August 12, 2021
Birders with long lenses congregate on the saltmarshes that run from Lymington to Milford-on-Sea. The Solent way follows the low-lying coast facing Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight. The Yarmouth ferries, looking like black gondolas carrying white Indian temples, criss-cross the water. Cattle wade with egrets and hundreds of geese in the shallow lagoons. In July the sea-fringe was embroidered with a dozen different flowers. The sea is in a trance, the surface is a mirror for the flowers.
Purple sea lavender forms rafts in the shallows between low-and-high-water marks. Its intricate flowers rise above salad-green leaves. Samphire covers the sea-washed flats, and Golden Samphire, bold upright tufts breaking into yellow flowers, the drier higher ground. Yarrow and wild carrot dot it with white, ragwort, tall and bushy, and bristly ox-tongue with yellow, teasel and low-lying rugosa roses with pale purple.
I know this path, and these marshes, in all seasons. In summer the deep channel is crowded with yachts at their moorings. The mystery is the owners of these expensive conveyances who seem never to sail them. They sit all summer, moving only with the tides. In winter there is no colour except in the sky, with lingering sunsets followed by the silver moon-track across the Solent and the red blinking of the lighthouse at the Needles.
In the 1830s Colonel Peter Hawker, a veteran of the Peninsular War, made wild-fowling here an industry, going out with his punt-gun at dawn, he and his man pushing the punt through the mud up to their waists, and recording killing 200 wigeon with a single blast of his blunderbuss. His diaries make good reading, not just about shooting; he invented a new method of teaching the piano, and travelled to Paris to teach. Wigeon? You’d be lucky to see twenty today.