Stage 2: Gosport to Southampton
Friday, May 11, 2012
With a couple of rainy days having kept me indoors since completing the first stage of the Solent Way, I arrived at Portsmouth Harbour Station early on a nice bright morning to resume my walk. With the weather forecast predicting a temperature of around 18 and a light breeze, it promised to be an excellent day for walking.
Before heading off, I went for a wander around the Gunwharf Quays complex next to the station. In the days of sailing ships, Gunwharf Quays was an important part of the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, where warships offloaded their guns before going into dry-dock for maintenance -- once out of the water, the ships couldn't support the extra weight of the guns. Eventually as ship design evolved, this need disappeared and Gunwharf Quays eventually fell into disuse, being sold by the navy in 1995. The area was subsequently redeveloped into a shopping and leisure complex with the Spinnaker Tower as its centrepiece and has an interesting mixture of old and new buildings (picture 1). There are also reminders of the area's historic naval associations with various bits of shipping paraphernalia dotted around the Quays, including a large crane, an anchor, a propeller and a twice-life-size figurehead from the bow of an old ship (picture 2).
Heading back around to the front of Portsmouth Harbour Station, I followed the signs to the Gosport Ferry, less than a minute's walk past the station entrance. The Solent Way uses the ferry to cross the harbour to the town of Gosport, the first of three ferry crossings on the Way. While waiting to board the ferry, I took a zoomed-in picture of the Gosport ferry terminal, about 500 metres across the water, behind which the Holy Trinity Church is dwarfed by several large apartment blocks.
During the short journey on the ferry, the skies changed dramatically, with a thick bank of dark clouds rolling in from the north west. By the time I stepped off the ferry onto the Promenade at Gosport, the view back to Portsmouth was looking quite ominous (picture 4), though once again my luck held good and it didn't rain.
From the ferry terminal, the Solent Way heads south beside the water on a wide promenade known as the Esplanade de Royan, named to celebrate Gosport's twinning with Royan in France. The promenade soon passes by the Haslar Marina (picture 5), which is situated just inside the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. The path crosses an arched wooden footbridge over the end of a small lake, then soon joins Haslar Road, which crosses a bridge with the much larger Haslar Lake off to the right and the large marina still on the left.
The road soon passes by the entrance of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, where one can explore on board the 1947 submarine HMS Alliance, as well as the much smaller Holland I, the Royal Navy's first submarine, which was launched in 1901. I did so a few days after this walk and found it to be a fascinating insight into the lives of submariners during the Cold War, one of whom guides visitors around the cramped interior of the Alliance.
The route then continues down the left side of Haslar Road for about a kilometre, with the high walls of various nondescript navy properties on both sides for most of the way (picture 6). At the end of Haslar Road, the Way turns left on Clayhill Road, which soon curves back around to the right, becoming Fort Road and passing a strange triangular tower at the main entrance of the Gosport and Stokes Bay Golf Club (picture 7). Almost five hundred metres further along the road, a path heads off to the left across the golf course with the twin Gilkicker Lagoons ahead, and beyond that the mound of Fort Gilkicker (picture 8). The lagoons have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and are home to several rare animal and plant species due to the unusual level of salinity, which is lower than the waters of the nearby Solent.
Fort Gilkicker (picture 9) was built in the 1860's as part of Portsmouth's the harbour defences. The fort is of a semi-circular design allowing it to fire on an arc of more than 180 degrees taking in the harbour mouth and the Solent.
The Solent Way heads up to the locked gates at the back of the fort then circles around the perimeter to the left, rejoining the shore of the Solent facing west. Little of the structure of the fort is visible from the front side, except for a radio mast belonging to the coastguard, due to the high earth banks that were added in 1900 (picture 10). To compensate, there are good views along and across the Solent, making it obvious why this location was chosen for the fort. Looking east (picture 11), I could see Southsea, three of the forts out in the middle of the eastern Solent, and several container ships on the horizon in the English Channel beyond. Looking across the Solent towards the Isle of Wight (picture 12, with the aid of a zoom lens) I could see the town of Ryde, with its long pier and regular hovercraft departures.
The Solent Way follows the shingle shore west and after about 700 metres reaches the buildings and boatyard of the Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service (picture 13). From here a broad tarmac path runs parallel to the shingle beach, passing the Stokes Bay Sailing Club before eventually reaching a small carpark where Stokes Bay Road meets the beach. Next to the path in front of the sailing club, I passed a memorial to Canadian forces who participated in the D-Day landings in World War II (picture 14). The inscription read:
To commemorate the embarkation of Canadian troops from these Gosport shores for Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Unveiled by the Prime Minister of Canada, The Rt. Hon. J. Chretien, 4 June 1994.
The route follows the road past a second small car park and then up to a larger carpark by a restaurant and a diving museum. Here the tarmac path ends and the Way bears left across the shingle to a gate in a high wire fence that marks the edge of the Browndown Military Training Area. The lack of red flags means that it is safe to enter the area, otherwise there is a slightly longer diversion around the training area by road.
The Solent Way runs along the shingle Browndown Beach (picture 15) for around two kilometres to leave the military training area, which is home to some rare plants and beetles as well as being a habitat for several rare bird species. Walking along this stretch of the path is quite peaceful, with just the sounds of the water and the crunching of the shingle underfoot for company, though it is a bit of a test for the legs. Every so often there are various relics of more than two centuries of military use, not all of them with an obvious purpose (picture 16).
At the end of Browndown Beach, another gate takes the Way onto a tarmac path that soon becomes a promenade below a grassy bank, running for around two kilometres along the seafront of the town of Lee-on-the-Solent. At one of the handy benches along the promenade I stopped to eat my lunch and take in the view across the Solent to the famous sailing town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight (picture 17).
Moving on again, I climbed up to the top of the grass bank for a slightly better view along the coast ahead as it angles up to Southampton Water (picture 18). From here, I could see the power station and oil refinery at Fawley on the horizon on the far side of Southampton Water (on the left of the picture), more than ten kilometres away. The chimney of the power station would remain visible for almost all of the next twenty kilometres of the walk -- a reminder that civilization and heavy industry is never far away on the Solent.
Towards the end of Lee-on-the-Solent, I crossed a wide slipway that is sometimes used by hovercraft from the Hovercraft Museum across the road from the top of the slipway. The Museum houses over sixty hovercraft (most of them still operational) from small one person models up to the largest civilian models ever built. The SR.N4 model Princess Margaret (picture 19) was built in 1968 to carry 250 passengers and 30 vehicles across the English Channel from Dover to Boulogne at speeds of up to 150 kilometres an hour, allowing passengers to cross to and from France in as little as 22 minutes. In 1979, the Princess Margaret was enlarged to take 418 passengers and 60 cars. The cross-channel service ran from 1968 until 2000, eventually falling victim to changes in EU duty free laws, which prevented the service from remaining profitable.
As the last houses of Lee-on-the-Solent are left behind, the promenade ends and the Way continues along the shingle past a long line of colourful beach huts (picture 20). This area is known as Salterns Shore, and just past the huts is a grassy open space called Salterns Park, where the beachside promenade resumes. From Roman times until quite recently, the salterns were shallow coastal ponds where sea water was allowed to evaporate to produce salt.
After passing a boatyard and a couple of carparks at the western end of Salterns Park, the promenade ends once again and the route of the Solent Way kinks left then right to follow the shingle beach for about five hundred metres past the back fences of a succession of beachfront properties. Towards the end of this stretch of beach walking, the path passes by the back of the large Osborne View pub (picture 21), presumably so named because from here there are views across the Solent to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, one of Queen Victoria's favourite residences in the 19th century.
A little further on, the path passes another long line of beach huts and then the Hill Head Sailing Club to reach the small Hill Head Harbour at the mouth of the River Meon. Nearing low tide, the harbour was mostly drained of water (picture 22).
In 1611, the mouth of the River Meon was dammed by placing tidal flaps across it, letting fresh water from the river flow out into the harbour, but preventing salt water flowing up the river on the high tide. One can see the modern version of this simple system under the road bridge that crosses the river mouth (picture 23). Damming the river transformed the estuary into a fresh water marsh with lagoons and dense reed beds (picture 24), home to a rich variety of wildlife.
The Solent Way now follows the sea wall beside the road for about 500 metres. In the shallow water below the sea wall, three men in wetsuits were flying some rather large kites (picture 25).
The road eventually curves away to head inland and here a signpost directs the Solent Way along a private road through the Meon Shore Chalets. At the end of the line of chalets, a narrow path leads up onto some low cliffs. Due to the recent rain, the cliff-top path had quite a number of large puddles covering the whole width of the path and making me very glad that I was wearing my waterproof hiking boots.
When not enclosed by dense bushes, the cliff-top path gave good views across the Solent and Southampton Water (picture 26). As I walked along I watched a large container ship slowly progress along the Solent from the west and then turn the corner into Southampton Water (picture 27), presumably headed for one of Southampton's commercial docks.
The path along the low cliffs continues between the shore and arable fields for almost three kilometres before reaching the Solent Breezes Caravan Park, where there is no right of way along the shore. To get around the caravan park, the Solent Way takes a fairly boring 1.4 kilometre diversion away from the shore. Heading up the side of the caravan park and then bearing right to follow the field edge around Chilling Farm, the route joins a farm lane, following it left then right then left again to head west on Chilling Lane. At the far end of the lane the route passes an electricity substation before turning left to follow Workman's Lane along the edge of the caravan site and back to the shore of Southampton Water.
At this point the Fawley Power Station was almost directly opposite across Southampton Water (picture 28), though still more than two kilometres away.
The Solent Way now follows the shingle shoreline of Southampton Water past marshland (picture 29) for the next two kilometres to reach the mouth of the Hamble River. At the river mouth, the concrete foundations of a former gun emplacement stand at the point where a long, curved spit of land stretches out into the river (picture 30), giving this area the name Hook.
The Way turns right just before the spit, instead following a retaining wall along the right bank of the river and over the sluice gates by which the Hook Channel drains into the River Hamble (picture 31). The path soon passes the landward end of a long jetty belonging to the Warsash College of Maritime Studies, where students can practice launching lifeboats (picture 32).
Continuing along the riverbank past the long grass and wildflowers of Strawberry Fields (picture 33), the path reaches the main Quay of Warsash, where the Rising Sun pub has stood since 1784 (picture 34). A large plaque on the front of the pub commemorates the 3000 commandos who sailed from the pier in front of the pub in 36 landing craft on the evening of 5th June 1944 to fight in the D-Day landings the following day.
When I set off in the morning, I had been planning to end the walk here. Having made it this far a little before 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I decided to press on to Southampton, which was likely to be another twelve kilometres or so.
The Way follows Shore Road for a short distance beyond the pub before joining a footpath along the riverbank for about two hundred metres to reach the pier of the Hamble Ferry. The small ferry (picture 35) makes the leisurely five hundred metre journey across the river, weaving its way among the hundreds of boats moored on the river (picture 36) to the quayside at Hamble-le-Rice.
After alighting on the quay at Hamble, the Solent Way skirts around a carpark to a road called The Quay, following it south a short distance before turning right onto Green Lane. At the end of Green Lane the route turns left on School Lane, which has no pavement for most of its length. When School Lane bends left after around five hundred metres, the Way goes straight ahead on a muddy track, crossing Hamble Common to return to the shore of Southampton Water (picture 37).
Turning right to follow the shingle shoreline, the path soon takes a brief diversion into the woodland of the Common before returning to the shore again and taking a narrow concrete path along the perimeter fence of a BP oil terminal. Along the way, the path passes under a pier that stretches more than four hundred metres out into the deeper part of Southampton Water (picture 38) to allow large tankers to use the terminal.
At the end of the fence the route continues along the shingle for another three hundred metres before a waymarker points to the right through the small woodland of Westfield Common (picture 39). Reaching a lane near houses, the route turns left to follow the lane parallel with the shore, though the water is mostly out of sight behind the woods. At the end of the lane, the route follows a driveway to the right of the large white Hamblecliff House, then a narrow enclosed footpath to the left of the gates of another large house.
The path soon reaches the back fence of the Netley Sailing Club, following the fence along the edge of woods to enter the Royal Victoria Country Park, where the impressive Netley Hospital Chapel stands in the middle of a large grassy rectangle. The Chapel is all that remains of a large military hospital, opened in 1856 and demolished in 1966.
The Solent Way doesn't go directly to the chapel, but rather turns off about half way, heading back down to the shore, from which there are good views back up to the chapel (picture 40).
The Way now joins an access road along the shore, passing another D-Day memorial (picture 41), before continuing beside a cricket field and then up to the entrance of the Country Park on the edge of the town of Netley. The route then follows Victoria Road through Netley for a kilometre, soon passing the Victorian-era Prince Consort pub (picture 42).
Just beyond the point where Victoria Road becomes Abbey Hill, the Solent Way passes the ruins of Netley Abbey (picture 43). The abbey was originally built in 1238 and after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530's it became a tudor mansion before falling into disrepair. Much of the original walls are still standing, so it's fairly easy to picture the shapes of the original church, cloisters and dormitories. There is also one room that still has its vaulted roof (picture 44).
Across the road from Netley Abbey and just a few metres further up the hill, a driveway is marked Netley Castle. Very little of the castle remains and what does is part of a private house, so instead of heading down the driveway, the Solent Way takes a footpath that bears off to the right, through trees and then downhill across grass and back to the edge of Southampton Water under a line of oak trees (picture 45). This stretch of the shore is known as Weston Shore.
The peaceful scene doesn't last long however: once the path follows the shore past the Weston Sailing Club, it joins the pavement beside the busy Weston Parade, overlooked by a row of apartment buildings. After about eight hundred metres, the road veers away from the shore and a tarmac path continues ahead along the shore for another seven hundred metres to Weston Point at the mouth of the River Itchen. From this part of the path there are good views across Southampton Water to Hythe, where the next stage of the Solent Way goes, and across the mouth of the Itchen to Southampton Docks (picture 46).
Southampton Water is formed by the joining of the River Itchen, which flows down the east side of Southampton, and the River Test, which flows around the west side of the city.
After passing the Southampton Sailing Club at Weston Point, the tarmac path bears away from the shore to join Victoria Road, which heads north past the rather smelly Woolston Wastewater Treatment Works. For another five hundred metres, the left hand side of the road was one big construction site, where a large riverside industrial area had been bulldozed for redevelopment. Reaching the shops in the middle of Woolston, the route continues along Victoria Road and crosses Portsmouth Road to Bridge Road, soon bearing left to climb a very long flight of steps up onto the Itchen Bridge.
Opened in 1977, the bridge is eight hundred metres long and the top of the arch is twenty-eight metres above the river, giving excellent views down towards the river mouth (picture 47) with Southampton Docks on the right, the redevelopment site in Woolston on the left and the town of Hythe in the distance on the far side of Southampton Water.
Nearing the end of the Itchen Bridge, the Way turns left down a flight of steps then right along Albert Road South. To the right is the Solent Sky Aviation Museum, which I visited a few days later. The Museum explains the critical role that the local area played in the development of the British aviation industry in the first half of the 20th century. The building is packed with an interesting collection of aircraft, including a World War II Spitfire and a large Empire class flying boat (picture 48), both manufactured by Supermarine in Woolston and the latter flown in Australia by the now defunct Ansett Airways.
At the end of Albert Road South, the Way turns left into Royal Crescent Road and soon right into Canute Road. Canute Road is followed for about 700 metres, becoming Platform Road and passing by Admiralty House (picture 49) before passing through the medieval God's House Gate (picture 50) into Winkle Street. In less than a hundred metres, Winkle Street reaches High Street and the route turns left to cross the busy A33 to the end of the Town Quay complex (picture 51) in the heart of Southampton's Docks and the end of this stage of the walk. A plaque on the wall here remembers Southampton's contribution to the D-Day landings (picture 52).
At just on thirty-three kilometres (not counting the two ferry rides), this had been a rather long but very enjoyable day's walk between two of England's great port cities, made even more enjoyable by the weather being kind to me after making me cool my heels for a couple of days that definitely weren't made for walking.