22 February 2015
Unfortunately it seemed the kiosk I’d found was not the fastest coffee emporium in the south. Five minutes later only one customer had been served so, after checking my watch, I left, feeling rather exasperated. Perhaps it would be better on my way back? There were lots of people on the wide promenade and a few down on the shingly beach. In the distance I could see the outline of Hayling Island where Commando and I spent our honeymoon. Suddenly a dark haze of birds crossed the sky up ahead. There were so many of them they appeared as a cloud, moving together and suddenly changing direction going this way and that.
The spectacle was mesmerising and, at first, I though they must be starlings. Then a few birds broke off from the cloud and flew in my direction. As they came nearer I could see they were actually geese. Dark bellied Brent Geese regularly gather around the Solent Harbours, although I’ve never seen them in Southampton. They breed on the Taimyr Peninsula in Northern Siberia but spend the winter on the east and south coasts of England where it’s relatively warmer. Several thousand of them are regular visitors to Southsea where they feed on algae and eelgrasses or, if these run out, head inland and look for grass or crops to eat. By the end of March they will be off to Siberia again.
Hoping I’d be able to see the huge skein up close, I put on a burst of speed but, by the time I found them, they’d settled on some grassy parkland on the opposite side of the road. In actual fact I think it may be a golf course and I wonder what the golfers think about sharing their green with so many geese? Close by there were some pastel coloured beach huts across the road from the shore which seemed quite strange. I do like a nice row of beach huts so I crossed for a closer look. There were toilets nearby so I took full advantage before crossing back to the promenade.
Almost at once I was crossing back again for a closer look at the iconic Yomper statue at the entrance to the Royal Marines Museum. This twice life sized bronze effigy of Marine Corporal Peter Robinson yomping to Sapper Hill in the Falklands was made by sculptor Philip Jackson and unveiled by Baroness Thatcher in 1992. It commemorates all Royal Marines, especially those who served in the South Atlantic during the Falklands War. Standing on a small hillock at the gates to the museum he’s an impressive sight.
The museum charts the history of the Marines from their formation in 1664 to modern times and is housed in the original officer’s quarters of the Victorian building that was once Eastney Barracks. The actual barracks are now apartments. It’s a place I’d be interested to visit, given enough time. Apparently, there are videos telling the story of the royal Marine’s part in the Falklands War and the D-Day landings plus the buildings themselves are interesting. Particularly fascinating for someone like me who enjoys an unusual story, is the tale of Hannah Snell. In 1745, after the death of her daughter and desertion by her husband, who was later executed for murder, she disguised herself as a man and joined the Royal Marines. Her subterfuge wasn’t discovered and she fought in several campaigns right beside the men. What a woman!
The flag in the statue’s rucksack fluttered in the breeze as I took a few steps inside the gates. Beside the entrance to the car park a small boat has been turned into a flower tub and two little cannons stand on either side of the gates. Much as I’d have liked to go inside I had walking to do and a finish line to get back to before Commando did so, with a last look at the giant Yomper marine, I crossed back to the promenade.
Just before the road turned away from the shore and the promenade came to an end I found another row of pastel beach huts, these actually on the foreshore. Then, as I was about to turn around and walk back the way I’d come, I spotted a trail leading up a steep grassy bank at the top of the shore and what looked like it might have been a lifeboat station in the distance. The Muddy Beach Run is held to raise money for the RNLI and I’ve never been able to resist an unexplored trail, so I decided to check it out.
The trail was narrow and boardered by a shabby plastic fence behind which I could see caravans. This, I found out later, is Southsea Leisure Park, a popular holiday park. The thin line of muddy shingle dipped up and down and was rubble strewn in places, from time to time I had to step onto the grass to let walkers coming the other way go by. Once I’d passed the holiday park it became obvious that what I’d thought was a lifeboat station was something entirely different. Behind a horrible rusty fence topped with razor wire were some crumbling buildings that looked to have military origins.
From my pre walk research I knew there was a fort on the peninsular at the entrance to Langstone Harbour. In 1859, Fort Cumberland became the headquarters of the Royal Marine Artillery, but the star shaped earth fortifications are only open by appointment. This was not the fort though, it was, I found out later, Fraser Range, named after Admiral of the Fleet, Baron Bruce Fraser, and built around the beginning of World War II. Used to train naval gunners in direct sight firing, it became home to HMS St George, the Royal Navy’s Special Duties Officers’ School in 1960. In the 1970’s it was a set in a Doctor Who episode and was also it was also used by the Civil Marine Division of the Admiralty Research Establishment to test RADAR equipment. The site was finally closed for good in 2006 and may soon be demolished. With great difficulty I managed to poke my phone against the rusty bars and take a photo inside for prosterity.
Beside the abandoned base I found a muddy path and decided to take it. From my map looking I knew there was a small Marina just behind Fort Cumberland and I thought the path might take me there. When I came out the other side onto an expanse of scrubby grass I could even see the masts of little ships moored there but a glance at the time told me I really should be turning back or I’d risk missing Commando’s big finish, especially as I still had chocolate milk to find. Reluctantly I turned away and set off along a residential street I was fairly sure would lead me back to the promenade. Before long I came upon the first of the runners.
Luckily I was right about the road and soon I was back on the promenade, sharing it with a steady stream of runners. Of course I kept well to the left, as close to the shingle as I could get without actually walking on it. Yet again, despite having a very wide expanse of pavement to run on, there were a small handful of runners who decided it would be fun to run as close to me as they could, one got so close I almost toppled onto the shingle. Quite why they do this is a mystery but, seeing as I’m doing all I can to keep out of their way and it is still a public pavement, I really wish they’d be as considerate as I am.
There were no more photos on my return journey. Right at the start Commando commented that it wasn’t as windy as last year. He spoke too soon. While I’d been wandering around in the shelter of houses away from the shore the weather had changed and a bitterly cold wind had sprung up. Unfortunately I was walking into it and it was heavy going. I couldn’t help wondering how Commando was coping. Some of the runners passing me seemed to be struggling, one was grunting and wheezing so badly I thought he was going to collapse but he kept on going. The sea was dashing wildly onto the shingle and, now and then, I could feel the spray on my face. Head down, with my hood buttoned right up, I pushed through as best I could breathing pretty heavily myself with the effort.
The coffe kiosk was just as busy when I got back there so I walked on past. The second kiosk, where I’d seen the bottles of chocolate milk didn’t have any customers so I stopped.
“What kind of coffee do you sell?” I asked, noticing a stack of takeaway cups beside the till.
“Cappuccino, latte, mocha, plain coffee, whatever you want,” the cheery man said.
“Oh good,” I smiled, “I’ll have a latte please and two of those bottles of chocolate milk.”
A few minutes later I was on my way, the chocolate milk in my bag and the suspiciously light latte cup keeping my hands warm. When I took my fist sip I could tell this was not good coffee. One more sip conformed this and told me it wasn’t even a latte as far as I could tell. One final sip made me wonder if there was actually any coffee or milk in the cup at all, it tasted as if it was made with dirt. The whole thing ended up in the next bin I came to. Then it began to rain, like freezing cold needles fired at my face.
I can’t even begin to describe my relief when I got back to the shelter of the Rock Gardens again. My watch told me I had about fifteen minutes before Commando was likely to cross the finish line and I spent five of those sitting on a bench sheltering from the evil wind blowing into my hands to try to get the feeling back in my poor fingers. With no more walking to occupy my mind I couldn’t help worrying about Commando. How was he coping with this evil wind and the shards of icy rain? I had a thick, waterproof coat, many layers of clothes, a hat, scarf and gloves, he was wearing shorts and a thin t-shirt. How would he wear his reading glasses if his ears fell off with the cold?
After a closer look at some of the huge lichen growths on the rocks I couldn’t put off going back to the windy beach any longer. There was a bit of jostling for position until I found a good vantage point to watch the finish line and, thankfully, I didn’t have too long to wait. The relief when I spotted him running towards the line wasn’t just because of the normal race worries about injuries, accidents and time, it also meant I could get out of the bitter cold gusts and freezing rain. As ever, Commando wasn’t best pleased with his time, thirty seconds over his PB. No amount of me telling him it didn’t matter and no one could hit a PB in wind and rain like that would ever change his mind.
Somehow, despite muddy legs all around, yet again, Commando managed to get through the Muddy Beach Run almost untouched by dirt of any kind. I swear he’s Teflon coated. He also still had both ears in tact!