A place of contrasts

View of Old Portsmouth from the Millennium Promonade, Southsea.
View of Old Portsmouth from the Millennium Promonade, Southsea.
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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From interesting views to amusements, memorials to modern towers, Portsmouth’s seafront has variety. RACHEL JONES takes a look at our fascinating stretch of coast.

It’s easy to take the waterfront at Southsea and Old Portsmouth for granted. But a point at the start of the Millennium Promenade reveals exactly why it’s something special.

Face inland and layer upon layer of history reveals itself. Straight ahead is the 13th century Garrison Church with the roofs of Old Portsmouth and the tower of the Anglican Cathedral rising behind it. And stretching up to the sky beyond those are the mighty modern structures of the Spinnaker and Lipstick towers.

Face out to the busy surrounding waters and modern ships and ferries sail past that 15th century fortress the Square Tower, standing on the shore as if still ready to defend the harbour.

From the quiet stretches of beach at Eastney to the bustle of Gunwharf Quays, our waterfront is certainly a place of contrasts.

And a walk or drive along Portsmouth’s stretch of coast isn’t simply a trip in miles, it’s a journey through the centuries.

Start at edge of Portsea island and look out across the mouth of wildlife-rich Langstone Harbour and the history and signs of a busy working coastline reveal themselves immediately.

Fishing boats sit on the shore beneath the croaking, swooping gulls or bob around in the mizzle out at sea.

The strange structure of a Mulberry harbour sits in the water not far from the shore. These temporary floating harbours were developed in the Second World War for the D-Day landings. This is the remains of one of the sections which was cracked and never used.

On the shore, boat owners work on their vessels and the RNLI lifeboat station stands as a quiet and comforting presence.

Farther along the coast, the beginning of Eastney beach is even quieter on a weekday than the harbour entrance.

The charming pastel beach huts are shut and no owners are in sight. But a few walkers and a lone beachcomber are taking advantage of a little bit of peace and seclusion on the edge of the busy city.

Across the road the attractive and historic Eastney Barracks and the Royal Marines Museum understandably draw a lot of attention. And the memorial statue commemorating those who served in the Falklands is a reminder of the important part the city has played in our military history.

But the beach opposite those historic buildings is also impressive. The tufts of plantlife rising from the shingle may look straggly, but the sea beet, sea radish and other species are incredibly hardy to survive in such an area.

And this beach has been dedicated a conservation area for good reason. The vegetated shingle habitat supports a wide range of wildlife and is internationally rare. It can only be found in North West Europe, New Zealand and Japan.

Heading towards the more built-up areas around South Parade Pier, the sea forts become visible. These imposing 19th century structures are a distinguishing feature of our coastline and show the city’s historically strategic position in the defence of the nation.

On shore there is again an intriguing mixture of history and modern life. The Pyramids music and leisure venue stands near the D-Day Museum and Henry VIII’s Southsea Castle.

The statue of Field Marshal Montgomery looks across the road to the museum, which houses an excellent display and offers information on the D-Day landings and other aspects of the Second World War.

Behind it, the castle is currently receiving plenty of care and attention. One of the most important landmarks on the coast, it was built just before the battle in which Henry’s flagship Mary Rose sank in 1545. The King watched the horror unfold in the Solent from nearby.

The castle’s walls are currently being cleaned for the first time in hundreds of years with special muck-busting methods that don’t harm the historic stonework.

The attractions at the seafront also draw the young and old. Across the road, Southsea Skatepark stands ready to attract young skateboarders and BMXers and on the seafront an elderly couple enjoy chips on a bench with a marvellous view out to sea.

Past the Blue Reef Aquarium, there’s a line of history stretching to the present as war memorials sit in the foreground and the Spinnaker Tower soars in the distance.

Towards the seaside staple of the funfair, the Hovertravel terminal is a reminder that the Isle of Wight is within easy reach and a large array of vessels provide a constant change of scene on the Solent.

Across the Millennium Promenade, historic Old Portsmouth, the Hot Walls and Square and Round Towers form an impressive path into one of the city’s most attractive residential areas – Spice Island.

Nelson stayed in Old Portsmouth before heading off for battle and a couple of centuries later maritime artist William L Wyllie made this his home.

Spice Island was once outside the city gates and centuries ago was an area of boozing, gambling and general debauchery. These days it might be a highly desirable area, with its cobbled streets and ship-watching vantage point, but its colourful history is also a draw, as lively information boards prove.

The houses and pubs are dwarfed when a Brittany ferry sails close by. It must be a startling sight for visitors to Portsmouth staying at local B&Bs.

Gunwharf, facing Point (or Spice Island) across the water, is undoubtedly drawing a larger volume of visitors to the city than ever before.

But just past the busy Hard, the tourist is plunged into one of the most fascinating and famous aspects of Portsmouth’s past.

These are exciting times for The Historic Dockyard. HMS Warrior 1860 recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and last month Prince Harry visited Portsmouth to lay the first stone of the new £35m Mary Rose Museum.

And HMS Victory is receiving a multi-million-pound facelift after it was revealed her structure was in danger of falling apart.

These developments are vital for the Dockyard and the chain of historical, modern and natural attractions that exist right along the city’s shoreline.