A walk along Southsea sea front from Clarence Pier
This morning Commando decided he was going to drive down to Southsea for a run and I thought, why not? So I joined him. Obviously I wasn’t running, I don’t do running, but while he ran I walked, not really thinking about speed or time just walking, enjoying somewhere different and checking out the old camera to compare it to the one on the iPhone. Commando borrowed a snazzy gadget from one of his friends that lets you download photos from a camera to the iPad so I planned to see how it worked with a view to getting one myself.
As soon as we got out of the car at Clarnence Pier it felt like we’d stepped back in time to a seaside resort in the nineteen sixties. There was even a Wimpey, who knew they still existed? To the best of my memory I haven’t walked along the sea front at Southsea before, the nearest I’ve got is swimming at The Pyramids when the boys were little so it made a nice, if rather bizzare, change.
As well as the feeling of being a a time warp there was a sense we’d also somehow taken a wrong turn and ended up in Iceland. Boy was it cold! I was so glad of the padded jacket. Poor Commando was just wearing his thin running jacket and shorts, running makes you really hot, but it made me shiver just looking at him. He dashed off into the distance and I set off at a far more sedate pace, just looking around at unfamiliar sights.
A giant anchor that turns out to be the Trafalgar Memorial, Southsea Sea Front
Not long after I’d set off I passed the Trafalgar Memorial, an anchor from HMS Victory sitting on a stone plinth right there on the sea front, not far from the place Nelson set sail on his final voyage in September 1805. A little further and I passed a strange, bright yellow beach shelter with a rather attractive, ornate wright iron trim around the roof. I could almost imagine large women in floral shift dresses and beehive hairdos sitting there writing postcards, just like my childhood.
The strange sea castles that are Spithead Sea Forts, from Southsea Sea Front
The beach is pebbly, just like my own shore but the view is of Gosport or, on a clear day, depending on how far along the shore you walk, the Isle of Wight. The Spithead sea forts are also dotted along the horizon making me think of the turrets of castles submerged, Atlantis like beneath the waves. They were built in the eighteen sixties to protect Portsmouth from attack and now three of the four are privately owned, imagine owning your own little island castle! The fourth, Spitbank can be visited throughout late spring and summer, maybe I’ll come back and have a little nose.
The sea was a chilly shade of greyish green, the sky grey and forbidding with just a hint of something that may have been the sun, desperately trying to push through and warm the frigid air. The groynes along the edge of the sea were festooned with seagulls looking hunched, cold and rather miserable. I’m pretty sure I’d have been miserable perched on a groyne in the biting wind. I felt quite sorry for them.
Southsea War Memorial, Southsea Common and a rather stout seagull
Turning away from the sea breeze, which was making my face hurt, I noticed a large obelisk flanked by lions. This is the war memorial, dedicated to sailors who perished at sea during both world wars. There is no mistaking the fact that this is a naval city, there a plaques everywhere remembering those lost at sea in various battles. Once my face had thawed and my eyes had stopped watering, I turned my gaze back to the sea, just in time to spot a lone, rather stout, seagull, hunkered on the sea wall, his head pulled tight down on his shoulders (do seagulls have shoulders?) watching me with a beady eye. Right behind him was another sea fort guarding the port just as the seagull seemed to be guarding a nearby littler bin. Perhaps he thought I was going to pop my hand in and steal some juicy half sandwich from under his nose. I walked on, leaving him to his vigil.
Fires and explosions – The unfortunate story of Southsea Castle
Then, as the coastline began to curve, I came to a choice of path, one way led away from the sea, following the road, the other, along the sea front. Deciding I’d rather walk beside the sea than the road I chose the sea path and what looked like a lighthouse perched behind a kind of squat fortlike structure with a cannon pointed out to sea. This, I discovered later, was Southsea Castle, built by Henry VIII in the mid sixteenth century. It really is the most uncastle like castle I’ve ever seen although it is steeped in history. This is the spot where Henry’s Mary Rose was sunk, just after the castle was completed.
Maybe this was an omen because the place seems to have been dogged by disaster and misfortune ever since. Eighty one years later a terrible fire destroyed most of the wooden buildings inside and, in the panic, several ships ran themselves aground trying to escape the danger of exploding gunpowder. Ironically, there was no ammunition stored there at that time but I suppose they didn’t know that. Barely fourteen years after this another fire raised even more internal buildings to the ground. Fast forward a hundred and nineteen years and fire was wreaking havoc again. This time the place was stuffed to the gills with ammunition and gunpowder. Embers from a cooking fire fell through gaps in wooden floorboards into the munitions store directly below, resulting in an explosion and several deaths. Maybe they should have worked out the whole wooden structure thing was not that good an idea by then but still. At least they stopped storing the gunpowder there afterwards.
The little lighthouse wasn’t added until the beginning of the nineteenth century and today the castle is a museum and can be hired for wedding receptions and events. Hopefully they have adequate fire precautions in place! As I passed I peeked through the fence at the cannons standing guard, if I’d known the history it might have struck me an an irony that the biggest danger seemed to lie within.
There seemed to be quite a lot of runners going up and down and I smiled to think that Commando wasn’t the only idiot out in the biting wind with no coat. Rounding the bend, I could now see the pier sprawling out into the sea. Beside me waves were lapping at the groyne clad revetments placed there to protect against its eroding power. The sun was still battling with the grey clouds and yet another sea fort (or maybe it was the same one) stood guard against enemy invasion. This little stretch of sea front seemed to be all about defence of one kind or another.
When I finally came to more pebbly beach again two dogs were frolicking in and out of the waves, chasing each other up and down the beach. They seemed to be having a wonderful time although I can’t say I fancied a dip in the freezing sea. Not long after that the WalkJogRun buzzed to tell me I’d completed my first mile. At the same moment I passed another very ornate beach shelter, all iron pillars and wrought iron scrolls arching around the roof. Behind it I could see gardens and I toyed with the idea of strolling through them but, in the end decided to stick with the shore. I knew Commando was planning on a five mile run so I figured I should walk for about one and a quarter then turn back. My normal walking pace is probably about half his running speed although, to be honest, I’d been pretty much dawdling along. If I went into the gardens it would be too easy to get distracted and leave him shivering at Clarence Pier waiting for me.
Regretfully leaving the gardens behind I carried on towards the pier, noticing that the road had reappeared to my left. The pier, which had looked quite grand from a distance, grew ever more dilapidated the closer I got to it. From the front, it was boarded up and everything but for a single ice cream parlour seemed to have been long abandoned. Much as I like ice cream it really wasn’t the weather for it and I wondered if they were doing much trade.
Southsea Canoe Lake – swan canoes, belligerent swans and a serene sculpture
I meant to turn around at this point, but I spied something I really could not resist. Not a coffee emporium, not a chocolatier, a little pond with swans. What would one of my walks be without swans? I seem to find them almost everywhere I go and, as Commando and I first met at the White Swan pub they are almost an emblem. If I had a coat of arms there would most certainly be swans on it. As I’d been ambling along I reasoned I could push the pace on the return leg and still make it back in time, maybe.
A rather beautiful bronze angel looked over the lake surrounded by a gilded canopy. From the front she appeared to be cradling a dove. In the centre of the lake a cluster of colourful swan canoes gathered, the ones I’d seen from the road, seagulls circled above them. Better still, real swans were swimming right behind them. Of course I had to walk around to have a closer look, the walk back was going to be a sprint at this rate.
Some of the swans had left the water and were standing in a group grooming themselves. One was quite intent on stalking a golden Labrador, probably because it had strayed too close. Luckily, the Labrador wasn’t daft enough to think it could take on a swan and was making an attempt to look nonchalant as it retreated. I sneaked behind the swan while it wasn’t looking, hoping it wouldn’t notice and turn on me. Much as I love swans I wouldn’t want to confront one. As the swan was far too preoccupied with the dog I took the opportunity to take a photo of the others, twisting their necks at impossible angles to preen their feathers.
Back on the sea front and not long after I’d passed the pier and the two mile buzz, I was overtaken by Commando on his way back. He turned and smiled as he passed but he looked frozen. He sped off into the distance and I pushed my own speed up several notches. As I saw him taking the road route rather then the longer, sea path in front of the non-castle, I thought I’d better follow suit. Of course this gave me a better view of the gardens I passed so regretfully earlier.
A stand of silver birches caught my eye, their bare white branches contrasting against a backdrop of evergreen eucalyptus. Not long after I was stopped in my tracks by the most beautiful Hellebore, dotted with heads of spectacular yellow green flowers whose stamens and anthers reminded me of elaborate chandeliers. Then there was the artichoke thistle, a crown of showy blue green leaves, the stems twisting skywards with their untidy brushes of dried flower heads reminding me of my hair in the morning.
Despite the futility of catching up with Commando I tried my best not to loiter too long, just snapped a few photos and pushed on. Even so I was glad I hadn’t taken the shore route again, there was so much to see. Trees lining the common, all leaning at the same odd angle, all sheared off at the top by the constant cold salt breeze, as if someone had come along with giant scissors and given them a trim. Wind or no wind they looked as if they were doing their best to open new leaves.
Southsea D-Day Museum, tanks, sculptures and a moving poem
Passing the non-castle from the other side I had a better view of the lighthouse, thrusting into the grey sky. There were gardens in front of it, one a curious round bed, almost bare of flowers but surrounded by roman Roman numerals like a clock face. The very next building was the D Day Museum. In front of the moss and seagull covered roof a large gun pointed skywards. There were two tanks parked beneath yet more eucalyptus, they reminded me of all our trips to Normandy and the many museums we’d visited there. Then there was the most poiniant statue of a soldier, sitting, head bowed, gun in hand. His helmet rested against the rock he sat on and he seemed to have a piece of paper in his hand. Someone had placed a wreath of poppies around his wrist and a wooden cross in his hand, or perhaps they were meant to be there I’m not sure. I stopped long enough to read the poem.
Decades of easy peace may go their way
And time and tide will drift us far apart
But you who shared our savage Yesterday
Will hold the highest places in our heart.
I googled it when I got home and it was written by Peter Roberts, a young Flight Lieutenant in the RAF when his best friend was killed during the Second World War. A very fitting inscription indeed. I walked the last half mile in a reflective mood.
Back at Clarence Pier I soon found Commando. He’d found somewhere to change into his warm clothes again but his poor hands were frozen solid. He could hardly move them. We decided to find somewhere to get a cup of coffee and maybe something to eat before we went back to the car. At least that would give him a chance to thaw out. There was a cafe, of sorts right next to the gaudy fun fair but the tables were outside so we walked on. Round the corner we found somewhere we could sit inside. As soon was we walked in it was obvious that nothing had changed there since at least nineteen fifty something. Framed Betty Boop prints adorned the walls, the seats were fifties diner style vinyl, the music a mixture of old rock and roll songs and, quite bizarrely, banjos. There were a few locals, and, with the exception of one middle aged man wearing a Portsmouth FC beanie, they could all have been transplanted from one of my childhood holidays.
They did have coffee, at least they said it was coffee, you couldn’t tell by drinking it and Commando ordered an English Breakfast. I chose the healthiest thing on the menu, a bacon sandwich. At least it was warm and we sat listening to the banter of the locals who all seemed to know each other while we waited for our food. Commando made short work of his English Breakfast.
“At least they use real butter,” he said as he picked up his second slice of bread and butter. “You don’t get that very often these days.”
They did too, lots of it. I struggled through about two thirds of the first half of my bacon sandwich. There was so much butter it was all I could taste. Butter is something I normally love, although I don’t have a lot of it for obvious reasons. Before that bacon sandwich I’d have said you couldn’t have too much of a good thing. I would have been wrong. In the end I dismantled the second half, pulled out the bacon and, trying to let the butter drip off, tried to eat that. It still tasted like chewy butter. Commando, never one to see good food go to waste finished it off for me.