Saturday August 8th 1999
Hill Head to Netley
High summer arrived and with exams over and results still far enough away to be a non-event, the sea called us back. We chose to travel down on a Saturday so were able to use our railcards earlier thus arriving at Fareham Station at the heady hour of five past nine. There we hired a taxi to Hill Head and began the walk near Saltern’s car park on the shell-covered beach. The weather was promising and the sea breeze enticing.
We struggled along the shingle for a while before joining a concrete path in front of some beach huts – deserted at this early hour. The path then wound through a car park, around Hill Head Harbour, filled with moored yachts, and along the new sea defences at Titchfield Haven. Titchfield Haven nature reserve is a fairly recent development, opened to preserve the wildlife around the estuary of the River Meon which trickles out to the sea here under its new managed status. The reed beds are a safe haven for all kinds of birds and a breeding ground for avocets as well as mammals such as deer, bats and harvest mice. Tempting though it was to visit, we needed to keep walking and from Titchfield the path led us through a development of wooden buildings called Meon Shore Huts. Some of these were obviously holiday houses but some looked as though they might have been permanent homes although they really did not look strong enough to withstand winter storms. All had back gardens opening onto a private beach though, so the attraction was obvious.
Beyond the huts we climbed to the cliff tops, wandering sometimes behind bushes, and sometimes out onto open cliff tops, well away from houses and with glorious views inland over fields. We sat for a while on one open section and, to the accompaniment of a box of cherries, enjoyed watching yachts, ferries and huge container ships drift along The Solent.
The cliff path continued as far as Solent Breezes Caravan Park, which was full of holidaymakers making the most of the sunshine. The camp had all the facilities associated with a holiday park and it seemed rather strange to be walking in boots amongst bare-footed children heading for the swimming pool or the beach. However the path was definitely signed through the caravans and eventually down a flight of steps on the beach at the far side. Solent Breezes, while obviously popular and a lot of fun, is not really our idea of an ideal holiday destination. No doubt the children jumping into the pool thought the same about us as we clomped our way past.
Once down the steps and back on the beach we headed east again across a stream only to find our way onwards blocked and the shore ahead covered with boulders. There was no obvious way to go and the guide book was useless but we encountered a friendly jogger who pointed out a set of steps hidden in the trees to take us back onto the cliff top. Here we picked up the breeze again which was welcome as the sun was now shining brightly and the day becoming hotter.
A few miles further on, we gently descended onto Hook Common which borders the sea here. Hook Common is so called because deposits have turned the land here into a hook shape which encloses a small natural harbour, now dammed to form a lake. The walking varied from shingle to grass and from rock to old sea walls. The path was non-existent in places and narrow in others. One narrow section ran between gorse bushes and a barbed wire fence, behind which cows grazed. We came out the other end of this with scratched arms and a torn t-shirt.
Finally, we found a good spot for lunch on the edge of the common and sat down to enjoy the various craft on the water while we ate. It was Cowes week and we watched the yachts stream into harbour, in response to the boom of the cannon, presumably for their own lunch.
After lunch we set off again, inland slightly behind the lake, towards the School of Navigational Studies. The school prepares civilian sailors for their careers and here they can study all aspects of maritime life. We had been intrigued for some miles by a strange construction high in the air at the end of a pier. At first sight, it looked like a flying boat but closer inspection and later reading revealed it to be a tower topped with lifeboats. The college students apparently use it to practice launching lifeboats over the side of a ship.
The path followed the banks of the Hamble River with many small craft and quaint riverside cottages and eventually emerged into Warsash. Warash is a tiny village full of boatyards and sailing people. We passed a sail maker’s workshop, a boat chandler and several shops selling very expensive and apparently essential clothing to weekend sailors.
A footpath through a car park brought us to the ferry landing and tiny ferry just big enough for about a dozen people which shuttles back and forth all day long across the Hamble river to the village of Hamble. The river is very tidal here and the ferry sometimes moors at the end of a very long pontoon but today it came in almost to the shoreline.
In Hamble, we stopped at The Bugle Inn for a cold drink and to use their toilets, feeling very untidy in the company of well-dressed customers who had motored in for a drink by the river on a lovely day. On the way out of the village, we called into a shop for water and postcards before resuming the walk.
After walking through the residential area of Hamble, the path followed a lane through woodland down to the water’s edge. The Solent was behind us now and this was Southampton Water, the combination of the rivers Itchen and Test which both reach the sea here. The view became industrial as Fawley Oil Refinery loomed on the opposite bank and Southampton itself lay up ahead.
The path ran along a concrete shelf high above the beach to pass a huge oil storage depot. It was not a particularly pleasant place to be but at least the concrete was easier on the feet and it was infinitely better than the rather dirty shingle shoreline below. Half way along, the path went down two steps, under a pipeline and up two steps the other side and I managed to leave a large chunk of skin on one of the concrete steps!
At the end of the walkway, we found ourselves down on the shingle for a short while before heading up a steep path through an attractive and unexpected strip of woodland to a lane above the beach. The lane became a private drive, which led to a beautiful house on the cliff with stunning views of the water. A tiny path beside the house led through more woods and came out in the Royal Victoria Country Park.
The Royal Victoria Country Park is on the site of The Royal Victoria Hospital which was opened in 1863 to treat soldiers from the Crimean War. It was expanded during WW1 and 50,000 patients were treated here during that time, patients being brought in by ship directly to the hospital grounds. It was expanded again for WW2 and was run at this time by the American military as a mental hospital for soldiers traumatized by their experiences. The mental hospital remained and passed into civilian use but a fire badly damaged much of the building in 1963. The last patient left in 1978 at which time Hampshire County Council bought the site as a recreation area. All that is left of the hospital is the chapel which is now used as a heritage centre, café and shop. Here we bought ice cream and ended our walk at the D-Day memorial overlooking Southampton Water.
We then walked to Netley station, just to the north of the country park, looking for traces of the branch line that had once transported patients directly into the hospital grounds. Here, we caught a train back to Fareham and on home.
Running total 23.5 miles