Francis Davis starts his walking travelogue of Portsmouth in a unique homage to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier with a thought-provoking wander through class, culture and the perils of the coastline.
A fifth year once died on the Portsmouth Grammar School students’ swim across the Solent. At least that is what someone told me, I have never had the time to check: This is what I am thinking as I stand at the top of the Spinnaker Tower looking out across the waves towards the steeple that marks the heights of the town of Ryde on the Island.
How many people have swum the Solent, I wonder?
The former Havant MP, David Willetts had done it – with the police, I think – from Stokes Bay. He once told me that swimming was like ‘water borne yoga’. Nonetheless my old friend James Meaby was, less meditatively, found dead floating in his life jacket near Nab Tower. According to the national media a continental car ferry had (accidentally and allegedly) dragged him and his sailing crew beneath the waves. James had not been at PGS so the two tales ought not to be confused. It is strange though how our last conversation in front of the Seaview Hotel, the Solent and the Downs, biography and memory, contemporary countryside, literature, and urban history collide on a clear day from the highest internal floor of the tallest building in Gunwharf Quays.
The island of Portsmouth merits a murky mention in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. It is well known as the birthplace of Charles Dickens and less noticed as home to a breath – taking archive of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. Nestling near Rowlands Castle, John Keats scribbled stanzas while staying at Stansted Park. A long way to the West, Captain Marryat once penned boy’s own books such as Masterman Ready while living in what is now the Chewton Glen Hotel near New Milton.
But as I look North, and East, it is a suite of stories by a schoolmaster who retired to the area, Keith Vignoles , that comes to mind: The Prisoner of Portchester records the adventures of a French convict escaping from the prison hulks kept, in Napoleonic days, next to the castle. Dick Burgess of Bosham tells the tale of smugglers in Langstone and Chichester harbours and in these historical novels, still almost in print at Amazon, the Vicar of Havant is complicit in ruses to hide the arrival of illicit spirits from France, benefitting from supplies of the best brandy in the process. Responsible for Tournerbury on Hayling as well, he and the smugglers ensure it is steeped in folklore of witchcraft to disencourage locals from exploring dens where the contraband is hidden. Meanwhile, the Warblington churchyard provides a useful place for fugitives to hide.
Today those waters might be checked for people smugglers or those with outlawed substances for import. More parochially, pottering alone in the main channel on the far side of Hayling Island, it is not too many summers since I watched in awe as a Portsmouth lettered fishing boat chased fish up and down with its heavy nets, while I read leaflets about this being a reserve for the protection of Sea Bass. Parochial indeed for these inlets and channels are an area of outstanding beauty and the islands and foreshore in many parts nature reserves cared for by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.
By contrast in 2011, on a warm day just after the August riots, while walking the front end of the South Downs Way – stretching as it does from within the view of Gunwharf to other look-outs on the Seven Sisters a hundred miles away – my sons and I came upon a grand old lady resting in an outdoor armchair savoring a sundowner before dinner. The valley where we met, not far from The Shoe in Exton in whose vague direction I am looking next, was now owned and farmed by younger generations of her clan who had dug a fishing lake in one corner of their land for visiting Japanese businessmen to chase fish. This, she explained, was ‘rather amusing, given what they put us through’. Within easy reach of the Naval Port one could almost feel the history of Pearl Harbour and Singapore hang in the air. Moving on to the clashes on London’s streets that summer, she said she was ‘concerned about urban decay’, which is why she ‘wouldn’t venture these days into Petersfield more than once a month’. History and place, perspective and geography collided and unfurled gently but surely as we talked, intermingling with concerns about theft in rural areas, the seasons and her hopes for ‘the young ones’.
According to the Office of National Statistics there are about a thousand robberies and drug related crimes in Portsmouth in 2012/13. Roughly a further three hundred more a month are violent incidents picked up by the police in Portsmouth South alone. With 69 recorded incidents of weapon-related crimes in six months, and over six thousand incidents of anti – social behavior a year, the local police are busy. We know this is a densely populated conurbation but it would be interesting to find out who the perpetrators of such acts are and in which time windows of the day they have decided to specialize. I notice in the government stats, for example, that that the daytime population of the island is more than 10% higher than that at night. I wonder what the equivalent impact is over in Southampton when all the mega- cruise ships, the soccer and the cricket and the two universities are in town.
The figures for Pompey’s virtues rather than its vices are not as easy to find even though they are as plentiful. From over there in Lee on Solent and towards the Hamble came the Spitfire and the Hovercraft. In waters close to Spitbank Fort I would have hoped to watch HMS Sheffield come home with the fleet from the Falklands, but so many of our matlows and Ward Room members had offered up so much then and at other times. Think too of the John Lewis Partnership whose farms still straddle the River Test. The sometime Liberal MP for the Island, Stephen Ross, landed the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act – as ground breaking then as the Tory-led – and government supported – Homelessness Reduction Bill in parliament today. I spent a musical afternoon with a hundred others last month at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Fawcett Rd raising funds for the Rowans Hospice, watched hundreds raise thousands at the Great South Run. Countless fools too queue to throw oneself down an abseil from the Spinnaker Tower for good causes. These, the volunteers who made my swim possible at Hilsea Lido this summer, that musical we snuck into at the Kings Theatre before, and a local luncheon club I know all suggest a moral economy at work as powerful a counterpoint to crime as any.
As if in further encouragement, go running from Old Portsmouth to the Hayling Ferry and the seascape is stunning. You can stop along the way to do lengths at the swimming pool owned by the City Council and pay for your place at a dispenser that looks as though it is handing out parking tickets. They have something similar at the gates of the Hampstead Swimming Ponds in far – away London but here in Portsmouth the ladies of a certain age seem to swim even more serenely before tea at the Tenth Hole café with its blankets, hot water bottles and all season welcome.
I have met people who claim to have dived in and front crawled it home from Gosport to The Hard when the ferry had closed for the night. The pelting currents between Eastney and Hayling would definitely make that impossible or unwise. Good job my brother got a lift from a passing sea – biker the time he got stuck.
How many people have swum the Solent, I wonder? Or how many have wandered in Portsmouth and around the neighbourhoods and waterways which splash up to them to listen, learn and be changed? Is it true kids – some living within ten miles of the Guildhall – have never been to the beach nor visited the English North?
There were definitely local school children chatting to the Lord Mayor about never having eaten a meal at a table before when we took them to lunch in his parlour. Elsewhere I’m told there are East African Shi’ites in Wickham, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Sunnis in Fratton, Jews in the Thicket, Russian Orthodox before Ikons in Copnor, a mega-church in the making above an ice cream parlour near the ‘U Need Us’ joke shop, Romanians all over the taxi trade, UKIP rising in Cosham, a Roman Catholic Bishop housed on Victoria Park, and an Anglican Cathedral built beside the A Bar: have any of these met? Who knows they are here? What do they tell us about the intensity of the Brexit vote hereabouts?
Soon the whole Solent will have its own Mayor, reorganised NHS , and sovereign parliament. They will still have ferries to the mainland of Europe though; they will still be home to Sir Ben Ainslie seeking world domination with his Land Rover backed innovation hub; the Navy will still sail all the Oceans, and the tides of course will come and go no matter what.
As the sun starts to drop towards the horizon and I turn to descend from the Tower, the Solent and all these thoughts are set before me. In turbulent times nationally are there not new questions that should be asked? New conversations to be had? Literatures to be read and life stories recorded? Old histories, even, to be rediscovered or heard properly for the first time? It could be very challenging to try. Perhaps I shall set out on a journey of my own and see what the same view looks, feels, smells and remembers like on a similar day this time next year?
If I dare.
Image by Sarah Cheverton.