In June 2014 The Boardwalk was one of my usual haunts, mainly because it was one of two possible routes to work. It’s actually only been open since July 2010 as a result of a joint project between Southampton City Council and Sustrans using money from the National Lottery. Of course, I knew about it before my Bus Mines job but I didn’t know you could walk all the way from the Big Bridge to St Denys on it. The characters I met were a revelation too.
The idea of the Boardwalk was to provide a link for cyclists, pedestrians and runners between Northam and St Denys using a short cut along the shingle locals had used for as long as anyone could remember. The problem with the shingle walk being the tide, which cut the area off twice a day. Work began in April 2010 after a few land ownership wrangles and cost £1 million! In my mind it was money well spent.
This was part of a far grander plan to create a single cycle and walking route between Reading and Cornwall. Now that sounds like something I’d be very interested in but I think I’d have to walk it in stages. It is over two hundred miles after all. The Sustrans people have my utmost admiration for even thinking about such an ambitious project and, with an estimated cost of over £50 million, it’s going to take some fundraising.
This is a fairly industrial area. The railway line runs right beside The Boardwalk and there’s a small industrial estate at the Northam end, not to mention the demolished TV studio just behind the wire fence as you approach the bridge. Even so there is a kind of savage beauty to it if you half close your eyes and ignore the odd shopping trolley and the litter washed up on the shingle or dropped by some of the less thoughtful people who walk this way.
Although I sometimes find myself walking along there alone, especially in the early morning, it’s also a very popular route and can be quite busy. Often I see the same faces again and again, people like my dog walking friend who always speaks to me or Denis the Menace, another dog walker I see, usually on a Saturday morning. Some speak, or nod hello, others are not quite so friendly, like the Red Haired Man or the Drinking Man who scowls as I pass.
Usually I only tell you about the flowers I see but I thought it might be interesting if I took you on a little walk along it to show you the path itself. With this in mind I recently walked with my camera in my hand and snapped away at regular intervals. Mostly this was done surreptitiously, pressing the shutter without actually looking at what I was doing in a kind of undercover agent way. Obviously this means some of the photos, taken over the course of a few days, are not the best quality but it does give a real feel for the walk so bear with me.
As I crossed Horseshoe Bridge the Cycling Family passed me, a father and son cycling across the bridge, with a strange trailer contraption that, presumably, holds a baby. They often pass me and I smile at the son learning the rules of the road with his father’s hand firmly on his shoulder. Heading down the slope onto the Boardwalk path a mass of long grass and weeds crowds on either side, amongst them the rusty sculptures guard the bench where I sometimes eat my lunch. Around the corner there’s the first real view of the river over the wooden retaining wall topped with a sea of wildflowers right now and the boardwalk comes into view sweeping round the bay towards the buildings of the industrial estate.
Stepping over the join between Tarmac and Boardwalk proper the bend is hardly noticeable and long grass, alive with wildflowers and a few shrubby trees, bounds the railway line. Cyclists whiz past at regular intervals most nights, usually too intent on their journey to notice a lone walker plodding along, even one in a high vis jacket.
Often there are runners too, some alone, some in pairs. They rarely speak or nod either, although some huff and puff while others seem quite at ease, gliding past effortlessly. Cyclists seem to come in all shapes and sizes, from the woman I often see with a basket on the front of her bike wearing pretty flowery skirts to men in shorts or everyday jeans and t-shirts. Others seem to have a variety of fancy gear, helmets, special gloves and the occasional one decked out with bright Lycra. One was even cycling shirtless using both hands to hold a can of beer while simultaneously smoking a cigarette, talk about multi tasking! Mainly the cyclists are men, which makes me wonder why so few women seem to take to two wheels.
Other walkers pass by too, some very serious and intent on the task, marching as I tend to do, others strolling along clutching shopping bags. They too come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and I wonder where they’re going, what they’re thinking? Do they notice the flowers and the swans or are they intent on getting from a to b blind to notice their surroundings?
At the far end by the hippie wreck there is a man, well dressed, probably in his sixties, who I see almost every night. He stands looking out over the water with a beer can wrapped in a bag in his hand. I’ve tried to catch his eye, to smile and say hello but he never looks at me and he never looks happy. I often wonder what he’s thinking? Is this his one quiet moment in a busy day, time to stand and contemplate with one can of beer as a reward for a hard day? If so, why does he look so cross? Maybe he wishes all the cyclists, runners and walkers would just go away and leave him in peace. Then again, he could be hiding out from a wife who doesn’t believe in a can of beer after work and this may be his guilty little secret. I guess I’ll never know.
Back on solid ground the path turns a corner beside the railing of the building that used to be Busy Bees. A long time ago I sat in the office there five days a week looking out at the river and the hippie boat. There are rocks along the bank here and Suki II is moored close by.
Around the bend some writing has appeared in white chalk on the path. A runner has left an inspirational message, whether this is for himself or someone else I don’t know. There are muddy paw prints too where various dogs have been for a dip. We used to watch the hippie’s dog swimming alongside their little row boat as they went back and forth and the paw prints remind me of them again. Fishermen often sit here whiling away the hours and there are two small row boats moored here.
As the Big Bridge comes into view the Tarmac path comes to an end, replaced by gravel and, in wet weather, mud. There’s a timber yard beside the path and then the demolished TV Studio. On the river’s edge there are strange concrete outcrops with steps leading down to the shore. Maybe these are something left over from the days of the barge men who walked this path before the train line existed.
These little outcrops have become meeting places and picnic areas. I’ve seen people with portable barbecues and picnic baskets as well as youths hanging out for a crafty smoke or can of beer.
Beside the demolished TV studios the path is rough and small trees have taken hold. In the scrubby grass I spotted a high vis jacket lying on the ground and I wondered where it came from. Will it be there tomorrow?
Now the end of the path is in sight where it passes under the bridge to the rowing club. In the grass right beside the graffiti covered bridge supports a couple of cyclists sit resting and having a snack. Where were they headed and where had they been? Everyone has a story and I can’t help musing on each one.
It may not be the most picturesque walk. It certainly isn’t the quietest. There’s always something to see along The Boardwalk though and, if the path and the people aren’t interesting enough, there’s always the river and the wildflowers. I hope you’ve enjoyed walking with me, maybe we should do it again some time?
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