Many moons ago I lived in a poor forgotten area of the south coast. Not all of it was quaint villages with thatched roof cottages and a village green. No, where I lived it had a short crumbling high street with a small supermarket, a useful things shop, a bank, and a second hand furniture shop.
But a short walk away, past a long ago closed café, was a beach with a natural bay where I took many a photograph. By this beach was a small hut and slipway, and on the slipway was a patch of pale blue paint, dropped on the concrete many years ago. Each visit I set the white balance of my camera against this patch of paint, telling it that was white, so my pictures had a sniff of pale orange, or fawn, where it would be grey or white.
Many people who live inland say they’d love to live by the sea, and the classic trick when trying to relax is to imagine laying on a beach, listening to the waves. That though is not why I liked the coast. For me it was the tide.
The first thing I looked up on arrival was the tide times. Having had regular visits to a boatyard in Norfolk as a child, I understood the tides back then. I was also educated very suddenly about tidal flooding. The tide or its floods don’t come in straight, approaching you gently. They sweep behind you and to the side of you, filling up as if from beneath your feet until the water threatens the top of your wellies.
So I knew this tidal force when I got to the south coast. It is one of natures great reminders that you cannot control the wider environment. The tide will always and forever be bigger than you, and you have no choice but to respect it.
A reasonable walk along the coast from the patch of pale blue paint was the ruins of Netley Abbey. Now, a walk along the coast is never as short as you think. On a very hot day, the salt of the sea will dehydrate you quicker than running a marathon inland without water. The ice cream van half way up the beach was on one occasion so close, and yet so far away, that I thought I’d shrivel on the beach and cook like a desert ant before I got there.
Armed with the knowledge of that dry experience, with a water bottle and a piece of paper with the tide times for that day, I set off for Netley. I started out with the tide being on its way out, and had until just as it started coming back in. It was a safe calculation, typical of me, to never do anything without planning it from all angles first.
I could have travelled by train, but chose to walk by the sea, taking photographs along the way, all of which now serve as a record of this pleasant journey.
I passed the five enormously tall post-war tower blocks that are the Weston flats. These were built to relieve the pressure of the demand for housing in Southampton. I believe they were social housing and it’s likely some have been Right to Bought. They have an enviable view over the Solent towards either the Queen Mary 2 moored at the Eastern Docks, or Fawley Power Station across the water. But they have been on t.v. in programmes about both antisocial behaviour, and seawater flooding around the blocks. They also feature in a couple of films, iconic that they are.
Further along, the beach flattened and trees had grown at the land side. Runnels of water snaked across, and joined together to form streams spilling into the sea. Once you’ve crossed this you’re outside the boundary of Southampton (extended this far in 1920) and in a more rural Hampshire.
I passed Netley Castle, built as a fort by Henry VIII to defend the Solent from invasion. It was extended in the 1800s in Gothic style, and has changed ownership several times. The Grade II* listed building is now residential flats. At this point the path at the edge of the beach narrowed to a step about 6 inches or so high, next to a wall. I never walked the other side of the wall where it was grassy, and I can’t remember if that was private land.
At the destination end I veered off into the residential streets of the village of Netley. Netley Abbey is within reasonable proximity to the beach, and free to walk into and around. There was a small plaque with the history, but the presence of the stone ruins drew me in immediately.
There were few visitors each time I went, and although we might smile in passing, we otherwise avoided eachother in a typical English way, which wasn’t that difficult due to the number of nooks and corners and the many parts to the site. We were probably all there for the same reasons, quiet contemplation.
Netley Abbey was originally a monastery, and had a peaceful but humble history before its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1536. It was then granted by the king to Sir William Paulet, an important politician at the time and later Treasurer of the Household. Paulet converted the abbey to a mansion, demolishing and rebuilding as he went. Some of the walls still contain red bricks along with the many stone arches.
The buildings passed through several hands until 1704 when the then owner, Sir Berkeley Lucy, arranged to demolish parts and sell some of the stone for building materials. However, a demolition worker was killed by the fall of a block of stone, and the work was halted. Netley Abbey then became a ruin.
It was ivy covered by the late 1700s and a tourist attraction, visited by artists and writers, including Jane Austen. It is now cleaned of ivy and maintained by English Heritage as an Ancient Monument, it being the most complete surviving monastery in the south of England.
It really was a beautiful place to be, and after I took many photographs, I retraced my path along the beach. By then the tide was on its way in and I came to the stone wall and the step. The step was the only place to walk, the tide now covering the beach. My timing was justabout perfect, but almost not.
The tide lapped over the edge of the step and up to my feet in larger waves than you’d expect for such shallow water, making the step periodically slippery. It was at that moment I saw all over again the power of an incoming tide. It would wash in predictably, and every day parts of boats, driftwood, and boulders larger than a human could lift appeared and disappeared on the beach, all at the will of the sea. And that was why I loved being on the coast.