by Nigel Heath

We started walking The Solent Way under overcast and moody grey skies with a stiff breeze blowing which quickly prompted me to swop my Tilley Hat for a woollen one.

Ahead lay the first day’s walk for my walking companion and poet, Peter Gibbs, and I around extensive salt marshes on a higher-level sea wall with fine views across the water to the Isle of Wight and its famous Needles rock formations out to the west.

But it is certainly an ill wind which blows nobody any good because that stiff breeze was just what was needed by members of an enthusiastic band of kite surfers from nearby Southampton University, including the white helmeted, Duncan Johnson-Fergusson, who is studying neuro sciences.

They were busy inflating their big orange kites beside a huge seawater lagoon in the landward side of a mile-long spit stretching out into The Solent.

At the far end stands the dramatic Hurst Castle, an impressive artillery fort established by Henry VIII between 1541 and 1544 to guard against an invasion from France or The Holy Roman Empire.

This magnificent fortification attracts both coast path walkers and thousands of summertime tourists, most of whom enjoy a short return ferry crossing from nearby Keyhaven.

This service runs from April until October, but was not operating the day we set out on the first two-day stage of the sixty-mile Solent Way walk. So rather than walk all the way along the spit to the castle and back again, we decided to walk directly to Keyhaven along the sea wall and then on to the yacht harbour at Lymington where ferries shuttle to and from Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.

It is only some seven miles from Milton on Sea to Lymington with the sea wall weaving its way around giant salt marsh lagoons, but it is an absolute delight with the constant cries of a host of birds, including red shank, oyster catchers and avocet.

We had not walked far when an excited bird watcher told us he had just spotted a migrating Osprey with a large fish in its mouth!

Meanwhile a sulking sun making the occasional appearance from behind the clouds, cast a silver sheen over the waters.

Yet up until two hundred years ago these wild marshes were a hive of industry with the reclamation of salt from the sea.

Here seawater trapped in giant shallow pans at high tide, was allowed to partially evaporate before the brine was piped by wind pumps into boiling houses, for the production of salt for export around the country by sea.

But the rising price of coal and the coming of the railways allowing the transport of rock salt from Cheshire sent the local industry into a terminal decline.

A forest of masts rising out of the flat landscape heralded our arrival into Lymington to the accompaniment of an Isle of Wight bound ferry nosing its way out into the Solent. It flashed into my mind that as it was only 2pm we might later hop onto one and enjoy an impromptus afternoon cruise across to Yarmouth and back.

Then I was reminded of the early sunny morning some years ago when Peter and I sailed over to Calais for lunch and back to celebrate our completion of the two- hundred and eighty-three-mile Southern Coast to Coast walk all the way from Weston-super-Mare to Dover.

Then consulting my OS map, I saw that it was quite a long way around Lymington harbour to the Wightlink ferry terminal and so abandoned the idea of an afternoon mini cruise.

Our way now led through a large boatyard and here I came across, Keith, a retired chartered surveyor from Sheffield busily polishing the propellor of his Malo 40 yacht prior to sailing it around to Plymouth to over winter.

Now we retired to the aptly named Ship Inn to quench our thirst prior to our taxi ride back to the stylish Forest Park Hotel at Brockenhurst where we had stayed the previous night.

Surrounded by woodland and opened back in 1901 specifically to serve the rich and the famous, The Forest Park still retains its yesteryear air of comfort and grandeur.

Taking a taxi back to Lymington the following morning to continue our walk on to picturesque Butler’s Hard, a small yachting inlet on the wooded Beaulieu River, the way took us past the entrance to the ferry terminal and this time the temptation of taking a mini cruise across the flat calm waters of the Solent, proved too hard to resist.

As luck would have it, there was a ferry leaving in under ten minutes, but we were told that as the ship was returning with fuel tankers, then passenger numbers were being restricted to fifty-five and we might have to be marooned in Yarmouth until the following departure at 11.45am.

However, we could go on a waiting list and get back onboard again if there was room for us.
We decided to sail anyway and again Lady Luck was with us because we were the last two passengers on the return trip.

Once back on dry land, it was an eight-mile walk, first hugging the coast and then striking inland along quiet lanes to reach journeys end around 4pm.

En route, we came upon the two-hundred and thirty feet long, St Leonards barn, the largest ever built in medieval England, and had a close encounter with a small herd of New Forest ponies who suddenly took it into their heads to come galloping past us.

But the finale highlight was our overnight stay at The Master Builders House Hotel, which packed with old nautical pictures and other memorabilia, is the former home of master shipwright, Henry Adams, who was responsible for the construction of some of Admiral Lord Nelon’s warships, including the famous HMS Agamemnon.

Our further stops along the way, planned for another day, are at the comfortable Compass Point B&B, prior to taking a ferry across The Hamble River (compasspointhamble@gmail.com) and The Premier Inn in High Street, Portsmouth.

Finally, here is the poem that Peter penned on our first morning walking The Solent Way.

Keyhaven Track

Keyhaven through to Lymington
Along the sandy track
Isle of Wight in outline
Beyond the Needles stacks

Wildfowl in abundance
Across the marshes wide
Avocets and egrets
With waders side by side

Cries of geese wind-carried
Above the bending reeds
As all along the water’s edge
The onward path still leads

Grey-green the flowing Solent
Ahead with masts abreast
The waiting yachts and dinghies
For now remain at rest

Journey’s end in Lymington
Marina at its heart
And ferry link for islanders
Who live their lives apart.