WEDNESDAY’S walk began with an almost traditional start insofar as, having set off to catch the last night bus at just before four am, I got to the bus stop just in time to watch its rear lights disappear down the road. While this did throw my timings into disarray, it also felt reassuringly familiar. Also, In the end, it made just an hour’s difference.
The New Forest
It was about a quarter to nine when I returned to Lymington, and I set off in high spirits beneath a sky that promised good weather all day. Astonishingly, I’d not only remembered to put on some sun screen but was carrying the bottle with me, giving me a good chance of not ending up bright red and sore.
Having retraced my steps from the station to where I left my route last time, I set off down a side street waymarked as part of the Solent Way, wondering what secrets and mysteries it would reveal. Just minutes later, it took me directly past the station entrance.
I skirted around the middle of Lymington, which looks much like many southern English small towns, until the path sent me down a delightful cobbled side street called Old Quay, in which the shops and pubs were just preparing to open.
Leaving the quay, I passed by a marina and then headed down a number of backstreets of the dull and uninspiring variety. I was just thinking that I’d much rather be walking down a magical leafy tunnel when suddenly I found the backstreets had turned into this:
The leafy tunnel continued for a couple of hundred metres or so and then the path broke out into a series of raised tracks through what was essentially low-lying estuarine salt marsh.
I followed the course of a small stream from an old tide mill back to the sea and slowly headed along the coast, pausing now and then to watch egrets and oystercatchers wading purposefully about. Since the birds were on foot rather than flying a number of insects seemed determined to make up for their aerial absence and I was pleased to see some butterflies (common blues) and red-tailed bumblebees adding some colour to the place.
I love red-tailed bumblebees; I think they look more striking than their white-tailed and buff-tailed relatives (which were also out in force). I was still smiling from spotting the red-tailed bumblebees when I noticed a pond full of coots. All I can say is that it’s a bloody good job you can’t overdose from smiling…
The path continued to snake its way through Keyhaven Marshes, which were well-populated with excited birdwatchers – the marshes have a history of playing host to rare vagrants, as birds that have migrated too far or to the wrong place are called – before ending up at the tiny hamlet of Keyhaven,
As I entered the hamlet, a field of cows watched me warily as if worried that I might want to ship them somewhere; ‘Keyhaven’ derives from Old English cȳ hæfen meaning ‘cowhaven’ or ‘the harbour where cows are shipped’. Historically, cattle and sheep were shipped into Keyhaven from the Isle of Wight.
No cattle were being shipped in, so far as I could tell, but a bus was disgorging a whole school trip’s worth of Year 3 primary school kids (ages seven to eight) as I arrived and I carefully dawdled so as not to share the Keyhaven Ferry with them. Not that I have a problem with kids – I trained to be a primary school teacher myself at one point – but they were in an excitable mood and one in particular would not have made the journey across had we shared a ferry. Why? You ask. Let us assume his teacher was called Mr Smith (though he wasn’t):
‘Mr Smith! Mr Smith! Mr Smith! Look at this Mr Smith! Look at this! Look Mr Smith! Look Mr Smith! Mr Smith! Mr Smith! Mr Smith! Look!’
The whole of Keyhaven now knows Mr Smith’s name, so I have anonymised the poor man; wouldn’t want his name to wear out.
With Mr Smith’s class having taken the previous ferry, I waited for the next one, which turned out not to be the same boat coming back but a second, smaller one instead. The ferry heads out through Keyhaven Lake, which is actually a channel through the marshes, taking people directly to Hurst Castle. This sounded like an excellent idea to me as I was already going to be walking the mile and a half of shingle beach away from the castle; I didn’t much care to have to walk it twice.
The ferryman turned out to be a terribly nice older chap with a public school accent, who eagerly conversed with his passengers and pointed out a myriad of avian wildlife including more oystercatchers and a pair of eider ducks. He regaled us with an explanation as to how many of the waders actually wait for the ferry to go past before hunting on account of the fact that the fish flee into the shallows, frightened by the ferry’s propellers. I was pretty impressed with his easy knowledge of the marsh’s feathered inhabitants but figured he had been doing this for years.
And then I noticed this…
Alighting from the ferry, I found myself standing on what looked like a shingle spit, stretching out from the coast. Technically speaking, spits are formed by deposition whereas this was a barrier beach, where the shingle rested on a strip a of high land surrounded by a ria or flooded valley system.
Either way, it was an excellent place for a castle to defend the entrance to the Solent and Henry VIII had had one of his Device Forts built there in 1544.
Hurst Point Lighthouse
Of course, while Hurst Spit’s position, sticking out halfway across the Solent, is militarily commanding, it’s also nightmarishly dangerous to shipping and countless vessels foundered upon it down the centuries. Lights were shown on the beach from at least 1733 and proper lighthouses constructed there from 1786 onwards with many upgrades and replacements.
Inside Hurst Castle
Normally, when I’m out on a walk, I look at such local attractions as Hurst Castle only in passing, perhaps making a mental note to go back and look at it someday. In the case of Hurst Castle, which I had visited before, I decided to make an exception and paid my £4 to go inside.
The slightly flustered bloke in the ticket office/shop, who admittedly had just had to experience Mr Smith and his class, couldn’t actually find his tickets and was forced, with an apologetic smile, to hand me a child’s ticket instead of an adult one.
Fine, I thought. I can act like a seven year old with the best of them.
First, though, I wanted a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, so I wandered through the castle grounds in search of the café.
The Big Guns
Hurst Castle is actually quite extensive, forming a long, thin fortification much extended between 1859 and 1873 as part of Lord Palmerston’s review of national defence. This may make it one of ‘Palmerston’s follies’ but there is a certain scale of folly where it becomes sublime rather than merely ridiculous. With this in mind, I give you exhibit A…
A Noble Sacrifice
Outside the café, a puppy sat in a basket, chewing a squeaky toy and glancing nervously at all the seven year olds who were pointing and going ‘aww’. Inside, its owner turned out to be an attractive young woman who seemed to be bordering on panic on account of needing to be simultaneously serving customers at the counter and in the kitchen preventing some flapjacks from burning.
I heroically elected to wait two whole minutes while she rescued the flapjacks. My bacon sandwich, when it arrived was quite excellent.
Having had a suitable break I wandered the castle some more, now paying more attention to the Henrician round tower, in which Charles I was imprisoned prior to his trial in London. From the roof of one of the buildings I looked across to the Isle of Wight, the closest part of which was only a mile away.
By now I had probably spent far too long in Hurst Castle, partly because I was interested in it and partly because a mile and a half of shingle beach struck me as less fun than if I’d stuffed one of those red-tailed bumble bees up my nose. Gritting my teeth, I pressed on.
Hurst Beach was every bit as boring as I feared, not to mention hard going on account of being shingle. On the plus side, the sea was calm, gentle and blue, while the marshes to the east continued to be full of wading birds. In fact, even though I remain no fan of shingle, there are worse ways to spend one’s time.
Milford on Sea
Awaiting me at the landward end of Hurst Beach was Milford on Sea, a large village dating back to Saxon times. I’d hoped to get here on my last walk because the village holds a traditional Mayday festival. Sadly the twenty-fifth of May has no such celebration.
In Milford the path climbed from beach to clifftop, although it was still mostly stones. Looking ahead, I could see the coast curving around to Christchurch, which looked a very long way. To the left of Christchurch, the distant Isle of Purbeck (actually a peninsula) lurked on the horizon indistinctly.
Equipped with a nerve-calming ice cream, I continued my journey along the cliff tops, keeping an eye out for more paragliders (of which there actually several). I also took a good look at the nature of the cliff underfoot and resolved to keep well clear of the edge.
I’d walked maybe another mile of cliffs when I reached Becton Bunny, which is actually a steep-sided stream valley cutting through the cliff (‘bunny’ being the New Forest name for such a feature; on the Isle of Wight it would be a ‘chine’). I was all set to take a photo of it when my phone, which had been full of power up to now, decided it had run out of battery and died.
The seagulls heard some pretty rude words, I can tell you. Maybe the paragliders too.
Barton on Sea
Beyond Becton Bunny lay Barton on Sea, where the cliffs offered me a choice of benches on which to rest my tired feet. I also managed to coax one last photo out of my phone, the battery having temporarily woken up…
Barton on Sea had fewer paragliders, probably on account of the enthusiastic kite flyers, who just promised a horrible accident to anyone hanging from an aerofoil canopy. It also had a keen desire to try to terminate my walk.
First, I decided to descend from the cliff and follow a path identified as Fisherman’s Walk. A good plan, and popular, as indicated by the small crowd of sighing disappointed people as one approached the inevitable ‘pathway closed’ sign. Still, that’s okay, I thought to myself, I can just continue along the cliff top. Well, yes, but only so far. And then the cliff becomes a holiday park with ‘private property’ signs declaring that there’s no right of way.
The Cycling Sage
I was all set to be quite miffed, and was confusedly trying to plot a path around it on my map, when a passing old bloke on a bicycle offered me some sage advice, which was essentially this:
‘How do they know you’re not staying in one of their caravans?’
He was right of course and I waltzed right through the holiday park, pausing to buy another ice cream from their shop.
On the far side of the holiday park the path descended to the beach, following the course of Chewton Bunny, beside which sat two stoned teenagers who fumbled their attempt to hide their joint from me (because I so obviously look like an authority figure) and then couldn’t find it again. I hurried onwards, trying not to laugh as that would force me to breathe in – for some reason, the smell of marijuana makes me acutely nauseous.
In the course of my hurrying, I crossed another county boundary – I was now in Dorset.
Dorset, My Arse
Okay, I’ll get my rant about this county boundary over with now. I was born in Bournemouth in 1970, when it and Christchurch were in Hampshire.
In 1974, the counties were reorganised and the boundary leapt eastwards, shifting both towns into Dorset. This made a lot of sense at the time, since they essentially form one big conurbation with Poole and I’m sure there other good reasons. But it’s funny what matters to you when you’re four and I was pretty annoyed about it.
Now, of course, it makes not one iota of difference to my life (and Bournemouth is a unitary authority anyway, not subject to either county council, although it remains in Dorset for ceremonial purposes) but some part of me still wants to argue when someone says Bournemouth (or Christchurch) is in Dorset. Even though it clearly is.
So anyway, I crossed the border into Dorset. Ish. I’ll live with it.
I now headed along the beach, completely missing the Grade I listed Highcliffe Castle, which has been described as ‘the most important remaining example of the Romantic and Picturesque style.’ Ah well.
Highcliffe shaded into Christchurch and the beach started to show the odd patch of sand amongst the shingle.
Founded in 650 by missionaries sent to Wessex by St Birinus, Bishop of Dorchester, it lies at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Stour, two rivers with staggeringly unimaginative names – ‘avon’ is simply the Brythonic word for ‘river’, while Stour is of uncertain meaning but used for several rivers across England. Also, on the subject of names, Christchurch was actually called Twynham until the founding of its priory in 1094.
Christchurch’s history has been turbulent at times. A wooden castle was built in the twelfth century, then rebuilt in stone by Baldwin de Redvers who sided with the Empress Matilda during the Anarchy, as her civil war against King Stephen was known. By the eighteenth century the town – and especially its outlying fishing village of Mudeford – had become involved with smuggling, culminating in the 1784 Battle of Mudeford between smugglers on one side and customs officers and the navy on the other.
For me the most important feature of Christchurch was Christchurch Harbour, a natural harbour about three miles around. I didn’t particularly want to have to walk round it and I knew there was a ferry from Mudeford Quay on one side to Hengistbury Head on the other. The big question was had I missed it?
I bounded up to the ferry to find that the last one sailed at five o’clock. Looking at my phone, I realised the time was… er, dead battery time. Oh bugger. I then stopped the next person to walk past me, who told me it was ten to five – I’d made it but only just.
The ferry whisked me across the harbour and deposited me on Hengistbury Head where I sat down for a while to rest my feet and gazed forlornly at a café which had closed half an hour earlier.
Hengistbury Head is a sandstone headland, which was the site if a substantial Iron Age fort. It was known as Hynesbury Head until the discovery of the Iron Age artifacts, when it was renamed Hengistbury Head after the Jutish king Hengist.
Having sat on one of the ironstone boulders – known as doggers – that long protected the head from erosion (the head was eroded to half its previous size after a nineteenth century mining operation extracted many of the doggers), I climbed to my feet and set off again.
From there on in, the beach was soft sand strewn with pebbles, although the ratio of sand to pebbles would steadily increase as I went. I looked up at the striated, crumbly cliffs and then I looked at the sea. It was within an hour of high tide and I wasn’t sure quite where the tide mark lay. Looking ahead, I worked out how far I would have to go in order to not be caught by the tide and quickened my pace accordingly, passing by Southbourne, which sat atop the cliff.
By now my feet were pretty sore from all the walking and I was feeling very warm. As I approached Boscombe, originally a separate town and reluctantly absorbed into Bournemouth in 1876, the sea began to look so very inviting although the beach still had too many stones to walk barefoot.
Fisherman’s Walk Cliff Railway
Then, as I drew close to the Fisherman’s Walk Cliff Railway (much like the Leas Lift in Folkestone, only powered electrically and, at 39 m, the shortest public funicular railway in the world), I judged there were few enough stones. Hastily, I removed my walking boots and socks and rolled up my trouser legs; the water, when the waves washed over my feet, was cold enough to take my breath away. It was just what I needed.
I said a heartfelt thank you to Boscombe, which is actually where I was born, and waded my way along the seashore for about a mile and a quarter, not replacing my socks and boots until I reached Boscombe Pier (built in 1888 although its entrance was added in the 1950s).
East Cliff Railway
The cold water having reduced the inflammation in my feet, I now bounded along like new again, covering the distance as the centre of Bournemouth drew closer. I passed the East Cliff Railway (another funicular from 1908 and very slightly longer) and the two zig-zag paths that serve the same purpose.
Finally, eventually, I reached Bournemouth Pier, whose convoluted history I might discuss next time, and collapsed with a sense of accomplishment and a portion of fish and chips.
This time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 355½ miles