First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Keyhaven means ‘the harbour from which cows are shipped,’ and looking south from the little tidal port to the Isle of Wight you can see just how convenient it was for transporting boatloads of cattle across the Solent. The nearest point on Wight is less than a mile away, and the whole southern skyline is filled with the long, humpbacked loom of the island.
Keyhaven Marshes used to be salterns, or salt pans. There were oyster beds here, too. There’s still a flavour of former workings about this gravelly Hampshire shoreline with its black wooden stakes and marsh walls, though nowadays Keyhaven Marshes nature reserve is better known for the thousands of wildfowl and waders it hosts for feeding, breeding and winter roosting.
In a moody half light over land and sea I set off along the Brent Trail, a loop that took me east along the seawall. Something close to a hundred thousand birds see out the winter here. Today, dark-bellied brent geese creaked and grumbled as they fed along the tideline. Sandpipers and turnstones ran among them, light-footed scamperers in counterpoint to the heavy-legged plodding of the brents through the murky wavelets of the Solent.
Softly gleaming creeks threaded their way seaward through broad mudbanks coated with brilliant green algae. A pair of egrets, white as ice, landed on the mud and went stalking after crustaceans on spindly black legs, as intent and sharp-eyed as any fox after a chicken.
I turned inland between waterlogged marshes where shelduck made bold blobs of chestnut and white. Flocks of dark little teal went speeding across the grey sky. Shaggy cows grazed the bramble banks, and a pair of swans came in to land on the water with sawing noises and maximum hubbub.
The return path led back to Keyhaven car park, then on west to where a great shingle spit turned south into the Solent. This was an utterly different world, with waves splashing on the seaward margin of the spit and a view across the windy Solent to the downs of the Isle of Wight, backlit by peach-coloured light over the unseen coast of France.
Out at the end of the spit lay Hurst Castle, an uncompromising block of a fortress. Built by King Henry VIII to ward off the French, reinforced in the 19th century against the threat of the same enemy, it squats like a grey, salt-streaked toad, looking across the Solent to the great blockhouse of Fort Albert on the Wight coast.
Crunching back towards the mainland I pictured King Charles I, pacing this shingle spit daily to while away his period of incarceration at Hurst Castle in the cold Christmastide of 1648. There would be no Icarus wings for poor Charles Stuart to escape upon. The beheading block awaited him in London, and he knelt there for execution before January was out.
Start: Keyhaven car park, near Lymington SO41 0TP (OS ref SZ 307915)
Getting there: Keyhaven is signed from B3058 in Milford-on-Sea (A337, Lymington-Christchurch)
Walk (7¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer OL22): From car park, right across inlet; on far side, right through gates; follow Brent Trail (red arrows). In 1¾ miles, opposite jetty with red and yellow markers, left inland (325924); follow Brent Trail back to car park. Left along road (‘Hurst Castle Ferry’); footpath to sea wall (308913); right (‘Solent Way’) to spit (299908). Left to Hurst Castle, and return.
Lunch: Gun Inn, Keyhaven SO41 0TP (01590-642391)
Accommodation: Mayflower Inn, King’s Saltern Rd, Lymington SO41 3QD (01590-672160, themayflowerlymington.co.uk)