Slipping down the cobbled streets of Hamble-le-Rice on a misty Sunday morning, I was beginning to think a walk wasn’t so appealing, but fortified with cups of coffee, we set off for the ferry. There’s no timetable for this service, you just wait at the pontoon until it turns up. After five minutes, chugging cheerfully towards us across the estuary, is one of the smallest, and certainly the prettiest ferries, I’ve ever seen. It’s painted bright pink, providing a dash of colour when both sky and water are murky grey. Records show that a ferry has operated between Hamble Quay and Warsash Hard since the 1500s, ‘hard’ being a Hampshire term for a stretch of shore firm enough to haul in or launch boats. Back in 1598, the boatman charged a halfpenny to transport a man and his horse; today it’s just myself, my husband and a couple with a Border terrier. Frankly, there isn’t much room for anyone else.
The River Hamble rises in Bishops Waltham and flows through Botley and Burlesdon, before emerging into the estuary near Hamble-le-Rice, a picturesque village renowned for sailing activities of all kinds. For those old enough to remember ‘Howards’ Way’, much of the 1980’s television series was filmed in the area. It boasts a long maritime tradition, with archaeological finds suggesting visits by pre-Roman trading ships. Centuries later, it played a role in the D-Day landings. The estuary was a hub for fishing and crabbing, and there were oyster-beds on the Hamble until 1870.
The crossing takes only minutes, and we disembark beside a small concrete shelter, painted the same shade of fuchsia. This is the start of the Hook-with-Warsash Local Nature Reserve, 500 acres of saltmarsh, heathland, tidal mud-flats and woodland, accessible via a network of public footpaths. It offers three miles of shoreline, along a bumpy and sometimes squelchy path, providing an opportunity to spot wintering birds such as dunlin, black-tailed godwits and redshanks, or if you’re lucky, a kingfisher.
We set off, walking briskly in an effort to get warm, admiring the resilience of a trio of plovers, picking over stones in the shallow, but freezing, water. Less cheerful, a solitary common gull hunches on a mossy post, ignoring a flotilla of Brent geese.
With the open water of the estuary to our left and wetlands to our right, the path balances on a narrow causeway – fine today, but surely vulnerable in a storm? The power of the elements is emphasised by the number of wrecks rising from the water; an upturned barge here, another skeleton there, which might be broken spars of a fishing vessel, and somewhere, we’re told, are the remains of a World War II minesweeper. Further on, near Burlesdon, is the protected wreck site of Henry V’s warship, the ‘Grace Dieu’, and keeping her company deep in the mud, is her sister-ship, the ‘Holigost’. It’s a certainly a ghostly place, with rotting timbers stretching from the water like dinosaur bones.
But life goes on. A rabble of noisy herring gulls gathers on an exposed hull, eyeing-up a brace of fishing boats anchored on the opposite bank. But it’s Sunday, and if the bully-birds want fish they’ll have to catch some themselves. We press on, pausing to watch an excited band of oystercatchers, piping to each other as they search for food on a silty bank. Thick reed beds, edged with yellow-flowered gorse, shelter a pair of moorhens, then give way to a meadow inhabited by a group of donkeys and a lone alpaca. Such a varied landscape. We’ve reached the marina where boats are dry-stacked four high, waiting for warmer times and fair-weather sailors.
Written by Claire Thurlow
Thank you to Flickr user Leimenide for use of the photograph ‘Wreck on the bank of the River Hamble’, you can view their work at: www.flickr.com/photos/24350382@N07/