In Search of Portsmouth’s Marginal Spaces

Towards Fraser Range [Image © John Callaway 2020].

S&C regular John Callaway explores the parts of Portsmouth where other photographers rarely venture.

Over the past few months, I’ve attempted to navigate the local landscapes of Portsmouth, the place that I’ve called home for the past forty years. Not the obvious places, but the marginal spaces. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with my wife, but always with a camera.

This particular journey started online, in the company of strangers, ‘exploring’ a mountainous area (the Cairngorms), that I’ve never been to, in thrall to the words of a writer who is no longer with us (Nan Shepherd), guided by another writer (Robert Macfarlane), some of whose books, well thumbed, sit on my bookshelves and bedside table. Sharing the journey were travelling companions from across the world, making the same leap of faith to gather together in the on-line world, to exchange thoughts and ideas, to consider what the book says to each of us, not just about a particular mountain, but about our own landscapes, and the way that we see things. (The discussion can be found online on Twitter using #CoVirusReading.) Living in a rapidly changing world, we seek answers that cannot be provided with any certainty. We are being asked or told to break our connections to the world around us. And yes, there is good reason for this. But too long in isolation, and we begin to lose touch with the idea that this a world that we share.

Through the sharing of ideas and the discussing of an imagined, but not imaginary landscape, the need for a different journey became clear. A journey that took in landscapes little more than a stone’s throw away from the front door. In my case, the coastal margins of Portsea Island.

The visiting of places closer to home is a far easier step to take, particularly given that the area of Portsea Island covers an area of slightly less than ten square miles. In writing of the Cairngorms, Nan Shepherd writes that “water is speaking” (The Living Mountain, p22), and we are invited by Robert Macfarlane to speak of “where and when in your own landscapes, have you been most keenly aware that water is speaking”. For me, living in Portsmouth, it is the sea, the shaper of landscapes, that has spoken most often to me. In these parts the sea carries its own history, along with the history of those who have put to sea over centuries past. Usually the small coastal inlets, the secret places, the margins and the outfalls. The places that have a human imprint, but are off the beaten path. Not the ‘obvious’ locations, but the places that we might ordinarily ignore.

And so, the thought began to crystallise. As we begin to emerge, blinking into the ‘new reality’, guided by instruction, intuition or instinct, is this the moment that we view the environment and its various ecosystems differently? Certainly, in the past months, the reduction in human activity seems to have enabled the land, sea and air to ‘breathe’ a little more easily, and recuperate.

On the face of it, Eastney storm outfalls, a sometime meeting place of fresh and sea water, doesn’t seem to be the most promising place to search for signs of change. Neither of the Southern Water outfalls are things of beauty. However, blessed with incredible light, and only a few clouds in the sky, the colours of the landscape appeared to be ‘beyond reality’, with their iridescent greens and blues. And beyond the horizon, everywhere the sky. As above, so below, reflected in the small pools of sea water left by the tide as it retreats from the strand line.

Towards The Fraser Range – Image by John Callaway 2020

The Eastney end of Langstone Harbour remains one of my favourite places to visit, whatever the weather. Predictably unpredictable is a good descriptor, but it never disappoints me. With relatively few people about, and a choppy sea, time to get on the Hayling Ferry. Despite the best efforts of the coastal defences on either side of the channel, the area appears to be constantly changing, with the strand and shorelines seemingly different with each visit. The power of the sea is always evident, with the presence of partially eroded concrete defences, and a shapeshifting shingle and shell beach…

The Solent [Image © John Callaway 2020]
The North Portsea Island Coastal Defence Scheme at Tipner Lake, offers a slightly different perspective. Always the same, yet always different, the coastal defences might suggest permanence, but the rock-strewn shore line, slowly shifting mud and sand, and partially rotted wooden structures suggest otherwise. And from the newly built walkway, looking towards the M275, The Sails of The South, a landmark since 2001, are temporarily reflected in the almost motionless sea water. Sometimes the concrete walls become a blank screen, onto which is projected a daily shadow play that changes with the passage of the sun. Whilst on the walls of a nearby building, a pair of slowly fading hand prints, reminding us once again that nothing is permanent…

Sails of the South. Image by John Callaway 2020

And the challenge continues, still looking for those out of the way places, not too far from home. The places where you come across the occasional dog walker, cyclist or fellow flaneur. The places where you can find unexpected beauty in the mundane. Hilsea Lines is one such place; a reminder that Portsmouth is on an island, connected to the mainland by a series of bridges. Places such as the railway bridge over Hilsea Moat. Not quite Thomas Telford, but in a certain light, at a certain time…

Broken Light – Image by John Callaway 2020

Even as we continue to navigate through uncertainty, seeking out the small places that are within reach, there’s still a need to look to the horizon and the sky, as a reminder that the world is a bigger place than it feels at this moment.

Inspiration: Many of the sentiments and words contained within this piece have already seen the light of day as fragments to accompany photographs that I have taken since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. None of the photographs which accompanied the narrative were ‘about’ the pandemic, beyond the fact that they were taken during the various stages of the ongoing journey towards the ‘new normal’, whatever that might mean.


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All images by John Callaway.

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