6 January 2015
With one last look back at the stricken car transporter I pushed on along the shingle spit towards Calshot Castle. The rain had stopped which was a bonus but, the further along the spit I went, the stronger it became. It was a real struggle to make headway against it. Coupled with the shingle I was walking on I figured I was getting my daily dose of exercise even if the actual miles wouldn’t add up to much.
Calshot Spit is actually about much more than a ship run aground, an activity centre and a castle fort. In fact there was once a seaplane and flying boat station, RAF Calshot, on the end of the spit. This was the main seaplane development and training unit in the UK, established in 1913 to test seaplanes for the Royal Flying Corps Naval wing. Sadly, the base closed in 1961.
In 1927 R J Mitchell and his team prepared for the Schneider Troohy competition at Calshot. The competition was held in Venice and Mitchell’s S.5 seaplane won. The two subsequent competitions were held at Calshot and the team won both with an updated S.5 in 1929 and with a Supermarine S.6 in 1931 giving them the right to keep the trophy.
The S.6 was Mitchell’s final attempt to “perfect the design of the racing seaplane.” He and his team at Supermarine used their experience in aerodynamics to design the Supermarine Spitfire. Obviously, this is a plane that needs no introduction. As I passed one of the buildings along the spit I stopped to admire the rather lovely bas-relief of the S.6 designed by Ken Leech in 1981 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1931 air race. The relief seems to be made from thousands of shells and captures the shimmering blues of the sea perfectly.
Now I left the shingle behind me and continued along the spit on the narrow road. It was no less windy but a little easier on the legs. A tangle of sail boats made a beautiful shilouette against a sky that was slowly turning blue. Soon I was passing the activity centre and, beyond that, the castle came into view. The newly escaped sun lit the stones, taken from Beaulieu Abbey to build the castle, and the wet flagstones shone from the recent rain.
Calshot Castle is one of Henry VIII’s defensive forts, built in 1540 to guard the entrance to Southampton Water. Now owned by English Heritage, it’s part of a chain of costal defences felt necessary after Henry’s break from the Catholic Church. The circular blockhouse and keep have undergone several changes over the years, the most dramatic being the rebuilding of the gatehouse to provide more living space in 1774.
Standing next to the castle is Calshot Tower, one of forty six coastguard lookout towers along the coast of England and Wales. In 1994, when modern technology meant the towers were no longer needed, the National Trust stepped in and many have been reopened by the National Coastwatch Instutution. They are now manned by volunteers and I’m told the views form the circular lookout post at the top are astoundingly beautiful. Beside the tower is the RNLI’s modern lifeboat station. The last Brede class lifeboat left service at Calshot in 2002 but the station now operates two inshore lifeboats keeping watch on the Solent.
Walking round the castle I looked into the half dry moat and made my way to the entrance. A walkway of weathered flagstones crossed the moat leading to a large, weathered studded oak door. Sadly it was shut and a sign told me the castle was closed between the end of September and the beginning of April. This was a shame because, for once, I’d brought money to pay the entrance fee and I’d have liked a look inside.
With such a long history there are many stories surrounding Calshot Castle but one of the most interesting dates from late September 1651. At the time Charles II was on the run after the Battle of Worcester and Colonel Robert Phelipps had a plan to help him escape. He arranged for a shipmaster from Southampton to transport the king to France, picking him up near the castle. The plan fell apart when Parlimentary forces requisitioned the ship he was supposed to sail on to transport troops to the invasion of Jersey. Had it succeeded Charles would have escaped England from Calshot Castle. In the end Charles did escape, after six weeks of ducking and diving, he fled England for Normandy but he sailed from Brighton not Calshot.
A brightly coloured ship caught my eye as it chugged around the end of the spit and I followed it past the lifeboat station. This gave me an up close and personal view of Fawley Refinery and I stopped to take pictures. From this close vantage point the mass of buildings and towers looks more like a blot on the landscape than the futuristic town it seems from across the water and I understood why the locals hate it so much. Thankfully my attention was distracted again by a cheery yellow rowing boat on the shore, a little something to make me smile.
A glance at my watch told me it was probably about time I turned back. The last thing I wanted was to miss the bus even if I would have liked more time to explore. Across the end of the spit I walked past the mishmash of huge low activity centre sheds and rows of sail boats. Of course I couldn’t resist a few last pictures of the castle, goodness only knows when I will have the chance to come back.
The Wightlink Ferry was making its way towards the Isle of Wight as I carried on along the spit and I thought I might take a trip to the island if the ship was still marooned on my next rest day. It’s been a good few years since I was last there. When I passed a long red brick building I paid it little attention until I saw the plaque beside the door. This was once the base of one Aircraftman Shaw who was detatched to Calshot in 1929 to help with the Schneider races. Better known as Lawrence of Arabia, Shaw was closely involved in the project at the nearby British Power Boat Company factory at Hythe. How I missed it on my way to the end of the spit I don’t know.
Within a short time I was within sight of the ship again and now the sun was glinting on the upturned hull. There seemed to be a fair bit of activity around it and I wondered about all those cars inside. Soon though I turned my attention to the scenery inland. In the rough grass there was a small lake I’d have liked to look at more closely but I was worried about the time and the bus. The rugged landscape of stunted trees and tufts of grass blown every which way by the strong winds looked interesting. A bridge crossing the stream that runs beside the road tempted me to cross but again I thought about my bus and resisted the urge.
Soon I was back at the start with a few minutes to spare before the bus was due. Annoyingly, the bus was late and I ended up pacing back and forth searching for things of interest and looking longingly back at all the opportunities I’d missed. The poor driver apologised when he finally arrived. The bus had broken down and he’d had to wait for a mechanic, missing his chance for a break in the process. Of cousre I said I didn’t mind, after all, I’m hardly going to write to complain am I? Anyhow I was pleased he’d arrived at all and more than happy to get out of the evil wind.