Winter might not seem to be the best time to visit the Hampshire seaside, but my family enjoyed an exhilarating walk at Lepe Country Park earlier this year.
‘Look at these lovely shells, Mum.’ My youngest son held out a hinged pair of clam shells. ‘They’re beautiful,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you see if you can find some others?’ He liked that idea and scuttled off to probe the tidewrack for more.
We passed some bollards which were used to tie the ships up as they were loaded for the Operation Overlord invasion in 1944. My oldest son jaywalked along a groyne, pointing out a tanker turning into Southampton Water on its way to the oil refinery at Fawley. During the Second World War, Fawley was used as a storage depot and bomb-proof underground pipelines distributed fuel from there to airfields throughout the south of England. Youngest son held out a palm full of shells to show his brother, who jumped down to help him add to the collection.
Looking over the fence running behind the beach, I could see modern gas pipeline signs snaking through the nature reserve towards the sea. These are a clue to Fawley’s great contribution to the war effort – ensuring Operation Overlord was not stalled by fuel shortages. Petroleum tankers would have been bombed by the Luftwaffe if they had tried to dock in French ports and so the British Armed Forces and oil companies developed Pipe Lines Under The Ocean (PLUTO). American tankers unloaded the fuel at Fawley; PLUTO took it from Lepe across the Solent, on to a pumping station on the Isle of Wight, and then 70 miles across the Channel to Cherbourg; then it kept the Allied vehicles moving as they fought through Normandy. ‘Our pockets are full,’ whinged the boys. ‘Can we put some shells in yours?’
Meanwhile, Dad was having a wonderful time photographing the strange concrete tetrahedrons spaced out at intervals along the shingle. These are the remains of the winching gear bases which were used to launch Mulberry harbour components from the beach. As well as fuel, the Allies needed to unload 12,000 tonnes of stores and 2,500 vehicles every day in the weeks following the invasion. German Forces were expected to bomb the French ports as they retreated and so the Allies decided to construct and float a harbour the size of Dover’s across the Channel! The construction team at Lepe manufactured and launched six hollow concrete caissons, each weighing up to 6000 tonnes, which were towed to the Normandy coast then sunk to form a temporary harbour. We visited the remains of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches on holiday last year and checked the quality of the construction work. Concrete blocks the size of houses still stand proudly in the bay, having survived 74 years of buffeting by Channel storms – and small boys climbing all over them.
The sands had shifted since our last visit to Lepe and revealed a new section of regular concrete squares, looking like pieces of chocolate, poking up through the beach. These were once hardening mats, used to help bear the weight of tanks and other vehicles being driven onto landing craft. They create irresistible, photogenic patterns in the sand. Dad took his camera out. ‘No, you can’t put those shells in my camera case. They’ll scratch the lenses,’ he said, when the boys asked.
It was time to go home and so we walked back to the car park, pockets rattling. Whatever were we going to do with all those sea shells? Then we spotted a war memorial and read the plaque:
4th/7th ROYAL DRAGOON GUARDS
On 3rd June 1944 the Regiment left from here to land on D-Day 5 minutes before the main assault on GOLD BEACH in Sherman amphibious Duplex Drive tanks for the campaign in NW Europe. In proud memory of our comrades and the 124 who did not return to these shores
and we used the shells to write T H A N K Y O U on the sand.
Lepe Country Park is open every day from 7.30am to 8pm or dusk, whichever is earlier. There are bird box, marine craft and bush craft activities planned for February half term, as well as a children’s trail. For more information, see https://www.hants.gov.uk/thingstodo/countryparks/lepe