Bembridge and Culver Downs marshes trail
An invigorating walk over the downs and RSPB Brading Marshes reserve, with splendid views of the coast and countryside and the opportunity to visit the Island’s only surviving windmill.
Bembridge Windmill lay-by, grid ref: SZ641875.
Walk to the bend in the road and turn left to Bembridge Windmill. Walk downhill to Steyne Wood, home to red squirrels. Just 50yds (50m) into the wood, prior to the interpretation panel, bear left to follow a path which soon reaches a busy road. Cross over and go through a gate and continue on path signposted BB22 up a gentle rise past a caravan park to Hillway Road. Turn left up the road, then first right after 100yds (90m) into Jenny Street's Lane. Follow the path signposted BB15, eventually meeting the coastal path after bending round a large corrugated building.
This is an early 18th-century wooden cap mill built of local limestone. For two centuries it provided work for generations of millers. The arrival of the railway bringing cheap flour meant that from 1897 only cattle feed was produced. The mill last operated in 1913. In World War Two it was used by the Home Guard as a look-out post. We restored it from a near derelict state using much of the original wooden machinery. It is now the Island’s only surviving windmill.
Turn right and walk along the coastal path with stunning views of Whitecliff Bay. Pass BB16 on your right, then in open area, bear to the right of the seats and cross the top of the concrete ramp to follow the onward coastal path, keeping to the immediate right of the hedge and soon passing over a wooden bridge to the left of caravans. This is a rising path with some steps. Go through a kissing gate and follow the path diagonally up the hillside, turning left at the hedge at the top to pass through a kissing gate leading to an interpretation panel. After 30yds (30m) bear right, cross the car park and go up steep concrete steps to the beacon.
Beacons like this were part of a medieval south coast early warning system designed to respond to the threat of French invasion. A chain of beacons, each consisting of a mast with an access ladder and a fire bucket on top, stretched across the Island. They were used to pass messages, by way of a flame, to and from the mainland. Our beacon was one of several thousand across the country lit to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
From the beacon, turn right and follow the road past the pub and Yarborough Monument. Turn left immediately after the cafe and follow the signed coastal path, going through a kissing gate and following the cliff edge for 380yds (350m) to reach a line of scrub just before a steep drop. Bear right along the upper edge, and keeping the bushes on your immediate left. Continue onwards through a gap in a crossing hedge and after a few yards turn right heading upwards. This path emerges onto the road close to Bembridge Fort. Turn left along the road to the Fort entrance (only open for pre-booked tours, telephone 01983 741020).
Ravens nest on the cliffs along with peregrine falcons and sea birds. Ravens are often heard before they are seen, thanks to their distinctive hoarse call 'cronk! cronk!'. Hardy black Hebridean sheep graze Culver Down in winter, preferring tough brambles and coarse grass to more tender chalk grassland flowers. Look out for rock rose, bee orchid and birdsfoot trefoil in the shorter turf. Spring brings cowslip displays and bush crickets and grasshoppers. Chalkhill blue butterflies can be spotted in summer
Take the grassy downhill path directly opposite the Fort entrance for 50yds (50m), then bear diagonally left and downwards along the well defined track and continue through a break in the hedgerow. Take the first right and head down the valley, descending all the time and continue on the right hand side of the valley to pass through a kissing gate to meet the busy road.
This hexagonal fort was built in the 1860s on the highest point on the down as part of the Island’s defences against French invasion. In the late 19th century it was used as an experimental test facility for anti-torpedo and anti-submarine devices. In World War 2 it was a co-ordinating point for Nodes Point and Culver Down batteries. In 2011 a team of volunteers clearing debris uncovered one of the gun racers on top of the fort.
Follow the road to the right for 40yds (40m) then take the left BB31 footpath, entering the RSPB Gander Down Reserve by a kissing gate. Bear right and follow the hedge, turning into the wood at a kissing gate, then after 20yds (20m) turn left. Shortly, bear right and continue for another 220yds (200m) to the Eastern Yar sluice gate, one of the best vantage points for seeing birds on Brading Marshes.
RSPB Brading Marshes
The reclaimed wetland stretching along the lower River Yar valley from Brading to the sea at Bembridge harbour has been an RSPB reserve since 2001. Lapwings with their distinctive ‘peewit’ cries breed here in spring. Little egrets fish in autumn. In winter flocks of wigeon with their golden striped heads can be seen. On sunny days buzzards with their mewing calls soar overhead. There are also reed, sedge and Cetti’s warblers. Also Centurion’s Copse is a great place for spring flowers and woodland birdsong.
Retrace your steps, and this time bear left at the path junction into Centurion's Copse. Bear left onto BB20 at the interpretation panel, and left again after 80yds (75m). Cross the middle of the field by the solitary oak tree to a bridge and kissing gate at the far side, then over the next field to a kissing gate in the hedge. After a third kissing gate the path crosses Bembridge Airfield runway through a kissing gate. Follow the edge of Brading Haven reserve, passing through a kissing gate and a stile and follow the path to the top corner of a field. Bear right over a stile and return to Bembridge Windmill by crossing another stile and through a gate. Turn left to get back to the lay-by.
Brading was used as a port in Roman times and the Haven, stretching almost two miles inland, was the estuary of the eastern River Yar and the most important harbour on the Island for hundreds of years. Attempts to drain it failed until 1620 when an embankment was built across the harbour entrance. St Helens became the sea port for eight years until the sea broke through. In 1878 the Haven was reclaimed in a hugely expensive scheme to build a railway line.
Bembridge Windmill lay-by, grid ref: SZ641875.
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