September 21 – Portsmouth to Prinsted
Back on the pedals and we set off out of Portsmouth into the mighty headwind that had decided to follow us after all. The sun was out though, so that was a welcome bonus and we wheeled out along bike lanes, down towards the water.
We rode through Portsmouth Common where we saw a huge war memorial, spreading across the Common, with the Solent behind it, We discovered it was the Royal Naval War Memorial remembering those who had died during the two World Wars and also acknowledging Portsmouth’s first role as the home of the Royal Navy. It was unveiled in 1924 and the tall cenotaph also acts as a landmark for ships entering Portsmouth Harbour. We also learned that the Common itself used to be marshland and was bought by the town in 1923 and redeveloped.
We pedalled on, along the cycle lane beside the wide promenade, with the wind in our face, but the glorious blue water to our side. It was a lovely, scenic pedal, looking out at the water and at the people enjoying a morning on the pebbly beach, or strolling along the promenade.
After thinking we were going to have a day on dry land, it turned out we had yet another ferry ride. We had a choice of a couple of routes out of Portsmouth, one that stayed inland and one that gave us a coastal ride, so we decided to pedal beside the water. That route had us going via Hayling Island, so we needed to hop on a ferry to choof across the water, where we’d pick up the route on the island. The wind was still blowing mightily and waiting on the pontoon on the water for the ferry to arrive, was even breezier. All I could do was bob down behind Steve’s bike to try and get a tiny bit of shelter. I won’t say it was breeze free but it was a little less blowy closer to the ground.
We rode the ferry over with some families and others out on bikes, wheeled up the ramp on the other side and pedalled off onto the island, being met with a very nice, welcoming sign as we left the jetty.
Hayling Island was a fabulous little place, a sleepy island that had that holiday feel about it, as if it was somewhere people might go for a weekend away or might have the British equivalent of a shack to visit. It had that lovely, casual, laid back feel to it. We began scouting for a spot for elevenses and rode past a park, where we caught a glimpse of a bench out of the corner of our eye, so did a u-turn and rolled over the grass to the seat. What looked like a simple park with bench seats, actually turned out to be a really interesting spot with a story to tell. We were actually sitting inside a former anti-aircraft battery and the park we were in was Sinah Common, one of three anti-aircraft gunsites established on Hayling Island in 1940. One of the great things about travelling in the UK, is there really is history everywhere and I love it when we just stumble upon that history and the stories that places have to tell. On the spot where we were having elevenses, on April 17, 1941, thirty bombs were dropped, killing six gunners and injuring thirty more. After that event, most of the gunners were drafted into active service overseas, so it was women who stepped up and operated the site. One of those was 17 year old Dot Watson, from London. She joined up in 1940, at the height of the Blitz and served on Hayling Island for the next three years. She was promoted to Corporal and put in charge of an ant-aircraft height finder, helping to destroy three enemy aircraft. It’s wonderful to learn stories like that, of the often forgotten contributions that ordinary women made, taking on roles usually performed by men and showing just what women were capable of. It was quite a special place to have found ourselves for our morning routine, without realising where we’d chosen to stop.
We pedalled on, along a fantastic traffic-free path, beside the water, passing others cyclists, walkers or dogs, all out enjoying another glorious sunny day. As we rode along, I spotted a square, brick structure beside the path and stopped for a look. This turned out to be another story waiting to be found. What I’d seen was actually a pillbox, one of a dozen that were built on the island during World War II. They were constructed to form a line of defence in case of invasion and it was thought that those pillbox defences might hold off an invasion long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Seeing things like that was a real reminder of what people lived with during the war, even on small little islands like this. The bigger cities are often talked about because of the devastation many of them experienced, but today was a reminder of just how close the war was to everyone, even in sleepy little places like Hayling Island. I guess its proximity to Portsmouth, would have put it on full alert.
We kept pedalling along the wonderful, flat, waterside path and then, yet another story turned a page, as I turned a corner. I discovered the reason our path was such a pleasant, gentle ride, was we were actually on another old railway line. We were pedalling along the former Hayling Billy Line, which had been the main means by which goods were transported to Hayling Island, as well as transporting troops and supplies during WWII. Goods were also transported from the island, along the line to London. The line closed in 1963 but an original signal has been kept and restored and still stands beside the path.
We pedalled on until we came to the road bridge that took us up and over and off the island. As we rode on, we had more lovely sights across the harbour, with old buildings and houses sitting right on the water’s edge.
We rode on, through towns, along cycle lanes or paths until we turned into Prinsted, our pitstop for the day. We found ourselves here unintentionally, but that’s another story involving an accommodation error that was beyond our control and resulted in us staying about 15km away from where we were supposed to be. So, we had arrived, we had somewhere to stay, just not where we wanted to be. After a post-ride cuppa, we strolled through the village, past pretty thatched cottages, along lanes lined with stone walls and then hopped on a train for a one-stop ride down the line to Chichester, to have a roam around.
Chichester turned out to be another nice town to stroll around, with some lovely old buildings. We walked along the streets, turning down laneways, just freestyling to see what was around. We found ourselves at Chichester Cathedral, which was down a very quaint little lane, that would have been quite at home in a village rather than a big town.
The cathedral is 900 years old and dates back to Norman times, with building beginning in 1076. It was another place that was quite spectacular as a piece of architecture, but walking around we still couldn’t help but shake our heads at all the frippery and wealth inside, that could have been better spent on the needy of the time.
Along the streets we strolled and Steve commented, “It has a European feel about it.” The town had pedestrianised areas and street cafes and there’s always a nice feel in a town that keeps traffic out of the centre, so people can walk easily and it’s not noisy or heaving with traffic. It was a very nice place to visit, with some historic buildings and nooks and crannies and laneways.
After an easy stroll in the sunshine, we gathered supplies, hopped back on the train and made our way back to Prinsted. We fear our run of magic weather is coming to an end, with the weather presenter this morning saying, “Today will be the nicest day we will have until next Spring!” There is rain on the way with warnings issued all over the place, so some very soggy days ahead. What we’ve had this last week or so has been absolutely brilliant though and has given us memorable days, delightful rides and beautiful places to see and visit all in sensational sunshine. Those memories won’t go anywhere and we’ve had the most wonderful send off as we near the final week of our European adventure. It’s not over yet though, more to discover, it might just be a little less blue and a little more grey, but the whole experience is still shining a very special shade of gold for me!
Distance ridden: 23.3 km
Time in the saddle: 1 hour 56 minutes
Weather: Very, very windy, but very, very sunny too! 21C