19 April 2018
When we set out this morning it was sunny but cool. We’d guessed the weather would warm up a bit as the morning wore on though and were well prepared with bottles of water and snacks. We’d been sipping the water steadily all the way through the butterfly walk and, by the time we reached the shore, our bottles were almost empty. The day was turning out to be far hotter than we’d expected but the cool breeze off the water and a well earned ice cream made us feel much better and there were shops in Netley where we could replenish our stocks.
Once we’d finished our ice creams we headed along the shore path towards Netley, grateful for the shade from the trees. Originally I’d planned to walk along the shore to Hamble but the need to buy more water put paid to that idea. Instead we turned towards the road just after we passed the sailing club.
The trail behind Netley Castle led us to the road right opposite Netley Abbey. Mostly, when we walk this way the gates are closed but today we were surprised to find them open. With the blue sky overhead it would have been a great day for a visit and we were both sorely tempted to change our plans. We dithered in the gateway but, in the end, the need for water made up our minds. We took a couple of photos from the gateway and set off towards the village.
A little further along the road we passed the arched gateway leading to the church of St Edward the Confessor. It was another temptation, although we went inside back in January 2016. The need for more water kept us moving forwards towards the little parade of shops in Netley village. We made it just as we drained the last drops in our water bottles and bought two more huge cool bottles to keep us going to Hamble.
In southern England, spring usually arrives gradually. The weather gets slowly warmer throughout March and April and the first properly warm, leave your coat at home, days usually arrive in early May. This year March was snowy and as cold as winter. The first half of April was cold and relentlessly wet. Yesterday evening was the first real sign that spring might actually be on the way. Today it felt as if we’d bypassed spring altogether and gone straight to the height of summer. Maybe we just haven’t had time to acclimatise?
As we carried on towards Victoria Country Park I wondered about the wisdom of walking all the way to Hamble. The further we went, the further we had to walk back and walking in the unaccustomed heat was a chore. Despite my misgivings we kept going. Little by little I was formulating a plan. The original idea had been to take the trail along the shore on the far side of Victoria Country Park and walk right into the centre of Hamble Village, a distance of around seven miles. Time permitting, we could then either turn and walk back or get the bus back from Hamble Square to Woolston and walk back from there. On any other day it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch. We’ve both walked much further. With the sudden unseasonable warm weather it felt like a step too far. Just days ago we’d both been wearing thick coats, scarves and hats against the cold.
When we passed through the gates of the country park, rather than following the line of the shore, I turned left towards the cafe. For a moment CJ thought we were stopping for coffee but that wasn’t my plan at all. Just beyond the cafe is the Hamble Rail Trail. This trail had a great deal to recommend it today. For one, it was far more shady and sheltered by trees than the open grass of the park. The main advantage though, was that it would lead us right to Hamble Station. Earlier, when we were in the shop, I’d serruptitiously checked the train timetables on my phone. If we timed it right and didn’t spend too much time dilly dallying, we’d be able to catch a train back to our village.
There was only one problem. The last time I walked the Hamble Rail Trail was in the summer of 2014. My memories of it were fairly hazy but I knew I’d been lost quite a bit of the time. The first part of the trail runs through the cutting where trains once took wounded soldiers from Netley Station to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital but there was nothing to show if we were on it or not. We had three quarters of an hour before the next train was due but it was difficult to gauge exactly how long it would take us to get to the station. There is only one train an hour, so, if we missed the next one we were in for a long wait or a long walk to Hamble Square to get the bus.
The first part of the trail didn’t feel at all familiar and, for a while I was worried we’d might have taken a wrong turn. Just as I was fumbling with my phone trying to open the map I spotted the sign for the Police Training headquarters. I vaguely remembered this from my previous walk. Then I saw the rail trail sign carved into the top of a gate and I knew we were on the right track, even if there were no actual rail tracks in sight.
Through the gate was an orchard, established by the Hamble Countryside Project in 1995. There are around ninety trees in the orchard, mostly English cider and eating apple varieties along with a few plums and pears. My last walk here had been filled with the scent of apples. Today the trees were devoid of fruit and their leaves were nothing but a fuzz of bright green on the tips of the bare branches. The heat I remembered was the same though and there were plenty of flowers to brighten our walk. Splashes of yellow daffodils and red tulips were dotted under the trees.
Apart from the odd sign on a gate or an upended railway sleeper, we’d seen precious little to tell us we were walking on a disused railway track until we left the orchard. Now though, the trail took us to the right alongside a chain link fence. On the other side was the real railway line that passes through Hamble Station. Through the fence we could see the tracks. If we were lucky we’d be travelling on them soon enough.
There were old concrete railway markers dotted along the path but any writing that might once have been on them had long worn away. Despite there being no rails anywhere to be seen, the railway track we were following was meant to be used during World War I. It was built to carry aircraft from Manchester to the airfield at Hamble and a siding was also constructed to serve the Hamble flying boat factory. The war ended before the line could ever be used though and BP bought it to transport crude oil to their terminal on the shore.
The last time the railway line was used was in 1986, when it transported crude oil from Wytch Farm in Dorset to the oil terminal. Oil still comes to Hamble from Wytch Farm but these days it flows through a fifty six mile long pipeline. Even so, BP keep the option to reopen the line in the future. If they do, they will have a lot of rails to replace and a lot of cross walkers to pacify. With no rails in sight we kept going forwards, following the line of the fence and the modern railway line.
Through the trees to our right we caught a glimpse of the Police Training College building. This building, Victoria House, was once the mental asylum for the military hospital. More than fifteen thousand shell shocked World War I soldiers were treated there and it later became the main Naval Psychiatric Hospital. It closed in 1978. A little way ahead we could see Hamble Station. This was something of a relief as I’d been looking at my watch every few minutes worrying about missing the train. As it turned out we had plenty of time to spare.
Now we could take things a little more slowly and stop to look at the next old railway marker we passed. It was covered with ivy but I made out the letters W and D on it. This, it turns out, stands for War Department and this is not a railway marker at all but one of the War Department boundary stones marking out the military lands in Netley and Hamble. Some time ago I was sent a map of them but I’ve never got around to doing more than look at it until now. Maybe this could be the beginning of a new boundary stone quest?
Not long after this we spotted our first railway tracks, or at least the first disused ones of the the day. They cross the trail close to Hamble Station and it’s easy to see how simple it would be to connect the old line to the modern one if ever it was reopened.
With a little time on our hands we wandered off the trail to follow the lines into the trees. There was a small bridge over a pond here and another trail. If we’d actually wanted to follow the rest of the rail trail, this was where we should have been walking. The trail divides just before the rails cross it. There is no signpost to say which route to take and, the first time I came this way I ended up taking the wrong one and accidentally finding Hamble station. Today I’d found it on purpose.
We spent a little time looking at the old railway tracks. CJ even sat on one to have his photo taken. Then it was time to head for the real railway line and find somewhere to buy a ticket before we missed our train home.
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