126. Portsmouth to Hilsea

July 2011 and November 2004

I walked the entire coast between Portsmouth Harbour and Hilsea back in 2004 but have walked part of the path between Portsmouth and Southsea sea front more recently (on the same day that I visited the Spinnaker tower), so this post is an amalgamation of both visits.

I took the train from my local station down to Portsmouth Harbour, which takes around 1 hour. In fact you are already right on the coast when stepping off the train here as the platforms are actually built over the harbour, so you can see water below in places. It is nice not to have to make a long walk from the station.

Right next to the station is Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, an excellent visitor attraction where the historic ships HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the remains of the Mary Rose. It is well worth a visit, though HMS Warrior can easily be seen from the station platform.

HMS Warrior

From leaving the station at Portsmouth the view is not great. Ahead is a very tired 1960s bus station and a hideous 1960s block of offices or flats (I’m not sure which), Brunel House, the ground floor of which is boarded up.

Thankfully things soon improve. I have been visiting Portsmouth for many years and I remember it used to be when you arrived to walk east along the coast the first 500 metres or so was a pretty grim walk, as you were forced to walk on the pavement next to a busy road, with a brick wall (the railway viaduct) on the other. Behind this was an old military base, HM Gunwharf, which was out of bounds to the public.

Thankfully, things have changed now. Now you only have to walk next to the railway viaduct for a short distance, where you can then turn right, under the railway and into what HM Gunwharf became, Gunwharf Quays. This is one of those mixed developments that mixes old and new, commercial and residential. The best and most interesting buildings of the old military base have been retained and restored (as a mixture of shops, housing and a museum) whilst others have been replaced by modern buildings, some around the old docks. The shops are mainly “outlet” type shops but it has opened up an area previously inaccessible.

I cut through the main shopping “street” of this complex trying to make progress against people coming in and out of the shops. It is a relief to reach the coast where the Spinnaker Tower dominates the view. Here boat trips can be taken around the harbour. It is a popular area with restaurants along the sea front here. I turned left and soon cross a bridge over the mouth of one of the old docks, now a marina with flats on the right and a tall tower at the far end.

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

I crossed this and rounding the corner I have another little area of harbour ahead, with the area called Old Portsmouth on the other side. This smaller harbour is mainly used by Wightlink for their car ferry service to the Isle of Wight (though Portsmouth City Council makes it no secret they want them to move, as they don’t like all the traffic for the Isle of Wight driving through the city centre).

The Point, Old Portsmouth

Passing the first block of modern flats on the left a nice view has been preserved over some of the old military buildings.

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

Beyond this, the Wightlink ferry terminal forces me a bit in land as they have quite a lot of space here. I pass alongside one of the older ferries on the route, St Cecilia. There are a lot of caravans onboard.

St Cecilia

Once past the ferry terminal I am back to the road and soon pass the smaller harbour at Old Portsmouth. This contains a far more varied collection of boats in varying conditions, it all looks rather chaotic.

Fishing boats at Portsmouth

I continue along the road past flats to return once more to the sea, at another old military fort. This is a stone fort, though with what looks like some more recent red brick additions. One of the things I particularly like about Portsmouth is that this whole area is open to the public. There are steps on top of the fort, so you can walk along the wall. There are also steps through to access a shingle beach on the other side of the walls, where you can watch the boat traffic in and out of the harbour. The brick arches under the fort are used for various temporary shops and the like, on this occasion there seemed to be some artwork on display and for sale. It is a nice area to explore, with a lot of interest to see.

Beach at The Point, Portsmouth

Beach at The Point, Portsmouth

The Point, Old Town, Portsmouth

Beach at The Point, Portsmouth

Having enjoyed wandering around the streets of Old Portsmouth I turned left to begin walking east. At the end of the old castle wall, a more modern path continues along the top (you can see it in the photo above), with an area of water on the left (not sure what purpose it serves) and the shingle beach and Solent to my right, where a large cross-channel ferry is arriving at Portsmouth. I believe this is what is known as a “cruise ferry”.

Brittany Ferries

I am not sure what the area of water is for, but I think it is another former military site. Beyond that I come to Clarence Pier. Pier I always feel is over stating this a bit – it is built over the sea, but it is wide and short and only the last few metres are actually over the sea.

It now houses a fairly sizeable fun fair. It is crowded as I walk through with the smells of the usual sea-side staples wafting up my nose, namely, chips, ice cream and candy floss.

Clarence Pier, Southsea

I am pleased to get through this area. Beyond this the road begins again, now around a little courtyard area. This photo is taken back in 2004, though the area has not changed that much.

Clarence Pier, Southsea

I am not sure what the tower is for (it looks like it should be at an airport) and I think that arcade at the end now has flats above it. The Wimpy is still there now too, you don’t see many of those now (though I did come across one in Fraserburgh in northern Scotland earlier this year, too).

Beyond that is something else rather fun, the Hovercraft terminal. Here Hovercrafts run over to the Isle of Wight, at peak times as often as every 15 minutes (though normally every 30 minutes). I love this service, it is my preferred route over to the Isle of Wight. It is such a spectacle to watch too, that when I see one of the craft out in the Solent not far away, I can’t resist standing around to watch it arrive. It is a flamboyant arrival!

Ferry crossings

Hovertravel Hovercraft

Hovertravel Hovercraft

Once safely pulled up onto the beach, the engines slow down and the skirt deflates with a sigh, like an animal that has come ashore to die.

Clarence Pier marks the start of the promenade that runs right along the south coast of Portsea Island, so from here it is an easy walk. Beyond the hovercraft terminal is Southsea common on the left, a large area of green space (and a welcome one, in a densely populated city). There is the war memorial here and the site also often has a fun fair in the summer, though it is quiet today.

At the end of Southsea Common I come to the Blue Reef aquarium and the promenade happily goes along the coastal side here. This seems to be built on a bit of an artificial build out, as the beach on my right has ended, to be replaced with a brick and concrete wall, sloping in places to protect from the sea. Beyond the aquarium I come to another place of interest, Southsea Castle. This is a very historic castle, constructed on the orders of Henry VIII, as at Hurst Castle. And in fact it reminds me quite a lot of Hurst Castle. The first time I came here I think you had to pay to go in, so it is a pleasant surprise to find that when I returned admission is free. So I could not resist having a look inside.

Southsea Castle

The inner courtyard is quite like at Hurst Castle (though with some attractive cobbles) and as you can see you can walk around much of the outer walls. I think the brick part inside is more modern, perhaps from World War 1 or 2. Outside the castle shows it’s true age with the impressive thick stone walls.

Southsea Castle

Certainly an interesting place to visit and well done to Portsmouth City Council for making it free to enter!

The promenade continues behind the castle passing a leisure centre/swimming pool (The Pyramids Centre). At this point the beach resumes again. This part of Portsmouth, known as Southsea, is very much a resort, with the shingle beach backed by hotels and the pier ahead.

The beach at Southsea

The beach at Southsea

Beyond the leisure centre I pass the rock garden (a nice feature) and flower beds, with typical Victorian buildings (mostly hotels originally I think) lining the road beyond.

Soon I reach Southsea Pier.

Southsea Pier

On both occasions I walked along to the end of the pier (I do like piers). As usual, the landward end has an amusement arcade, but a bar area at the end. On my second visit this bar had just half or dozen or so people but someone doing very bad karaoke, which was being broadcast on speakers outside so I was not keen to hang about.

Sadly the pier has not had a happy time of it recently. On my last visit in 2011 I walked to the end of the pier, but it turned out this was to be it’s last summer season. In April 2012 the pier was closed to the public on health and safety grounds as a result of it’s deteriorating condition, though access for fisherman was originally retained. This too had been withdrawn by November, with the pier fenced off and closed. The pier was sold again in 2014 and whilst the owners say the intend to re-open it to the public in stages, this still has not happened, as reported by the BBC. I hope the pier can be saved.

Beyond the pier the promenade and shingle beach continue. To my left the seaside attractions continue, with more gardens, the canoe lake and a model village.

Southsea Pier and beach

Soon though it feels like I am leaving the resort part of Southsea. The beach gets wider, meaning the sea gets further away, as grass and plants begin to grow in the shingle.

The beach at Southsea

The military history of the town soon makes it’s presence known once more as I pass the large and impressive Royal Marines Museum.

The Royal Marines Museum, Portsmouth

I am not sure if all the building is now the museum – if so, it is a very large museum! Not long past this the promenade ends, with a small caravan park ahead. Here the Solent Way continues on the road that also heads inland as ahead is another military fort, Fort Cumberland. This is also no longer in military used and is owned by English Heritage but not generally open to the public other than on guided tours. I did however follow the road right to the end.

Portsmouth is an island city with Portsmouth Harbour to the west and Langstone Harbour to the east. Once again here the coastal walker faces a choice. Continue inland across the harbour or take the ferry over the harbour mouth to Hayling Island beyond. For a while you did not have the choice.

There had been a ferry service between the eastern tip of Portsea Island (where Portsmouth is) and Hayling Island for around 200 years. But there had been a number of problems with it in recent years including safety concerns over the condition of the vessel and fines for carrying more passengers than the licence permitted. The operator of the ferry eventually filed for administration and the service ceased in March 2015. A trust, the Hayling Ferry Trust, was set up to try to restore the link. I had my doubts they would succeed but they did and it returned in August this year, thanks to fund raising of £11,000 and a (perhaps surprise) donation of £5000 from Sir Richard Branson. I am surprised he did not insist on it being branded “Virgin Ferries” in return!

So I could choose to use the ferry or I could choose to walk around the harbour. I opted for the latter, since there are footpaths around virtually all of Langstone harbour (unlike Portsmouth Harbour) and the Solent Way I had been following continues this way, too.

First I had to re-trace my steps along the road and then follow the Solent Way as it made it’s way around the residential streets of this part of Portsmouth, Eastney. Soon the path headed along the tree-lined path through another park.

Park in Eastney, Portsmouth

At the end of the park I could soon turn right passing a large area of allotments behind the houses and finally returning to the banks of Langstone Harbour. It was now mid afternoon but being Novermber it was getting close to dusk. The harbour was very peaceful and the water calm.

Langstone Harbour

Langstone Harbour

Much of the harbour is shallow and it has a few small islands within it. The path was now a concrete path along the top of a low sea wall that protects the island from flooding. There were shingle beaches in places and quite a few birds enjoying the shallow waters and protection of the harbour.

Langstone Harbour

It was quite a pleasant path with just the peace of the harbour with a small beach or and in places reeds and marsh to my right. This is a rare undeveloped part of the island, an area known as Milton Common. Though the reason for this is that this is in fact an old tip, now grassed over and with lakes created. This is a surprise at it looks quite natural now so it shows how nature can reclaim things.

Langstone Harbour

Milton Common, Portsmouth

The tide was now beginning to go out, revealing mud flats below the shingle beach. Sadly the peace did not last. This is because of the A2030 road, a busy dual carrigeway now runs along the eastern side of the island for the rest of the walk and is close by on my left. At one point a youth on a motorbike also speeds along the path I was walking, passing very close to me.

Langstone Harbour

Squeezed in between the A2030 and the edge of the harbour is a small caravan site. North of this there is another area of green with a couple of sailing clubs making use of the calm waters of the harbour.

Langstone Harbour

A short distance north of this the Solent Way continues and soon joins the A2030 as it crosses Ports Creek, the narrow strip of water that separates Portsmouth from the mainland.

Langstone Harbour

Here I had to make a decision. The light was now fading so I could not walk much further. There was no easy public transport access for much of the coast ahead until Langstone.

So I decided to end the walk here and head inland to Hilsea station. I cut inland along Anchorage Road with industry on my left and a new housing estate on my right. Soon there was industry on both sides and the road I was on passed over the railway line and another road below. Thankfully, there was a set of concrete steps leading me down off this bridge to the road and railway line below. This took me right down to the entrance of Hilsea Station. It was a grim spot. A grim 1960s porta-cabin type station building (all closed up) under a flyover of a busy road and industry all around. There was also another youth riding around on one of those mini motorbikes (I wonder if he realised how ridiculous he looked, crouched on such a small bike), so it was a relief that I only had around 10 minutes to wait for a train to leave the area. Thankfully it took me directly home, albeit the stopping train so it took longer than my journey down.

I am not generally a fan of urban walks, but I rather enjoyed this one. There is a lot of history and a lot of interest in Portsmouth. It is also nice to find that virtually all the coast was open and accessible with paths or promenade along it. Portsmouth manages to successfully combine a large and busy city centre, a large military presence and several ferry ports with a pleasant coastal resort and a large shingle beach. Being urban too the terrain is all tarmac or concrete which whilst a little hard on the feet does mean this is a walk that is easy to enjoy year-round, as there is no mud to contend with.

Here are details of the public transport needed for the walk. Trains run regularly between Portsmouth Harbour and Hilsea station, but on several different routes and take around 15 minutes, there are several trains each hour, seven days a week. Trains run from London Waterloo to Portsmouth via Haslemere with South West Trains. South West Trains also run from Southampton to Portsmouth and from London Waterloo to Portsmouth via Winchester. Southern Trains run from Littlehampton to Portsmouth, Brighton to Portsmouth and London Victoria to Portsmouth some of which stop at Hilsea.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link | Slideshow

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