north to south sediment transport brings deposits from Priory Bay into the western harbour entrance.
Nature Conservation Status and Designations
Bembridge Harbour merits status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (Brading Marshes and St Helens to Bembridge Ledges SSSI). It is also a Special Protection Area (SPA) under EU Directive 74/409 and is further designated under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Site No. RS 965) denoting that the area is important for waterfowl. The nature conservation importance of the area principally relates to the migratory and wintering wetland bird species using the harbour and the rare assemblage of invertebrates, mammals and flora in the nearby grassland, brackish pools and marshland.