THIS time last week, I thought about going for another walk but only managed to prove to myself that an alarm clock is just a device which incorporates a loud beeping sound into the malleable narrative of one’s dreams.
This week, I reverted to Plan A, which consists of three simple instructions:
- Don’t go to bed
- Be awake to catch ridiculously early train
- Snooze on aforementioned ridiculously early train
It worked a treat and I soon found myself hurtling southwards on a train to Portsmouth Harbour and wondering if my summery anti-goth ensemble of all-over white was going to be a mistake on account of the ominous grey clouds that filled the sky.
By the time I reached Portsmouth Harbour the sky had blued itself up delightfully and I, after spending the last half hour or so in a carriage suddenly packed with school kids, was relieved anew that I never actually became a teacher, close though it came.
So, I stepped out of the station into eye-dazzling sunny brightness, which was if anything amplified by a reluctantly evaporating sea haze, and took a proper look at HMS Warrior, the ship that turned the ironclad from a novel French invention into the centre of an arms race that would help to drive us into the First World War.
Having ensured I had an early start, I immediately squandered some of it by wandering off towards Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with a vague intention of looking at HMS Victory and Mary Rose. This intention soon shifted from vague to thwarted on account of the dockyard not opening to visitors for another two hours.
Since part of the reason for my early start was to ensure I reached Warsash before the ferry there stopped running, I decided that to wait and see the dockyard would be a foolish move (where ‘foolish’ is synonymous with ‘adding another four miles to my walk’). I thus headed back to Portsmouth Harbour Station and the jetty nearby from which the Gosport Ferry leaves.
Much like last time, when I caught the ferry from Hayling Island, the ferry was just about to sail when I reached the top of the boarding ramp. I hastily fed coins into a ticket machine – naturally fumbling them and dropping them everywhere in the process – before dashing down and leaping aboard at the last minute.
Gosport ferry is green and purpose-built and was almost empty at around half past eight in the morning. It took just a few minutes to cross the narrow mouth of Portsmouth Harbour, which was handy because it would have taken me all day to walk around it – it’s a good fifteen miles round the harbour edge.
From Gosport I looked back across…
…at HMS Victory
I was slightly disappointed not to get to see Victory again. She was Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar and is still the official flagship of the Second Sea Lord and, as such, remains a commissioned warship of the Royal Navy.
She is in fact the oldest commissioned warship in the world, having been launched in 1765, but is not the oldest afloat, having been in dry dock since 1922. That honour falls to USS Constitution, thirty years her junior but still in the water and sailing merrily about. Of course, when Victory was first launched Constitution’s country didn’t even exist yet – the American Declaration of Independence was just over eleven years later (although two years before Victory’s actual commissioning into the navy in July 1778).
I just love the fact that we have things like Victory and, although she is open to the public, we are still officially using her as a warship! I remember taking a look at her sixteen years ago and causing my then-fiancée much amusement as I smacked my head on an overhead wooden beam because – and I have to admit she had a point with the laughing – I was too busy reading the ‘mind your head’ sign to look where I was going.
Old Naval Dockyard
I turned my back on Victory and the Type 45s and headed off past a marina and then down a long, straight street with high red brick walls on either side that screamed ‘I am an old naval dockyard’ with every ounce of their bricks and mortar.
For most of its history, right up until the last part of the twentieth century, Gosport was a major naval and military town associated with the defence and supply infrastructure of HM Naval Base Portsmouth. Even today the defence connection continues, as one of these brick-enclosed sites turned out to belong to Qinetiq, the stupidly-named defence technology company that was hived off from the Ministry of Defence but remains part-owned by the MoD.
I passed a hospital and a prison right next door to each other and then the walls stopped and there was a mass of gorse between me and what I knew must be the coast. A side road imaginatively named Military Road ran off to my left to Fort Monckton – one of the so-called Palmerston Follies – but I kept going until I reached the next one, which was marked by this:
The road I now followed ran through a golf course to the dilapidated remains of Fort Gilkicker. Oh, how I wished to turn the fort’s old guns upon the golfers. Did I mention how much I despise golf courses? Oh, only a million times? Well I still agree wholeheartedly with Mark Twain on this matter – ‘Golf is a good walk spoiled’.
Fort Gilkicker, like Fort Monckton and the sea forts off the coast, all came about after Lord Palmerston’s review of the nation’s defences in 1859. Intended to protect us if Napoleon III should start taking inspiration from his late uncle, they cost a fortune to build, were outdated almost immediately and turned out to be quite unnecessary when Wilhelm I’s armies decisively crushed Napoleon’s in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
I think Palmerston gets a raw deal though: the French were a credible threat right up until they tangled with Prussia and war between Britain and France was not exactly an historical rarity.
From Gilkicker Point I looked out across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, which really didn’t look three miles away. I could easily make out the town of Ryde, though the sea haze gave it a strangely ethereal quality.
A compacted gravel path ran alongside the shingle beach, turning into a tarmac promenade midway along Stokes Bay as Gosport extended, amoeba-like, to touch the coast again. The promenade didn’t last long, however, as I soon came to Browndown Battery.
This was another old Palmerston fort but this time it had been turned into an MoD training centre, where a permissive path carried on over the shingle beach accompanied by the usual warnings to touch nothing in case it exploded.
For once, the red flags were not flying as I approached, so I was able to happily continue my journey, which I did at the water’s edge, splashing in the tiny ripples as the Solent ebbed towards low tide.
On the far side of Browndown lay Lee-on-the-Solent, a small seaside town and home to the Royal Naval Air Station HMS Daedalus (one of the navy’s famous ‘stone frigates’, i.e. a shore establishment treated as though it were a ship).
Lee-on-the-Solent grew up as a resort town between 1884 and 1894 with the usual parade of hotels and holiday homes, a railway station and a pier. It was not to last: the railway service ended in the 1930s and the pier, breached in World War II to stop any invading Germans making use of it, was never repaired and then demolished in 1958.
I stopped in Lee-on-the-Solent for a cup of tea and a rather mediocre bacon roll and half-listened to a bunch of Isle of Wight pensioners congratulating themselves on their apparently epic adventure to the mainland, which was quite charming.
Suitably refreshed I set off in high spirits only be stopped in my tracks a short while later by an unexpected sight…
Lee-on-the-Solent shaded almost imperceptibly into Hill Head – indeed the only reason I noticed was because one is in the borough of Gosport and the other in Fareham and, accordingly, the logo on all the litter bins changed.
Hill Head was a major troop loading point for D-Day and I passed a memorial to Canadian troops along the way.
At the end of Hill Head was Titchfield Haven, the mouth of the tiny River Meon, along with a visitor centre (mostly closed) and a small harbour, which is apparently centuries old.
Across the Meon
On the far side of the Meon the path rose up on top of some low cliffs and proceeded to undulate with varying levels of vegetation on either side.
Gorse bushes were blooming all around, and daisies, buttercups and dandelions were in abundance. As three of England’s most common flowers, these are usually just ignored and generally considered weeds when they inevitably crop up all over the lawn but I rather like them.
Up on these low cliffs there were a large number of butterflies, mostly small whites but also some orange tips. Quite apart from their strikingly bold colouring, I like orange tips. They have made me smile ever since I once explained to a South African friend that English butterflies were mostly named according to the ‘what colour is it?’ principle – as with whites, blues etc.
‘So what do you call the white ones with the orange tips to their wings?’ she asked.
When I told her, she thought I was taking the piss…
The orange tips proved camera shy though, and I eventually got home with lots of pictures of a blurry butterfly only half in shot. But while I was chasing them about like a madman, I saw this:
When I drew parallel with the excellently named hamlet of Chilling, about a quarter of a mile inland, the path ran into a holiday village and, despite what he map said, I couldn’t find the way through all the caravans. I eventually asked someone and had to detour out onto the nearest road, turning back towards the coast at a crossroads on which all four routes were best described as ‘tracks’ rather than ‘roads’.
My route took me past an electrical substation and I took the opportunity of someone coming out to check I was on the right road. He had no idea but helpfully opined that if I kept going I was bound to reach the sea. I neglected to point out that Great Britain is an island and that’s therefore true in all directions.
A few dozen metres further on I encountered a veritable blaze of white flowers, which was truly awesome to behold.
Back to the Foreshore
The shoreline was, as hoped, beyond the frenetic floral flourish. Once back on the cliff edge, I continued along the coast of what was now the outermost part of Southampton Water rather than the Solent.
Southampton Water is a ria that forms the combined tidal estuary for the rivers Test, Itchen and Hamble. Looking across Southampton Water I could see the expansive industrial blot that is Fawley Oil Refinery, around which my next walk will be forced to detour.
The coast curved sharply around to become the southern bank of the River Hamble, with the village of Hamble-le-Rice on the far side. On my side I passed into the village of Warsash which had been several separate small villages until 1807 when shipbuilder George Parsons began construction of a shipyard. This would bring prosperity for a hundred years or so before going into decline.
My personal mission in Warsash was to locate the Hamble Ferry. I had made it hours before it was due to stop running but I knew it operated on demand and wasn’t sure quite how that would work (I had visions of ringing a bell and waiting forlornly while no ferry arrived).
I needn’t have worried. For one thing, it wasn’t that hard to find the ferry’s point of departure.
Secondly, the ferry – also bright pink – came over to collect me within minutes of my pressing the call button.
Having arrived in Hamble-le-Rice, I went looking for a shop to sell me a cold drink. However, I went in entirely the wrong direction and so ended up back on the shore of Southampton Water without having passed the necessary shop. I know this because I asked a young woman where I could find such a shop and her directions basically amounted to ‘you’d have to go back into Hamble and come here the other way’.
Her young son meanwhile was having a whale of a time with the coolest beach toy in the world:
Hamble Fuel Terminal
Hamble-le-Rice was an aircraft training centre during WW2, so the gun is perhaps a bit poignant as a memorial. With this in mind I wandered onwards, with the path detouring briefly through a leafy copse, to where a BP fuel terminal occupied the bank.
Despite BP’s less than spotless safety record, it didin’t explode and it wasn’t spewing oil into Southampton Water.
The oil refinery was built by Shell in 1924 but became a joint venture with BP from 1930 to 1976. Defended by the anti-aircaft gun emplacement I’d already passed, it supplied the allied forces in France in WW2 via PLUTO – Pipe Lines Under the Ocean – an excellent plan to prevent the Germans from simply torpedoing the oil tankers and bringing the post D-Day push to an ignominious halt.
Royal Victoria Country Park
I wandered along a path that was more of a foot track – I think I was probably just meant to be on the nearby road but the trail led through leafy trees – until it rejoined a proper path and suddenly, some way further on, there was open parkland on my right, in the middle of which was a distinctive-looking structure.
While the Royal Victoria Military Hospital (built 1856, demolished 1966) is long gone, it has left behind 200 acres of woodland and parkland and had no shortage of people enjoying it, which was lovely.
Just beyond the park lay Netley, once an abbey town although Netley Abbey never became rich or powerful or produced anyone famous from its foundation in 1239 right up to its dissolution in 1536 as part of Henry VIII’s ongoing process of wealth acquisition.
In Netley I finally obtained that cold drink I’d wanted since Hamble-le-Rice and I paused to drink it while looking northwards up Southampton Water.
While Henry VIII may have closed Netley Abbey only to find it had very little wealth for him to plunder, he didn’t just take from Netley, building Netley Castle in 1542 as part of his chain of Device Forts to defend us from the French. These days it is privately owned and is a Grade II listed building.
Just past Netley, on Weston Beach, I paused to take a phone call from my brother, which the gusting breeze tried its best to make inaudible. I then headed past Weston, once a small fishing community dating back to the tenth century, now a suburb of Southampton and then into Woolston.
Woolston, on the River Itchen’s eastern bank, was another Southampton suburb. It is believed to originate from a fortified settlement established by Olaf I of Norway in the 10th Century and was recorded as Olvestune in Domesday. Over time, it grew into a prosperous shipbuilding town, formally becoming part of Southampton in 1920.
As I made my way through it much of it was hidden away behind building site hoardings, the shipyards having been bulldozed and urban regeneration being underway. There, I stopped to buy a sandwich and realised that I had already reached the outer parts of Southampton.
A Note on Names
Southampton is the largest city in Hampshire and, though it is not the county town, it is Southampton for which the county is named. ‘Hampshire’ is a contraction of Hamptonshire, and Southampton was originally known simply as Hampton (as was Northampton).
Indeed, the county was officially and formally known as the County of Southampton or Southamptonshire until 1959, when the council decided to rename itself Hampshire, which was what everyone had been calling it anyway – even going as far back as 1086 when ‘Hantescire’ was recorded in the Domesday Book.
Having finished my sandwich, it was time to stop prevaricating and cross the River Itchen.
The Itchen Bridge isn’t pretty – it’s a modern, grey concrete beast of a viaduct with the approach ramps looking pretty much like motorway flyovers. I’m not greatly upset therefore that I didn’t find myself anywhere from which I could actually photograph it. The bridge stands 1 km from the river mouth, and spans 800 m and weighs 62,000 tons. It was opened in 1977 (the Silver Jubilee year) and replaced a floating bridge, which I think I might vaguely remember.
All this is well and good but the thing I most noticed was its height – it’s 28 m at its highest point which doesn’t sound all that high but is pretty impressive when you’re standing on it.
This, I thought to myself, is not a bridge that my brother would like.
On the far side of the Itchen I found myself approaching the ancient heart of Southampton. A major port and the closest city to the New Forest, the area has been inhabited since the stone age. To the Romans it was Clausentum, near to which the Saxons built Hamwic, which became Hampton as it grew.
In 1338 the city was sacked by an enterprising mix of French, Genoese & Monegasques, prompting Edward III to have its walls rebuilt in 1339. These excellent ramparts proved no defence nine years later when the Black Death arrived in England via this port.
During the Middle Ages, shipbuilding became important and Henry V‘s famous warship Grace Dieu was built in Southampton (her remains lie in the bottom of the Hamble). Prior to his departure for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Henry had the ringleaders of a plot against him – Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham and Sir Thomas Grey of Heton – arrested, tried for high treason in what is now the Red Lion public house in the High Street and executed. This ‘Southampton Plot’ is referenced in Shakespeare’s play Henry V.
Unsinkables and Interceptors
Southampton experienced major expansion during the Victorian era and was the home port for the ill-fated RMS Titanic, which sailed from Southampton with Sotonians making up four fifths of her crew. A quarter century later RJ Mitchell and Joseph Smith designed the iconic Supermarine Spitfire in Southampton. Perhaps strangely, the town only acquired its city status in 1964.
Not far from God’s House Tower, I ended my walk at Town Quay, the original public quay, which dates from the 13th century. There, I was delighted to discover that a free bus runs between the quay and Southampton Central station. I spent the bus ride wondering why so many of the Sotonian girls seemed to have died their hair a deep, unnatural burgundy colour (which I actually found rather attractive).
Upon arrival at the station, my delight at free bus travel evaporated in the face of travel-free trains.
One reason I did this walk on the Tuesday after a bank holiday, rather than on the bank holiday itself, was that Southampton station was basically shut over the bank holiday in order that engineering work1 could be carried out.
I was impressed beyond measure, therefore, to find almost all the trains were cancelled – and presumably had been all day – on account of the engineering work ‘overrunning’ by which I mean they had apparently broken the signalling system and couldn’t get it working again.
By sheer luck although my London Waterloo train was cancelled there was a London Victoria train that wasn’t and even seemed to be running on time. The operative word here is seemed – because although it left Southampton when they said it would, its arrival in Victoria was a good hour later than expected. Still, I made it home eventually, where I sat down on my sofa and almost immediately fell asleep…
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 319½ miles
1Obviously, no actual work is implied by the term ‘engineering work’.