Back to the sea, sort of – first published 18 May 2014

After the 10k race at Victoria Country park in May 2014 and my wander around the military cemetery, it was tempting to walk back to the car with Commando and go straight home. It was warm and the sun was beating down on my head. That hadn’t been the plan though so he walked one way and I walked the other. He was headed for the car park while I was on my way to the sea, or what passes for sea around here.

18 May 2014

Weston Shore is the closest thing to the seaside we have in Southampton and technically it isn’t exactly the sea although it is tidal and it is salt water. Southampton Water is actually a tidal estuary, classified as a ria, or drowned valley and part of the English Channel. The rivers, Itchen, Test and Hamble flow into it and, at the end of the last ice age, when sea levels rose and flooded the valleys it became an inlet of the sea. It is also a world renowned yachting venue and was used during the 1908 Summer Olympics for motor boating events. On Sunday, as I caught sight of it through the trees at Victoria Country Park there was some kind of yachting race going on. The water was filled with boats sailing up to a marker buoy then turning and sailing back.

As I made my way towards Netley I watched snippets of the race through the breaks in the trees wondering whether to walk down to the shore once I reached the park gate and make my way along the shingle until I came to the path further on. Memories of my tough shingle walk at Hurst Spit last weekend and not being able to work out whether the tide was on the way in or out ultimately made me decide against this plan. The trouble with tides here is that we have double the normal number. Two high tides a day makes Southampton a busy port but it also doubles the chances of getting cut off when walking along the shore.

So, in the end, I walked through the little village of Netley until I reached the row of pastel coloured cottages at the top of Beach Lane. Instead of taking the lane I crossed the daisy covered grass down to the water. Usually there is a path here but the storms in early spring washed it away along with much of the sea wall. Luckily there is a track of sorts behind the trees so I took that and came out further along.

A helicopter was buzzing about overhead disturbing the peace of my stroll and drowning out the sound of water lapping at the shore. It was too high to make out whether this was the coastguard, the police or some other helicopter but I wished it would buzz off and leave me alone. There was no getting away from the shingle altogether because the path, once I was back on it, runs behind what’s left of the sea wall and is made of loose packed shingle. Thankfully this is only a short stretch as far as the Yacht club.

On the yacht club slipway a couple of boats were preparing to go out, white sails flapping in the breeze. This is a sight guaranteed to make me smile, especially on a sunny day. Another thing to make me smile came a little further on as I passed West Lodge. Not so very long ago this lovely little cottage was derelict, these days I can’t help imagining what it must be like to live somewhere so pretty right on the edge of the shore. Someone was relaxing in the garden reading and I will admit to a pang of jealousy. Just three miles in, not counting the earlier wandering in the cemetery, and I was tired and hot.

The water iris are blooming in the stream running down from West Wood to the sea. I stopped on the bridge to take a closer look at the beautiful yellow flowers. Now, as I followed the stream to the promenade, I did at least have a proper path to walk on, once I’d emptied my shoes of stones. Why is it a tiny pebble can feel like a huge boulder when it’s in your shoe and how do they get in there anyway?

There were a gauntlet of tempting ice cream vans to run along the promenade. The purse in my rucksack kept shouting at me to take it out and buy one. The crowds wandering up and down on their Sunday morning strolls all seemed to have cones in their hands and my stomach growled. Stupidly all I’d brought with me was water, not thinking I’d need snacks on a walk of only six miles or so. The trouble was breakfast seemed like a long time ago and the idea of a cooling ice cream was very appealing. I managed to distract myself with a photo of some dog roses growing on the foreshore and the prospect of kite skateboarders ahead. A kite soared above the grass further along and I fixed my eyes on that and kept walking.

There turned out to be only one kite skateboarder but I did stop to watch for a while before carrying on towards the next sailing club in Woolston. New fences have been put up along here where the small cliff has fallen and, in case anyone is in any doubt, some helpful signs have sprung up too. Luckily it hasn’t crumbled as far as the path. Well, not until this winter anyway.

This is where the shore path ends. I’d walked four and a half miles in the sun and there were another threeish ahead. Sometimes I wonder why I do this? Between the shore and my house is a world of memories and, once I’d left the sea behind, I walked through a few of them quite thoughtfully. Often, when I walk this way my mind is on other things, the flowers in the gardens, my speed, the history of this part of the city where Spitfires were once built and a bridge on chains once floated across the water. This time it was different. Perhaps I was just in that kind of mood.

The suburb of Woolston was once my home. The first house I ever owned was one of the little terraces here and the streets were ones I walked every day, often pushing a pushchair. Back then there was a thriving shipyard, Vosper Thorneycroft, and three times a day the streets were crowded with fitters, joiners, electricians and ship builders going about their business. The wise timed their errands between the shifts if they wanted to get anywhere fast. Now the shipyard is gone and the streets are looking empty and run down in places.

On the old Vosper Thorneycroft site the building work goes on and new flats seem to be springing up daily. I think I’d be quite upset if I bought one of the first flats with a lovely sea view only to have another huge building appear in front of it. Across the road, where once there were little shops, things look pretty dead apart from the newsagent, still open and busy despite the shop next door being half demolished. I had a squint through the wire fence at the remains of the building, once a cafe I seem to remember, and wondered what is going to become of it?

There is a big new Co-op supermarket a little way up the road, probably to cater for the new flats and houses. As most of my water was gone by the time I reached it I popped inside to grab some more. When I came out what I actually had was chocolate milk. Still, I’d resisted the ice cream earlier and the cool milk served as both hydration and extra energy. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

Crossing the road I decided to take a real trip down memory lane, or the lane behind the little terrace we used to live in when the boys were young. It isn’t much to look at, just an alleyway behind the shops, and these days the garden fences are all so high I couldn’t even peer into my old garden as I passed but I remembered all the old faces as I walked. Whatever happened to Cat Lady Lill, who fed all the shipyard cats, or the little girl next door but one who played with Philo? My elderly neighbour is almost certainly gone now and I doubt many of the houses have the same occupants but, in my mind, I could still see two little boys on trikes riding up and down.

Back then my garden fence was low and I could watch the boys at play while I worked on my huge veg plot. We grew our own because money was tight. When we bought the house the end of the garden was filled with rubble and corrugated iron. I spent that first spring digging it up stone by stone and still have a scar on my foot where I dropped a rusty corrugated iron panel on it. There were fruit trees, two apples, one peach and a cherry and raspberry bushes along the side fence along with a gooseberry bush. There were flowers too, I can still remember the tall Marguerite daisies lining the path and washing blowing on the line. I wonder what it looks like now?

At the other end of the lane it was back to more recent memories as I passed the Millenium Garden where the huge feather dominates the skyline. On my walks to and from work at Silver Helm I’d see this from the bridge. Passing it I made my way to the steps leading towards The Green I thought of all those walks fondly. Mostly I’d have a head full of things to do, ship visits, entertainers, turnarounds. I thought back to the sunsets I’d seen here and from the penthouse office. I still miss them.

Just before the steps there’s a little leafy alley running behind the houses under the bridge. On those walks home I’d often looked at it and wondered exactly where it led but, wanting to get home, I’d never explored it. Today I decided it was time to check it out. Ok, so it wasn’t all that exciting, after the leafy start it took me past fences and onto a quiet service road for some small businesses ending up close to the site of the old Spitfire factory.

This brought back memories of very different walks. CJ and I walking back after the horrors of the job centre. The time I saw pickled onions on the shingle and thought at first they were mushrooms growing came to mind. CJ and I ended up in fits of giggles about that but, in my defence, they really did look like mushrooms at first.

This time there were no pickled onions but there was a large sail boat beside the slipway and another small motor boat in the water. A man had waded out to the small boat and a woman stood on the shore watching. I wondered if he was trying to launch it or bring it in. The circular garden looking over the water is a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. Lunch was calling though so I carried on, up the hill past the Yacht Pub where the locals were sitting in the sun enjoying a pint.

There was one final set of memories before I reached my village. Last July when Gail and I were walking home from work across the Big Bridge we saw a huge tower of smoke rising into the sky. The Green was burning. This was no little bonfire, huge flames were roaring into the sky and the place was filled with fire engines when we got there. We had to take a detour to get home. The next day I walked through the smouldering remains.

Now the green is green again and the heat haze was coming from the sun rather than the scorched earth. Butterflies were fluttering about making the most of the wild flowers. I bent for a photo of an oxeye daisy wondering as I did if the seeds survived the fire or were blown in afterwards. Blackberries are flowering again and the ground is pink in places with little globes of clover. I thought I spotted a bee on one and stooped to take a photo but it turned out to be a bee fly, Bombyliidae, not a bee at all. The larvae live as parasites in other insects but the adults feed on nectar and pollen and are important pollinators. They look like fat bumblebees at a glance, until you see the long mosquito like proboscis, so it’s an easy mistake to make.

The only sign there was ever a fire now are a few clumps of blackened gorse bushes and the odd skeleton of a small tree. Isn’t it wonderful how quickly nature claims back the land and covers it? As I made my way up the slope towards the road I turned for one last look back at the water and the football stadium crouched like a many legged white spider on the opposite bank. My trip down memory lane was well and truly over for now.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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