27 October 2017
Last week, a little dawdling and some getting lost on our walk through Spear Pond Gully meant we missed the chance to drop in on Commando at work. Today was his last training shift so I thought I’d walk down to Hamble and meet him while I still had the chance. In theory it should have been a nice easy walk, all downhill after the climb to get to the village but timing would be key. Arrive too early and there’d be a lot of waiting around, too late and I’d have a long, uphill walk home.
It was one of those cold, crisp autum mornings, misty at first, but the sun was burning in it off as I marched up the hill. Fremantle Common looked stunning as I passed, with the last wispy traces clinging to the trees and the sun lighting up the leaves. It was tempting to walk through but I had one eye on the time so I passed by regretfully and strode on towards Peartree.
On the green the branches of the pear tree were bowed down with the weight of tiny golden pears. As I was looking up at them, wondering if they were ripe, a lady walking her dog stopped.
”Lovely aren’t they?” she said.
We talked for a while about the ancient pear tree that gave the area its name and this modern replacement.
“I’m not sure if you’re really allowed to pick them but we always do,” she said plucking a pear from a low branch and caressing it lovingly.
”They’d only go to waste otherwise, although I’ve never actually eaten one,”I admitted.
”Oh you must. They’re wonderfully juicy.
So I reached up and picked a pear myself. It felt hard and I wasn’t sure it would be ripe but, when I bit into it, it was delicious, firm, like an apple, but filled with sweet juice, just as she’d said.
Enjoying the last of the little pear, I crossed the road to check the church door wasn’t open. It rarely is but if it had been I might have abandoned my plan to walk to Hamble there and then. Peartree Church is the oldest Anglican Church in the world and, so far, I’ve never managed to be there at the right time to get a look inside. The door was shut so I walked on.
Soon I was passing under the railway bridge and entering Woolston. Once upon a time this was the only bridge on Bridge Road, now the Itchen Bridge mirrors it a few yards on and, just beyond it, is the Millennium Garden.
When I lived in Woolston this was a largely forgotten area, just weeds and advertising hoardings on wasteland left by the blitz of World War II. Long before my time there was a branch of the National Provincial Bank on the corner but the bomb that left a huge crater in the road in front of the bridge decimated it. Now it is a curious half shop, selling pizza and ice cream. The garden, with its feather sculpture, is a vast improvement and a wonderful landmark.
Without stopping I carried on through Woolston towards the shore. There was one brief pause to snap a rather confused ghost sign on the corner of Lake Road. Until fairly recently, the sign was covered by an advertising hoarding so I’d never really noticed it. Now I stood for a while trying to work out what it might once have said. As far as I could tell it looked like two separate signs painted one over the other.
So far I was making good progress. I’d allowed myself a fairly generous two hours for the five or so mile walk and I was approaching the half way point. The sun was sparkling on the sea, sail boats were scudding across the waves and I could see the dome of the Royal Victoria Country Park Chapel amid the trees in the distance. It didn’t seem too far off. For the first time all morning I slowed my pace and enjoyed the view.
With time on my hands I thought I might stop for an ice cream and sit for a little while on my favourite bench. When I reached the end of the promenade though, the ice cream van was missing. It was low tide and the exposed shingle was filled with wet seaweed and crows pecking about looking for cockles. When they found one they’d fly high in the air and drop it to crack it open and get to the juicy flesh within. As I passed the bench something startled the hungry birds and the air was filled with cawing crows as I carried on along the shore path.
On I went, crunching through the shingle behind the fallen sea wall. Soon I was passing Netley Castle and the gap where there were once gates leading onto the beach. Just ahead was the place where the path collapsed after the storms. It has been repaired now but seeing how flimsy it was and how easily broken doesn’t give me a great deal of confidence in walking it.
There was a certain amount of dithering. I didn’t entirely trust the path but I didn’t want to leave the shore and cut through the park to the road. I was enjoying the sound of the lapping waves and the exhilarating sea breeze too much. In the end I risked the path. Luckily it held up to my plodding steps.
Usually this is where I leave the shore. There’s a path just beyond the Conker fields where CJ and I ate our snacks not long ago. It leads up to Victoria Road and the shops and houses of Netley. As I still had time to kill and the tide was so far out, I decided to take the alternative route along the shingle. It would be more direct and would mean I didn’t have to leave the sea but it would almost certainly take me longer. Walking on loose shingle is a time consuming business and tiring.
This is not a route I take often. The chance of being cut off by the incoming tide tinged my steps with a frisson of danger and I kept looking seawards trying to gauge whether I’d been right in my assessment that the tide was going out. It didn’t seem to be getting an closer but my steps didn’t seem to be taking me any further forward either. My reward for taking the risk was a wonderful view of the low Netley cliffs, sedimentary layers of rusty orange and gold. Trees and shrubs cling precariously to the top, their roots visible through the layers of sandy rock and soil.
I marched onwards as fast as the unforgiving shingle would allow. It’s been so long since I walked this way I couldn’t quite remember how far it was. It seemed to go on forever and I was sure the sea was creeping ever nearer. At intervals there are steps leading up the cliff face. These are entrances to private gardens with signs saying no entry but I suppose, if the tide did come in, it would be better to trespass and try to get up them than to be cut off completely or washed away. As I passed each one I wondered idly if anyone had ever had to use them as an escape and, if so, how the homeowners reacted?
It was something of a relief to see the slipway ahead and know I was almost at the country park. The stones were slippery here and I had to slow even further to avoid falling over. The slipway was worse still and, for a moment or two, I wondered if I’d be able to get up but somehow I managed it.
The shingle and the slipway had cost me valuable time and I’d gone from having time to spare to time running out. The slow wander through Victoria Country Park, with maybe a walk behind the aircraft factory on the shore path was no longer an option. Now it was a matter of power walking across the grass as fast as I could. There was a super quick stop to snap the chapel building and the more super fast walking across the grass towards the far gate.
The last part of my walk, along the causeway towards the military cemetery would have been far more enjoyable if I’d had more time. Then I could have truly appreciated the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, the smell of damp earth and the colour of sunlight through autumn foliage.
As it was I spent most of the walk looking at my watch willing it’s to slow down. When I got to the fork in the path I knew I was almost there. Straight ahead was the Cemetery and, to the right, the trail behind the factory fields. Commando showed me this path one cold November day in 2013 but I’ve only ever walked it twice. For the life of me I couldn’t really remember how long it was.
Luckily it wasn’t too long, although it was mostly uphill. By now I only had five minutes to spare before Commando finished work. Not long after I passed the giant tree stump I remembered from my last walk here I could see the factory through the chain link fence. Leaves fluttered down around me as I walked the last few yards to the road.
In the end I made it with seconds to spare. When I set out I thought two hours was more than enough time for a leisurely walk to Hamble. In fact I thought I’d have time for a wander around there and maybe a look at the bofors gun. Time is a strange thing though, especially on a walk. One moment you think you have plenty of it but, before you know it, you’ve frittered it all away on eating pears, dechipering ghost signs and taking detours. Time always seems to be running away and I am always chasing after it. Maybe there’s a lesson there somewhere?
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