The things people don’t tell you about walking because it’s obvious and only an idiot wouldn’t know, number one: hiking on a beach is hard work.
I say this because I’m used to footpaths being, well, paths.
Not so the Solent Way between Gosport and Warsash in Hampshire, which I walked with Tilly a couple of weeks ago in preparation for walking the River Itchen in the summer. Long stretches of this footpath are shingle beach. Great if you’re going for a stroll; not so great on your first long hike in years.
I started off at the Gosport Ferry terminal – a chilly five-minute trip over the water from Portsmouth Harbour train station.
Tiff had given me a lift down to Portsmouth today. But you can get the train down from Bursledon in about 45 minutes. There’s plenty of free parking at Bursledon train station. The walk from Gosport back to Bursledon is just shy of 16 miles.
After jumping off the ferry, I hugged the water’s edge until I’d passed the masts of Gosport Marina.
The route then picks up a quiet road that crosses a bridge over Haslar Creek and snakes inland through various historic naval sites including the Haslar Gunboat Yard, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the Royal Hospital Haslar – the country’s last military hospital, which closed in 2009.
To the seafront
The breeze picked up as I moved closer to the water at the eastern end of Stokes Bay and headed along a narrow tarmac road through a golf course to Fort Gilkicker on the beachfront.
Fort Gilkicker is one of the Palmerston Forts – defences that prime minister Lord Palmerston commissioned in 1860 to protect the coast from enemy attack. There are more than 25 of these defences in the Portsmouth area. There are now plans to turn this one into snazzy apartments.
This is the first stretch of the route that’s on shingle. It was tough going even though I only had to put up with it for a few hundred metres.
The path became firmer as the church in nearby Alverstoke came into view across the meadows and I was soon walking on a concrete promenade.
The views up and down the Solent here were spectacular in the spring sunshine. Fawley Power Station’s 650-foot chimney was stark on the horizon in the west acting as a homing beacon – I was able to watch it getting bigger in the distance as I made progress throughout the day.
There were only a few dog walkers milling about today. However, there would have been a lot of activity here in late 1943 and early 1944 as this was an embarkation point for troops before they sailed over to France.
It was also a construction site for key components of the Allies’ Mulberry harbours – two prefabricated artificial harbours that were shipped across the English Channel in sections and set up temporarily on Omaha Beach and Gold Beach in Normandy.
There’s a small memorial by the promenade and you can still see the remains of the concrete roads that engineers used to move their creations across the beach.
The Stokes Bay promenade ended at the Historical Diving Society’s museum, which is housed in another one of Lord Palmerston’s batteries on the Stokes Bay Lines.
I then had to decide whether to continue along the water’s edge through Browndown Point – an MOD firing range which isn’t open to the public all the time – or follow the road inland to Lee-on-the-Solent.
I chose the first option, thinking it would be a more interesting walk. But after struggling over shingle for 10 minutes or so, I knew I’d made a mistake. Undeterred, I continued, convinced I’d covered at least half of this stretch. I was wrong – I had to walk along the beach for just over a mile before I came upon solid ground.
Tilly didn’t help matters either. She insisted on stopping to chew on every piece of driftwood she came across. Then, when we walked along the firmer sand on the shoreline, she insisted on playing a game where it seemed the only rule was that she had to remove every single stone from the Solent.
Another concrete promenade greeted me on the edge of Lee-on-the-Solent. I’d only walked five miles in total so far. But that long stretch of beach made it feel like much more on my legs.
Lee-on-the-Solent has the air of a half-baked seaside resort. There’s a fish and chip shop and a couple of cafes in the row of buildings that face the Isle of Wight on the opposite side of the water. Plus the odd ice cream shack on the promenade. There are also a few more shops in the High Street, one road back from the seafront.
Lee once had much more going for it with a pier and an Art Deco complex that included a ballroom, cinema, restaurant and 120-foot tower. It’s still a pleasant place though, and today lots of people were strolling along the promenade making the most of the spring sunshine, which was now pushing up the temperature as we reached midday.
I paused near the town’s Hovercraft museum to have a bite to eat and watch several small planes land at Daedalus airfield, a former Fleet Air Arm airstrip which separates the town from the village of Hill Head.
After that, I met up with Tiff so she could take Tilly off my hands – with the temperature rising and sun beating down, she was starting to flag a bit. I was flagging too, but I decided to keep going.
There was more beach walking (and groyne climbing) as I passed behind some houses and the Osborne View pub, so named because Queen Victoria’s rural retreat, Osborne House, stands proudly on the opposite side of the water.
It’s said that Victoria’s husband Prince Albert declared the view of the Solent from Osborne as similar to the Bay of Naples. I wonder what he’d think of the modern view, which includes Fawley oil refinery and the power station?
Fortunately, the shingle at this stage of the route lasted only a few hundred metres.
I then picked up a narrow path that passes in front of a few rickety beach huts and onto the quaint harbour at Titchfield Haven nature reserve where the River Meon spills its clear waters into the Solent.
The path then climbs some modest-sized cliffs into an area known as Chilling. The view of inland fields and the sounds of birds singing here made a welcome change after skirting mostly built-up areas on the walk so far.
Part way along the cliffs the path diverts inland because the clifftop path has crumbled down onto the beach. Of course, you can continue straight along the beach. But I’d learnt my lesson about beach walking by now.
After the diversion around the Solent Breezes holiday park, there was yet more shingle to negotiate as the path curves north towards Warsash.
Despite the power station and oil refinery looming on the New Forest side of water, this has the potential to be a picturesque spot. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of litter – much of it seemingly from the water traffic that uses this busy shipping corridor – puts paid to that.
The locals don’t care for their beach either. As I got closer to Warsash, I came across several charred piles of wood decorated with empty cans and bottles bearing the names of cheap brands of lager and cider.
Did you know that the amount of litter washing up on UK beaches has doubled in the past 15 years and there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in the sea for every square mile of ocean?
Encountering all this rubbish, I almost didn’t notice I’d reached solid ground again at the edges of another nature reserve – Hook Park. From there, I was soon in Warsash.
I darted through the village so I wasn’t tempted to pop into a pub. I then picked up the path that runs up the east side of the River Hamble past the pink shelter of the Hamble Ferry to Lower Swanwick.
I’ve walked this path many times, so familiarity probably blunts some of its interest. It’s a lovely flat walk though, with the Bunny Meadows lagoons on the right-hand side for about half of this stretch and the busy river adorned with yachts and dinghies of all sizes to the left.
To the pub
When I reached Lower Swanwick 2.5 miles later, I was gasping for a beer. The Navigator, a pub on the east side of the river at Lower Swanwick, obliged me with a decent pint and a packet of cheese and onion crisps.
From the Navigator, Bursledon train station is just a few hundred yards over the river bridge. However, I still had a couple of miles left to walk to make it all the way home. That meant hauling myself out of one of the pub’s comfy chairs. It took a few attempts. But I made it up and somehow dragged my aching calf muscles through Manor Farm Country Park and home.
Luckily, there was no more beach walking here. I reckon I’d done enough for now.
Info: It’s free to park at Bursledon train station. An off-peak single ticket to Portsmouth Harbour is £7.60 and trains run every hour. The Gosport Ferry runs every at least every 15 minutes between 5am and midnight and costs £3.40 return (no singles, annoyingly). The Navigator pub is at 286 Bridge Rd, Lower Swanwick SO31 7EB. Phone 01489 572123.