4 November 2014
The start to my Tuesday adventure was cold and earlier than I’d have liked on my day off because it relied heavily on public transport. Still, the sky was blue. A march up the Big Hill with puffs of breath hanging white in the air warmed me up and took me to bus stop number one. The bus was on time and I found myself in Woolston with a twenty five minute wait for the next bus. The cold was making my head ache and my walking boots felt unfamiliar on my feet after months of wearing Skechers but I had the feeling I was going to need something waterproof and sturdy.
A quick detour into the corner shop for chocolate milk and a Bounty bar and I was at the bus stop with a lot of hanging around ahead of me. A woman was waiting and I asked her if this was where the Hamble bus stopped.
“Yes but he’s late,” she said.
Turned out the bus due half an hour before mine hadn’t yet arrived. Bad news for her but good news for me when it arrived a couple of minutes later cutting my wait short by a good fifteen minutes.
Of course I could have easily walked the seven miles or so to Hamble Square but with afternoon rain forecast and a walk I’ve never attempted ahead I thought the bus was the best option. When I got there I couldn’t resist a few quick photos, especially of the seventeenth century Ole House and the golden post box commemorating the village’s Olympic gold medal winner, cyclist Dani King. A coffee stop at the tearooms was a temptation, but I managed to resist, I had a ferry to catch.
I wound my way down the steps of Well Lane with a quick stop to look at the pump I first saw on a Sunday walk with Commando. On the waterfront I again stopped to marvel at the glorious mess of the Maritime Art Gallery, heaps of rope, buoys, driftwood and some broken sandbags from the spring floods. Not quite remembering where the mooring for the ferry was I was pleased to see a signpost and the jetty bathed in cold sunlight.
There’s been a ferry carrying people across the River Hamble for over a thousand years. Obviously not the same actual ferry and I imagine it hasn’t always been bright pink. Before railways and new fangled roads it was an important link between Southampton and Portsmouth for local trade and pilgrims. Now it’s mostly walkers and commuters. Despite living in Southampton for over fifty years I’ve never actually used it before. It was a surprise then, to come to the end of the jetty and see no ferryman in sight.
After a little watch checking I read the sign telling me I needed to phone if the ferryman wasn’t there. Given the minimal cost I felt bad about calling him out just for me but he seemed quite happy and said he’d be there in a few minutes. This gave me time to take a few pictures of the views up and down the river, little boats bobbing on the rippling water. A family of swans appeared out of nowhere, two cygnets and one adult curiously pushing their beaks through the jetty bars. It also gave me time to examine the boat which seemed disconcertingly small.
Hamble has been inhabited since at least Neolithic times and, like Southampton Water, the River Hamble has double high tides. This made it an important maritime centre for trade, ship building and nautical training. These days it’s one of the country’s leading yachting centres and for over a hundred years, an annual regatta, Hamble Week, has been held.
It wasn’t long before I was sitting in the boat and we’d set off. As we began to move, swan heads peered over the side of the boat, making me smile.
“They’re after bread,” the ferryman said. “I throw them some every day. There’s three young ‘uns and two adults. Not sure where the others are today though.”
The crossing took just a few minutes and was surprisingly smooth, weaving between all the yachts. A woman was waiting on the opposite bank which made me feel a little better about calling the ferryman out.
Now it was time for the real walking to start. First I watched the little pink ferry set off again. This may have been procrastination because I was a little worried about the walk ahead of me. I was now in Warsash and the plan was to walk the Bunny Meadows footpath to Swanwick. It wasn’t so much a footpath as a causeway with water on both sides, at least at high tide, and I’d read it could flood at times.
At first the landward side was merely marshy but there were puddles ahead. The waterproof walking boots suddenly seemed a very good idea. Some ducks looked interested as I passed but soon realised I had no bread for them and swam off. It was a touch on the windy side too until I rounded the first bend. The first of the puddles didn’t prove too much of an obstacle and there were benches at regular intervals for those who wanted a rest.
After a while the path turned again, then again, snaking along the course of the river. Now there was water on both sides of me. The first verse of The Lady of Shallot began to go through my head, the meaning of the words twisted to fit the situation. There were trees to one side and boats on the other. It all seemed rather surreal. Then the puddles got wider and deeper and I had to carefully pick my way along the concrete of the bank edge, Still, with only one path to follow at least I couldn’t get lost.
Amongst the boats on the Hamble shore I spotted another pink ferry, maybe a spare. Then I saw my first wreck. I’d done a little reading on the wrecks along the causeway and I think this was a World War II minesweeper, sadly, most of it was underwater. Seeing it really made me smile, I do like a good shipwreck. There were a few scrubby trees and shrubs on the landslide of the path now and the occasional walker passing with a “good morning,” gave me hope that the path ahead was passable.
Pretty soon I could see the bridge I’d read about when I was researching this walk. As I got closer I could see it was a steeply arched bridge with stone steps at either end. From the middle I had a great view of all the yachts reflected in the calm water but it was a tad slippery on the way back down and I had to watch my footing. It occurred to me that a twisted ankle would be a very bad thing in such a remote spot. On the far side fresh seaweed on the path told me this stretch must flood at high tide and I wondered when the next one was. Maybe I should have checked that before I set out.
There were houses now on the shore, giving me a small dose of house envy. A rickety looking bridge, if you could call it that, joined the bank with the causeway but there was a breach before the bank with foamy water flowing through. I wondered if anyone ever used it. A runner came past and I thought of Commando tucked up in bed at home. Then the second wreck came into view.
During the fifteenth century many royal ships used the river and the wreck of the Grace Dieu, the largest ship ever built in England at the time, lies in the mud of the river to this day. Sadly, the Grace Dieu and many of the other wrecks were under water. This wreck though was rather exciting, a real skeleton ship. These are the remains of an Admiralty fishing vessel called Ala, built in 1944 in Wivenhoe, Essex. Despite its dilapidated appearance it was only abandoned in the 1990’s so is not nearly as ancient as it looks.
Not long after this the path ahead rejoined with the land. I use the term very loosely because it was fairly boggy land. A small wood and metal bridge took me to the last leg, Universal Boatyard. Here midget submarines called X-boats, involved in the D-Day landings, were built in great secrecy during World War II. Unfortunately, this was where my theory about not getting lost fell apart. There seemed to be no way out!