When I passed through Selsey in March, I had hoped to
meet one of the town's more familiar residents. At the time though, he was busy filming an episode of "The Sky At Night", the longest ever running television series which he has presented for the BBC every month, bar one, since 1957. So I had carried on along the coast, promising to return at a later date to pay him a visit.
Today was that day.
Sir Patrick Moore welcomed me in his study, rows of books adorned its walls, whilst certificates and paintings of “bogeys” – friendly aliens created by his mother, Gertrude - filled the spaces. These beautifully crafted portrayals of extra-terrestrial creatures could well have been the inspiration for the character of "ET". I wonder if they were.
Sir Patrick was born in Pinner in Middlesex, moved with his parents to Aldwick just outside Bognor, and then to East Grinstead. After the war, he moved to Selsey, attracted by its seaside location and "no through traffic", the clear skies were an additional bonus from an astronomer's perspective providing minimal light pollution.
“When I first arrived in Selsey it was a small village with only two shops: a butchers and a general store. Nowadays, it has a few more shops and local businesses, but has retained its village community during its evolution as a small town.” He explained.
Sir Patrick's home is the venue for many parties, local events and social gatherings. He enjoys the community and the local people within it.
'The only love of his life', his wartime sweetheart Lorna, died when they were both aged just nineteen. “My main regret is that I never had the opportunity to have a family with her”.
Sir Patrick has never married, stating “I never settle for second best”, but shared his home with his mother until she died in 1981 at the age of 94.
As we talked, I became aware of Sir Patrick's understandable frustration at being confined to a chair. An injury to his spine sustained whilst serving with the RAF during the war had finally caught up with him. He reflected fondly on his days playing cricket for both the local team and the Lord's Taverners. He was a spin bowler.
“As well as my cricket, I would go down to the local tennis courts every
morning and look for a game with whoever happened to be down there.”
At 87, Sir Patrick's hands are also failing him. He is a talented composer and accomplished musician. But today, his beloved xylophone is unplayed, and his restricted mobility prevents him from observing the moon and stars. It also means that the 1908 "Woodstock" typewriter that sits in his study has become an exhibit. He has written over 100 books on its keys. His latest took five years to complete, this time on his computer, which he also uses to talk to fellow scientists from around the world using video conferencing.
However his mind is as sharp as ever, his eyes have a mischievous sparkle and maintain a focused concentration - one of them through his signature monocle - as we reflected on his life, for which he has an infectious zest.
"I remember the end of the war, and thinking we've WON the war. Now I have watched them lose the peace. Years spent sucking up to the same people. There can never have been such a dearth of statesmen such as there is now. If I was twenty years younger I would be fighting for a parliamentary seat - for UKIP. Not now though, I'm afraid.”
“Of course you could!” I countered.
“An old coot in a wheelchair? No way!” His eyes sparkled again.
As I shook his hand – the very same hand that has shaken those of Orville Wright, Neil Armstrong and accompanied Albert Einstein on piano as he played his
violin - I realised I had been in the company of someone who has touched us all - as a nation - and brought space into our living rooms.
“Good luck with your walk and all success to you”.
Portsea to Portsmouth (7 miles this leg - 95 miles in total) After my morning with Sir Patrick, I headed by car back with my ever-supportive girlfriend and occasional walking companion Philippa, to Southsea Marina where I left off on March 29th. Along the beach, we passed the nudists enjoying the April sunshine. Soaring 170 metres above Portsmouth Harbour, the Spinnaker Tower beckoned us from its foundations set in Gunwharf Quays, a modern icon in an historic setting. Today, this multi-million pound development, with its designer shops, cosmopolitan bars and restaurants balanced well, I thought, with this historic city.
Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Dockyard founded by Henry VIII in 1540 and steeped in maritime history. It is England’s most important naval base today. Nearby, Henry VIII’s warship ‘Mary Rose’ lay under wraps whilst her new viewing dock was being prepared, and Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory awaited our arrival on the following day. HMS Warrior was on show too, the world’s most advanced warship… when it was first launched in 1860.
Settling in to our modern hotel in the centre of Gunwharf Quay (and grateful for the special discount they had offered us), we peered out of the window across the sunlit plaza below. For a moment we could have been in any modern city, in any tourist destination, anywhere in the world.
Saturday 10th April 2010 (Portsmouth to Lee-on-Solent - 7 miles this leg - 102 miles in total) Chief Petty Office Allan Mills and Able Seaman Kelly Stone welcomed us aboard HMS Victory on yet another sunny morning.
Designed by Sir Thomas Slade, the Victory was launched in 1765 and entered her 34 years of service in 1778. She is 226 feet in length, armed with 114 guns, and required up to 850 crew and about 26 miles of rope to sail her.
In 1805, she sailed into the infamous battle of Trafalgar under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy. Lord Nelson was on board to oversee this campaign against a combined enemy fleet of French and Spanish warships. The resulting victory endured the loss of Lord Nelson, fatally wounded by a French marksman. The very spot where he fell is marked by a plaque on the quarter deck.
In 1812 the Victory retired from frontline duty and anchored in Portsmouth Harbour. For the next 110 years she remained there fulfilling a combination of practical and ceremonial roles. In 1922, amid fears for her continued survival, she was moved into the Royal Naval Dockyard and placed in dry dock and work began on restoring her to 'fighting' 1805 condition. This work continues today and members of the public can explore her six decks, crouch under her incredibly low ‘overheads’ (ceilings) and imagine how life on board must have been.
For someone in CPO Allan Mills’ position, you don’t need
to imagine too hard. Like many others before him, he has got used to the noise
of the original sailors moving around her at night as he lives on board the
Victory. He regularly hears footsteps on the decks, and is adamant that he has
also felt a hand on his shoulder whilst reading. I believe him.
From the decks of this historical ship, we continued on the path that is the “Solent Way”. A short ferry crossing to Gosport took us through this relatively narrow section of the harbour. Yachts, ships and hovercraft made their own voyages to both near and far-flung shores.
As we made our way along the shoreline towards Lee-on-Solent, my recently acquired publicity panels from my friends at “Branded UK Ltd” were starting to grab people’s attention. Attached to the front and back of my rucksack, I had almost forgotten they were there, but as more and more people were coming up to me and asking me about my walk and dropping coins in the box, I appreciated the interest they were generating. As we chatted I was reminded of how many of us are affected in some way by Alzheimer’s or Dementia.
1 in 13 of us will contract some form of Dementia by the time we are 65. If we reach 80 (and more of us are likely to do so than ever before), that figure is significantly reduced to 1 in 3.
Angela works in a nursing home specialising in Dementia care. She values very highly the limited amount of spare time she has, and spends much of it walking along the coast, “re-charging her batteries, enjoying the space beside the sea”.
“Without the break, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Whether you are a professional carer, or having to look after a loved-one for instance, it is so easy to feel isolated. It’s vital that we can extract ourselves from the confines of a caring role and be in a ‘normal’ environment on a regular basis. So often it is the carers who need looking after, not just the patients for whom
they are providing the care.”
I explained to her that a chunk of the money we were raising for The Alzheimer’s Society would be used for that very purpose, such is the appreciation and importance attached to her role as a carer.
As we reached Lee-on-Solent, I eyed up the superb
collection of deflated hovercrafts through the closed gate which included the largest, the oldest and the quite unusual.
To cheer myself up after waving Philippa off on a bus back home, I looked forward to a curry and comfortable bed. I got both.
Sunday 11th April 2010 (Lee-on-Solent to Southampton - 16 miles this leg - 118 miles in total) “How long will this fabulous weather continue?” I exclaimed on my amble to Hamble. At Warsash I took the pink ferry from the pink ferry shelter, across the Hamble River to Hamble-le-Rice, now mostly referred to simply as le Rice. It is famous as a yachting centre. I cut through Hamble Common and enjoyed the extensive view across Southampton Water towards the city, ships already visible in the distant docks.
Past the oil terminal with only the merest hint of oil in the air, Royal Victoria Country Park next and the remains of the country’s first purpose-built military hospital.
The city of Southampton started to unveil itself. Powered boats, yachts and dinghies were out in this glorious weather. One boat stood out in particular: P&O’s new addition, The Azura, was preparing herself for its maiden voyage on the following day.
As I approached the Itchen Bridge, I thought of the many golden days I have spent fishing for and photographing its resident trout many miles up river. In spite of the Samaritan’s signs, I was in a happy mood and crossed to the other side, stopping only to wave at two tugs and a yacht passing 100 feet below me.
I was simply amazed at people’s generosity on my way into the centre. A gentleman, who I figured must live on the streets, asked me about the walk and then placed a donation in the box. Need I say anything, really?
I spent my night in a comfortable and safe room, and started the following day with a cooked breakfast. I was grateful.
Monday 12th April 2010
At 8.28 the following Monday morning I told Julian Clegg and the listeners of his BBC Radio Solent breakfast show about my walk. I am now officially signed up as a “Julian’s Person” and through his show, I hope that I will be able to update his listeners on my progress as I head westwards towards Bournemouth and beyond. All support and encouragement will be gratefully shared! Thank you Julian and the team for making my visit so
enjoyable. Keep listening…
Friday 23rd April 2010 (Southampton to Beaulieu - 9 miles this leg - 127 miles in total) I took the train down to Southampton and popped by BBC Radio Solent’s offices to let them know I was back on the trail. After a short ferry crossing across Southampton Water in the clear morning sun, past tug-towed container ships and
speeding passenger catamarans, I stepped onto Hythe Pier (the seventh longest in England and complete with its own passenger train service). I was greeted by Andrew Denyer, a cameraman, a sound man, a walking enthusiast and excellent company. After a coffee, we found a place to park Andrew’s car for the day: the local police station. Thank you officers.
Forced to skirt round the oil and gas terminals near Fawley, we followed the Solent Way across Beaulieu Heath... After a pub lunch (a challenging day this) we reached the beautiful Beaulieu at the head of the river. In the most tranquil and uncoastal of settings, I talked to Andrew’s camera about my walk before he headed back to release his car from custody. I spent the night in a mill providing wonderful accommodation, overlooking the river to one side, and a lake on the other.
Saturday 24th April 2010 (Beaulieu to Milford-on-Sea - 23 miles this leg - 150 miles in total) Our early summer continued, with glorious blue skies covering my progress
along the misty morning wooded banks of the Beaulieu River to Bucklers Hard. The site of a former shipbuilding centre, two warships for Lord Nelson’s fleet were built here, “Agamemnon” in 1781 and “Euryalus” in 1803. What a perfect film-like setting. A brief visit to the chapel before continuing on the Solent Way, much of which kept me to the hard tarmac of the local country lanes.
I passed fields of brilliant yellow rape seed. Then horses and cows as they relaxed in the lanes, as is their right in the New Forest National Park. I hear pigs roam free as well, but saw none today. On the outskirts of Lymington, I couldn’t believe the cheek of a local sign warning motorists that otters cross the road here: As a regularly unsuccessful wildlife photographer, I have spent days shivering by the rivers of Dartmoor at dawn and dusk trying to photograph these elusive creatures. Now I knew where to come! Perhaps I would be able to photograph them from the comfort of my car!
I enjoyed a pasty by the town quay before heading up the cobbled Georgian High Street to visit friends at John D Wood & Co. in their Lymington office. Then along the coast through the Keyhaven and Pennington Marshes Nature Reserve. Formerly an area which provided one tenth of Britain’s salt, I watched the “terns” diving into the water – the same birds I believe that are the symbol of the Solent Way. Onwards to the pebbly spit of Hurst Beach. At the end of this promontory sits Hurst Castle. Built by Henry VIII, it is only a mile from the Isle of Wight, and to the west, The Needles caught the evening sun’s farewell. It shared a tranquil sunset with a pair of cronking castle-based ravens, and the soothing waves as they hushed the pebbles. I lingered, reflected, reviewed the coastline to the east and have to say, felt very satisfied.
Sunday 25th April 2010 (Milford-on-Sea to Bournemouth - 16 miles this leg - 166 miles in total) From Milford on Sea, I set off the next morning towards Christchurch and
along its Bay. Groynes galore and happy dogs playing with balls thrown by their owners. My floppy hat and sunglasses protected me from the sun, and the Alzheimer’s Society panels attached to my rucksack and rattling collection box brought in the inquiries, chats and donations. Coins and now a couple of notes were being deposited. Thank you all.
Although sunny, a chilly wind curtailed the coastal flight of a paraglider. I chatted with his colleagues on the cliff near Barton on Sea. Joe was a photographer, and took his camera with him paragliding thousands of meters into the sky over the Himalayas. Today, however, the conditions along this stretch of Hampshire coastline thwarted him. I noticed the coast was growing more cliffs, albeit that they were eroding and collapsing into the sea in places.
Along the lovely beach to Christchurch, and at Mudeford’s quay, a long line of parents with their children, fishing for crabs. A short hop by a ferry - the smooth running of which was not affected by ash from an Icelandic volcano - across the mouth of the Avon took me to Hengistbury Head. Huts and beach houses, relaxed coastal living and material for home-style magazines.
Bournemouth beckoned me and my complaining feet. Beautiful beaches under clear blue skies. The beaches were now covered in beautiful fine sand. These were proper sand-in-your-eye holiday beaches, complete with lifeguard posts and volley ball nets. Happy, smiling dogs; happy smiling owners; a happy and smiling place. I was happy and smiling.
Bournemouth welcomed me. In fact, it welcomed us
Monday 26th April 2010 (Bournemouth to Poole Harbour - 5 miles this leg - 171 miles in total) The sun is always shining, and the sea so turquoise! So it continued along
the beautiful beach towards Poole. Reaching Sandbanks, I appreciated why this strip of shoreline commanded luxury resort prices. In the right house, in the right position, at the right time, on the right day, you could be believe you were on holiday in… Sandbanks. On this April day, I caught a glimpse of what made this slice of our coastline so special, and had an inkling as to the magic it might work on a wealthy British resident and his financial facilities.
I stood on North Haven Point and surveyed my future. A sign pointing west.
It said: “South West Coast Path”.
An update on my itinerary will follow in the next few days. I hope you will come and join me.