Harbour - Spithead

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By George Fratton

Harbour-Spithead A backwater la Alan Whickeresque

For once, the sun deck of the Portsmouth-Fishbourne car ferry lived up to its name and afforded a superb vantage point for great pix of Pompeian exuberance and heritage. The masts of HMS Victory and HMS Warrior complement the rising aspirations of residential and retail splendour of the Gunwharf, along with the chip-oil-and-vinegar-scented atmosphere of Clarence Pier. Having glided sedately past the 16th century defences of Old Portsmouth and the occasional waving individual on the Round Tower, the ferry swings south west to afford a superb view of the harbour mouth. The proud, extrovert Portsmouth side contrasts with staid Gosport with its not-too futuristic Millennium Bridge over Forton Lake and the throngs of masts in Haslar Marina. Further north in the creek, HMS Fearless lies at anchor as a monument to built-in obsolescence. While curious visitors peer through the gunports of the Sally Port, no one watches marine traffic through the gunports of Fort Blockhouse on the eastern extremity of the Gosport peninsula. Heading towards Horse Sand Fort mid-Spithead, the ferry flirts with Gosport’s voluptuously curved southwestern coastline. However, the side walls of Haslar cottages and the mysterious edifices of the ominously named Immigrant Removal Centre communicate nothing to the observer on the sundeck.

Since the last moat of the Gosport Lines was filled in, rumours were periodically rife about ‘development’ of Stokes Bay and Gilkicker. Many residents said ‘development’ would be synonymous with destruction of local charm. During the 60s and 70s, respondents warily told earnest researchers with clipboards that they would ‘like somewhere where they could get a nice cuppa tea’ on the bay. They were wary because their response could be deliberately distorted and relayed to ‘developers’ as a plea for another Clarence Pier on Gosport’s beach. Even so, so far, so good. The smell of freshly cut grass and the alternation between burnt and new gorse pervades the atmosphere north of Gilkicker. Golfers need not worry about being distracted by amplified rap music from a garishly lit fairground by the sea. Not even the lake that forms a challenge to the most determined golfer boasts of pedalos or mock indian canoes. No one plays at Pocahontas on the gentle ripples. Fort Monkton may play host to aspiring James Bonds – according to local speculation – and the observers atop Fort Gilkicker gaze through fine-ground lenses across Spithead, but the peninsula reveals few of its secrets to the passer-by on the car ferry bound for Fishbourne.

 However, there were one or two attempts to have Gosport rank with prestigious resorts due south of London and even deserve the epithet ‘regis’ as did Bognor in the early 19th century. Robert Cruikshank designed the Crescent in the 1830s “to make Stokes Bay comparable with Brighton”, but it was not to be. During the 1860s, it was possible to travel by rail direct from London Waterloo to Stokes Bay, but the place in the sun did not last long. When Portsmouth acquired its connection with the capital, the ascent of Gosport was cut short.

 The ferry passes Gilkicker Point, giving a view of Stokes Bay, while the opulent dwellings with values in six digits and prices in seven, look disdainfully out across to Ryde and Quarr Abbey. St Mary’s Church, Alverstoke, stands as a spiritual sentry over the village that was recorded in the Doomsday Book. Like the entry in the record compiled by order of William I (aka ‘the Bastard’ before his army won the day and a country at Hastings in 1066), the estate of the Lady Alwara is as unobtrusive as the community that bears a phonetically altered variant of her name. By the way, ‘stoke’ is the modern form of the Anglo-Saxon stōc, which – prosaically – signifies ‘place’.

Having tired of flirting with the unattainable peninsula, the ferry aims more directly for Fishbourne, leaving the gorse-lined shingle pathways between Stokes Bay and Gilkicker. However, the visitor might be forgiven for overlooking the unsung hero status of Gosport. Stokes Bay was one of the muster points for the Normandy landings in late May 1944. The author’s father, who lived in Frater Terrace, Fareham Road, at the time, recalled the tar trucks that were set alight to make smokescreens to deter possible bombardment by the Luftwaffe in the event that the German military realised that the materiel gathered at Dover was made of cardboard. No one might guess that Hardway, with a few remnants of ‘chocolate block’ concrete down the shore, was another muster point for landing craft and military vehicles and personnel. A mile inland along Military Road lies Fort Grange, which housed operation rooms, the like of which were featured in films made in British studios during part two of the Great War. If there is a tense that could sum up Gosport, it would be ‘was going to be’ – but it never happened. It was the resort that never was. And what is so wrong about that? If you want the garish lights and all the fun of the fair, go to Clarence Pier. It is indeed ‘shorter by water’, but your money will be even shorter after a few rides and soft drinks. Forton Lake may be a backwater, but so what? Contemplating the traffic jam on the A32 towards Fareham, or letting one’s mind wander as one stares at the Isle of Wight coastline from the bay – which would you prefer?    

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