Despite its name, Pagham Harbour is no longer a place where boats come, the entrance to the harbour having silted up years ago. (In fact, I don’t see a single dinghy, yacht or ship of any sort during this stage of my journey today.)
After the death of the harbour, the land was reclaimed as agricultural land in the 19th Century. Then, during a violent storm in 1910, the unforgiving sea broke through the banks and claimed it back. Now this area is an important Nature Reserve.
From here to Selsey Bill is only 3 miles as the crow flies. Of course, not being a crow, my route is much longer. Unable to walk across Pagham Harbour – on account of acres of mud, creeks and rivulets – I am walking around the circumference of this wide area of marshes and mud flats.
The sun is shining and the day is beautiful. At the entrance to the Pagham Harbour, I stop and take photographs of a group of white water birds. There is a swan grooming itself in the sunlight and, close by, a beautiful little egret strides around, busily darting its neck in and out of the water.
Beyond are ducks and some birds with over-large heads wading in the mud. Ah, I recognise these birds – oyster catchers. They seem a little different from the oyster catchers I met on the Chetney Marshes in Kent. Their beaks are paler – not such a bright orange. I wonder if their diet is different here and this has affected their colouration.
Then I see a large bird, dirty grey in colour compared to the brilliant white of the egret and swan. It wades through the water, close to the swan, keeping a careful eye on the water, looking for breakfast. It is a heron. I have never seen one so close up before.
I leave the little creek behind and head into the marshes. I overtake an elderly couple of bird watchers. He has a huge camera with an enormous lens around his neck. She has a tiny pair of binoculars. I ask them if they have seen anything interesting.
‘Not much happening,’ they tell me.
‘There are oyster catchers, swans, an egret and a heron back there,’ I tell them.
‘Oh yes,’ they say, dismissively. ‘Those are all very common here.’
The footpath looks well maintained and I am falsely reassured by the paving slabs and wooden steps over the muddy areas.
Luckily the tide is out, or I could have been defeated by mud and water. I find myself wading through mud and stumbling over uneven, tussocks of grass in the marsh. It seems the sea is gradually reclaiming this area, taking over the ancient footpaths and drowning the trees.
At one point, while slipping a sliding along a muddy section of path, I see debris on the marshy grass around me. I recognise this; here are the tiny carcasses of little white crabs, just as I saw on The Strood, Mersea Island.
It is the tide that washed them up here. I wonder if they were dead on arrival or died later, stranded on the unfamiliar territory, unable to find their way back to the sea?
I come to an area called Sidlesham Quay. There are a collection of houses and a road winding round the apex of the marsh. Here there used to be an old tidal mill. The inland pond (where sea water was stored when the tide came in) is visible on the other side of the road. When the harbour silted up and the land was reclaimed as agricultural land, the tidal mill died. Only some ruins remain, stranded in the mud.
I wonder about the feasibility of resurrecting some of these mills, in this age where we are looking for ‘green’ energy sources. We have built huge off shore wind mills to generate electricity. What about harnessing the power of the tide?
I walk around Sidlesham Quay and rejoin a foot path, taking me along the western side of Pagham Harbour reserve. I pass two ladies, sitting on a bench, painting the scene in watercolour on long, horizontal strips of paper. The sun is warm and the paint is drying too quickly. I stop and chat to them. They tell me there is a way straight across the marsh at low tide. But they don’t know the exact route.
From the footpath, I take photographs of Sidlesham Quay, looking very attractive in the sunshine.
I walk on a raised bank, skirting the edges of the marshy land. The sky is clouding over and the sunlight drifts across the flat landscape. In the distance I can see the sea wall that stretches across the old entrance to the old harbour. I am growing tired of mud and grass and look forward to seeing the sea again.
Later, I walk through an area where the path is surrounded by tall grasses, wild flowers and blackberry bushes.
Suddenly, I notice, there are butterflies everywhere. And big, fat bumble bees. I spend far too long on this section of the walk, taking photographs.
Photographing butterflies is immensely frustrating. Just as you line up a perfect shot – in focus, sun out, no grass stalks in the way – the damn things flit off. But I am pleased that I do manage some good shots.
The path becomes more overgrown and overhung with oak trees. I am surprised to see such large trees with their roots close to salty marshes. I wonder if they will survive.
I meet a man pushing a bicycle along the overgrown path. He has telescopic equipment hung around his neck. He warns me ‘it is a jungle’ ahead. I grow worried that I won’t be able to get back to the shore. We stop and chat. He is a very enthusiastic bird watcher and travels all over the place to pursue his hobby. I ask him how far it is to Selsey Bill, but he seems unsure of where this is.
But I needn’t have worried. I turn a corner, cross an area of flat marshes, climb up a bank and find myself looking out over a long shingle beach.
To my left, I can see back to Bognor. The break in the shoreline is hidden, giving the illusion you could walk, uninterrupted, along the beach. I am now only a mile away from yesterday’s finishing point. I was planning to walk, eastwards, along the beach, to the mouth of the Harbour. But the beach consists of rough shingle and I am both tired and behind schedule.
So I turn right and begin walking towards Selsey. Selsey Bill is the triangle of land you can see jutting down, clearly visible on the weather maps. I am looking forward to arriving here. It seems an important landmark on my walk.
I see more people about, walking and fishing. I would like to walk beside the water’s edge, but the shingle is too difficult and I follow a track along the top of the beach. At one point, the track becomes a ‘private road’. Houses have gardens that stretch across the road and encroach on the shore – private areas of lawn, fenced off with ‘keep off’ signs.
Then I meet the beginning of Selsey’s promenade. And here is a blue plaque and I learn that By the Sleepy Lagoon, the famous theme tune to Desert Island Discs, was inspired by the view across the bay.
The sky has clouded over completely and the light is dull, so the view does not look too appealing today.
The walkway along Selsey shore is narrow and crowded. People are out, walking dogs and with push chairs. Some are in mobility scooters. I find it difficult to adjust to the crowds after my morning of isolated walking.
There is a collection of fishing boats on the shingle and places where you can buy fresh sea food.
Further along, I see a structure I believe to be a pleasure pier. But as I draw nearer , I realise it is a pier for a life boat station. Presumably, in low tide, the pier is necessary for the launch of the boat.
At the foot of the pier, people in scuba diving gear are assembling. They are getting dressed, pulling on their body suits and adjusting equipment. I wonder what they are up to. Is it a lesson? Or a communal dive? Or a special expedition of some sort?
As I near the tip of Selsey Bill, I come across an obstruction to the path – a private house. The tide is high and waves are splashing up around the concrete skirt of the bottom of the property. Maybe, if the tide was out, you could walk around. But now I have no choice. I turn inland and walk through a park area, missing out the tip of Selsey Bill, before arriving back on the shore. I am now on the west side of the triangle.
After a brief stop for lunch (and there are not many pubs or eating places in this area), I continue my walk, heading for East Wittering. Again, I am unable to follow the shore – there is no walkway and the sea is up to the sea wall itself. So, I walk through streets.
The sky is dark ahead. Heavy clouds threaten rain. I walk along the shore, grateful for patches of firm sand among the shingle, trying to speed up.
There is a holiday park ahead with a plantation of static caravans. The sea wall is being eroded and the path along the top of the wall has become too dangerous and is closed. Some of the caravans nearest to the sea look weather-beaten and have boarded up windows. I walk along the road through the holiday park, past a complex of buildings with fluttering flags.
On the other side of the holiday park, the shingle beach stretches ahead towards Bracklesham and East Wittering. There are fishermen on the shingle and people out walking dogs.
I meet a younger woman (late 30s, maybe) with an energetic dog. She tells me she has come here to escape from her family. The dog is a new acquisition. She talks non-stop for about 10 minutes. As a result, I could tell you lots of personal things about her and her intimate family relationships, but I won’t.
Now I walk for miles along a high shingle bank, with dark sea on my left and flat marsh on my right. The going is difficult. I slip and slide on shingle, hunting for stretches where the stones are packed down. There are few features to break the monotony of the walk. I have the illusion I am walking on an endless treadmill of stones. A distant piece of driftwood (a rare sight on this beach) appears of monumental importance as a landmark.
I have plenty of time to think. I wonder if the shingle will ever end. I wonder why I am doing this. I think about the woman I have just left. (The amount of private information she offloaded within a few brief minutes, suggests she was either desperately lonely or hypomanic.)
It is a relief to reach Bracklesham. But also a disappointment. There are private houses backing onto the beach, but no promenade or footpath. Then shingle beach becomes steeper. The stones on the bank become looser and harder to negotiate. I am very tired and slide down the shingle bank to walk near the waves. This was a mistake, the shingle here is even deeper and more tiring than on the bank.
Seeing a carpark ahead, I leave the beach and text my husband. Am I in East Wittering? No, I am in Bracklesham. Don’t I want to walk another mile and meet at the East Wittering car park? No. I don’t. I’ve had enough.
Miles walked = 11 miles
High points = Sidlesham Quay, birds and butterflies
Low points = Selsey Bill and endless shingle