Well, okay, there’s only one of me and I didn’t do the whole thing, but that title conveys the spirit of my trip. “One Walks (some of) the Solent Way” doesn’t have quite the same air. Due to early exposure to a certain era of children’s adventure novel, I have always wanted to go on a walking holiday: buy a round of doorstop corned beef sandwiches from an apple-cheeked farmer’s wife, tramp through the countryside and be sure to bury my orange peel, guzzle lashings of ginger beer. Possibly catch a band of smugglers using only my plucky ingenuity and a large sheepdog. You know the type of thing.
Perhaps this post is out of place on a book blog, but I had a lovely time, and I started this blog as a kind of journal so I wanted to write about it. Bookish service will be resumed shortly. Anyway, after my friend and I (once again) postponed our Transmongolian Railway adventure, I still wanted to do some kind of exploring this summer. I was leery of a long stretch in a hotel room by myself, after having spent over a year pretty much alone – but making plans to go away with a friend ran the risk of restrictions changing at the last minute to make friendship illegal again. Last minute cancellation of yet another summer holiday with someone else would have been infinitely worse than missing out on a solo adventure. Also, wearing a mask still makes me feel intensely sick and claustrophobic – so a long journey on public transport was out of the question. Thus my plan was born.
There are a couple of different iterations of the Solent Way, but speaking broadly, it runs from Milford-on-Sea to Emsworth, taking in most of Hampshire’s coastline. That’s the version that I followed, running along the sea wall with a little bit of the New Forest in there too. Even if you don’t read my journal of the trip, take this much away from the post – this is a beautiful part of the world (my amateurish photos notwithstanding). It doesn’t get as much press as Devon or Cornwall, and it’s admittedly not as sunny, but there’s a lot to do here. You should visit if you get the chance!
Day 1 – Milford on Sea to Lymington
This first day of the walk runs primarily along the sea wall through Keyhaven Saltmarsh, which is beautiful but slightly eerie. You can imagine it being an establishing shot in a sad indie film – which is a compliment, not a complaint. I wish this area of Hampshire were more accessible on public transport, because I would come here often if I could. There are a lot of rare birds and butterflies – I know nothing about either subject so couldn’t name any of the wildlife I saw, but I did see a great deal of it. Just over two hours (seven miles) and I arrived at Lymington, one of my favourite places in the world. As I was anticipating this holiday, I kept wondering why I hadn’t just booked to stay there the whole time. At least, I did until I arrived, and promptly found myself forking over £20 for crab and chips, and another £4.50 for a coffee. I always forget about the prices until I get there. It has a lot of high-end clothing boutiques, so I think they expect to attract a better class of tourist than me. Anyway, I swam in the lido, ate an ice cream, sat by the harbour looking at the boats as the sun was going down, and retired early to read my book. A blissful day.
Day 2 – Lymington to Buckler’s Hard
The first part of this walk was both lovely and historically interesting, but after a while it became a lot of narrow country roads with no pavement and many blind bends. Most people in the Forest drive sensibly because of the ponies, but every now and then you get someone in an Audi taking those turns at 60mph just because it’s technically legal. For a pedestrian, this means constantly being on alert, ready to jump backwards into a bramble hedge to avoid getting knocked over. It was a tedious combination of monotony, panic, and occasional hedge-related injuries. It was also just a lot of recently-harvested fields, which is boring. At least if I’m walking on a pavement in a city, I can listen to a book or podcast because I don’t need to be listening so intently to the traffic. When there was a footpath, it was often very indistinctly marked – meaning I had to double back on myself a few times. It took me four hours to walk eight miles, which is much lower than my usual walking speed. Overall, despite the fact that I love both Lymington and Buckler’s Hard immensely, I neither like nor recommend the eight miles that separate them. Unless you have an Audi, I guess. In which case, please drive it with due consideration.
On the upside, when I got to Buckler’s Hard, it was all worth it. For reasons unknown, the hotel had upgraded my room, so I got to spend the rest of the day in unalloyed luxury and indulged in a delicious meal in their restaurant. Buckler’s Hard is wonderful. If you’re ever in this part of the world, I really recommend you visit. It’s just a small hamlet – about twenty or thirty historical properties left over from a larger shipbuilding village in the eighteenth century. These days it’s mostly run as a sort of living museum. I’ve been there before, but I’ve never stayed in its hotel. It’s definitely priced at “special treat” level, but it was worth it. Almost too fancy for me – I could not work out how to use the coffee machine, and ended up using every available capsule to make a single lukewarm shot of espresso. Oops.
Day 3 – Buckler’s Hard to Southampton
Following a very lacklustre breakfast at the otherwise brilliant hotel, I started my day with the short two mile footpath from Buckler’s Hard to Beaulieu. This runs through an area classified as ancient woodland, and the version of the path that follows closely alongside the river has been fenced off since last time I visited to protect the ecosystem. This makes the walk less interesting, but is obviously a good thing for the area as a whole. Anyway, the woodland is still lovely. Beaulieu itself is pretty, but in a self-conscious way – trying to stay chocolate-box-perfect for the tourists. Ironically, it feels more touristy than actual tourist attraction Buckler’s Hard. That said, the people in Beaulieu Bakehouse are aware they’re catering to walkers and their portion sizes reflect this, which I appreciated. This is also one of the places in the Forest where the ponies are in charge and they know it – those I photographed here proceeded to walk merrily along the pavement in the main village street, pushing all human pedestrians out of the way.
It was as I was leaving Beaulieu that I discovered there were going to be several more miles of walking on a narrow country road with no pavement, and at this point I decided to get the bus to Hythe instead. You shouldn’t call something a “footpath” unless it has a place to put your feet. I dare say the Famous Five would have persevered with their hike, but that’s because they weren’t very responsible. The Swallows and Amazons would have opted for the bus. Once in Hythe I took the historical Hythe Pier railway – so historical that I had to hold the door closed once the train was going, otherwise the authentically useless catch would have flown open – to the Jenny Blue ferry, which carried me back to Southampton for a couple of nights.
The second half of my trip was meant to take me to Hill Head, Gosport, and possibly Emsworth, but, alas, on the day I was due to leave, I woke up feeling perfectly healthy but with a mild cough. It’s a huge faff to get a test here if you don’t have a car, so it took several days for me to be certified plague-free. The rest of the Solent Way is therefore postponed until my next period of time off, or more likely next spring (I am a fair weather hiker, at least if I’m on my own). Still I had a lovely time during the first half, and I look forward to getting to the rest of it soon. And, since I enjoyed the walking as long as I was in the woods or by the sea, I’m looking for more trails that I can explore in the rest of the UK. Recommendations welcome!