Heading for the Tower
Our break for house-hunting produced nothing significant, but that has been compensated by a fascinating walk through Hampshire. Flatter walking, eroded cliffs, shingle by the ton, and in the words of Burt Bacharach ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’ of all shapes and sizes. And to complete the picture, I opened my final map of the Walk – coincidentally the same one I used when setting-off in October 2017.
Leaving Bournemouth behind, I passed quickly through the ‘On Sea’ towns of Barton and Milford, ensuring I kept well back from Barton’s crumbling cliffs. I was soon walking the long and substantial shingle bank out to Hurst Castle and lighthouse. Almost within a stone’s throw to the Isle of Wight, I watched ferries on the Yarmouth to Lymington route regularly shuttle to and fro. Retracing my steps along the shingle, I proceeded to Lymington – a mecca for ‘yachties’ and expensive motor cruisers. The Harbourmaster granted permission for us to park-up overnight which gave ample time to observe all the waterborne activity. Next morning, before opening time I visited Lymington’s famous sea baths - the oldest and largest open-air lido in the UK.
Heading for Buckler’s Hard, my cross-country route took me through leafy woods and quiet country lanes. I knew I was in the New Forest as I regularly met cattle and horses grazing freely, holding impatient motorists to ransom! The 18th Century ship-building village of Buckler’s Hard forms part of the enormous Beaulieu estate. Trees from the estate were used to build ships, including some for Nelson’s Navy.
My later ramble up the river Beaulieu soon brought me into Beaulieu village famed for the British National Motor Museum. Although I didn’t have time to stop there, I was later flagged down by a chauffeur driving one of its vintage cars decorated for a wedding. With nobody but himself in the car I momentarily thought I’d unwittingly agreed to commit bigamy and get married in my walking shorts and vest! As it happened, he was lost – I felt so sorry for that poor waiting bride!
Nearby I passed through Exbury village – another place full of Exbury estate houses. Purchased by Lionel de Rothschild in the early 1900s, Exbury House and Gardens are now famous for its flower collection. Like so many stately homes, it was requisitioned during WWII by the War Office and was named HMS Mastodon. Latterly called HMS King Alfred, this name has continued with the Royal Naval Reserve unit in Portsmouth. Later, at Hythe, I met a lively WWII Wren, Marion, who continues to be Secretary of a dwindling number of Exbury Veterans.
Calshot Spit was another shingle peninsula, also full of history going back to the First World War, when a Naval air station was set up for the development and use of seaplanes and flying boats. To encourage further innovation, in 1913 the first Schneider Trophy event was held in Monaco. The UK won the trophy in 1914 and continued to work hard on developing this mode of transport. Across the water in Hamble, a traditional boat-building town, the aircraft industry began to take shape.
Those first companies included Fairey Aviation, British Marine Aircraft and Avro Aviation. Seaplane training was also conducted in the vicinity but later moved to Lee-on-Solent, another place I later walked through. In 1931 the UK team won the Schneider Trophy outright with a third straight win, having also won the previous two competitions. The winning Supermarine S.6B seaplane is portrayed in a striking bas-relief on the end of one of Calshot’s buildings. Created from seashells and pebbles in 1981 to mark the 50th anniversary of that historic win, it’s a fitting reminder of Britain’s air entrepreneurs and early pilots.
Before leaving Calshot I looked westwards. In the distance I could see Spinnaker Tower at Portsmouth; this was the Tower I couldn’t shake-off when I left Portsmouth in 2017. It was lovely to see an old friend reappear and it invigorated me as I set off for Hythe. En route the industrial delights of Fawley Power station and a huge refinery complex provided a monotonous afternoon’s sightseeing, although I enjoyed views across Southampton Water to the cupola of the Royal Victoria Chapel at Netley.
On reaching picturesque Hythe I ignored its pier train (recorded as the oldest in the World), choosing instead to walk the Pier’s length before catching Hythe’s ferry over to Southampton. That trip across Southampton Water was memorable: ferries, cruise ships, container ships, fuel and vehicle carriers were all there. Shortly after disembarking I passed a plaque remembering all those who’d sailed from Southampton in the RMS Titanic in 1912. Amongst them was my great Uncle Tom and his wife Edith. Travelling first class she was saved in lifeboat No 8, but he like so many others perished in the freezing North Atlantic. Southampton oozes maritime history and remains an extremely busy port.
I crossed the River Itchen at Woolston, another place with historic aviation links: the first Spitfire was built here. Continuing towards Netley, I was struck by the sheer size of Royal Victoria Country Park and could only imagine what its Royal Hospital would have looked like. It survived for just over a century before fire completely gutted it in 1966. Only the Royal Chapel survives but it sits proudly in the park which, as I walked through, was full of families enjoying picnics and flying kites.
Today the Country Park has a narrow gauge miniature railway, but when the site was a hospital, injured troops would arrive by train, having been transferred from hospital ships in Southampton docks. Sadly, not all patients survived and a military cemetery was created behind the hospital.
Fittingly my last ferry trip of the entire Victory Walk was taken across the river Hamble to Warsash aboard the Pink Ferry - so named because of its colour! Warsash is home to its renowned Maritime Academy where scores of merchant officers and crews have trained for a life at sea. At the water’s edge I noted lifeboats hung from davits on a specially built rig. Had things been different, maybe my great Uncle Tom would have survived the Titanic disaster on one such as those.
The leg towards Gosport was flat and straightforward. I’d agreed to visit the National Coastwatch Institution lookout at Fort Blockhouse, sited within the former HMS Dolphin Submarine school. Many years ago I’d lived on board at HMS Dolphin so it was a real trip down memory lane for me. Frank had been an NCI watchkeeper here before I dragged him away on the Victory Walk! We were made to feel incredibly welcome by a group of uniformed watchkeepers who turned out specially for the occasion. From the lookout’s elevated position I had wonderful views across to Spinnaker Tower and Portsmouth Naval Base. It would have been so easy to catch the Gosport ferry across the water, but I’m not due at HMS Victory just yet.
Instead, I start my final week of walking by taking a circular route around Portsmouth Harbour, calling at various Naval establishments along the way. I just can’t quite believe my feet will soon be given a very well deserved rest!
See Photo Album No 86 – Heading for the Tower