As exotic locations on the Sussex Coast go, the little town of Shoreham-by-Sea isn’t necessarily the first hotspot that springs to mind, sandwiched as it is between a dilapidated cement factory on one side and a power station on the other. But as it’s just a short drive west along the coastline from my hometown, Hove, and given that it came recommended as a walking route by the chaps at Cheeky Guides, who had steered me so entertainingly through the back passages of Brighton, I thought it might be worth trying to expand my mind a little. Turned out I wasn’t the only one. But more of that later.
Since this walk is a not exactly blister-inducing 5 mile round trip, anyone reading this post and the entries preceding it could be forgiven for thinking that I am not taking the preparations for my impending 825km walk entirely seriously. All I can say in my defense is that I’m pretty sure that as I left Shoreham High Street to set out along the banks of the River Adur, I spotted the hull of an Ark being constructed in the boatyard. To say that June has been a bit wet is like saying that King Herod wasn’t terribly good with children. In short, it hasn’t stopped sodding raining (probably for about 40 days and 40 nights, funnily enough). Let’s just hope, as I’ve chosen the more mountainous of the possible Santiago Way routes, that the rain in Spain really does fall mainly on the plain. Otherwise I might as well just swim the channel for charity instead.
All of which also made the sight of numerous boats stranded up and down the length of the Adur riverbed all the more bizarre, especially given the current media frenzy around flash flooding and rivers breaking their banks across the South East. Apparently, however, this is quite normal in coastal estuaries, where flat expanses of wetland are created by ocean tides eroding shorelines and then dropping the sediment in a new location; this buildup of sediment causes the flat, muddy environment (and hence the slightly unimaginative term ‘mudflat’ used to describe it) that is exposed at low tide. All fascinating stuff, but I’m afraid all I could think of when looking at the various immobilised vessels, manned by owners patiently waiting for high tide to release them from the sludge, was that this phenomenon was also the likely origin of that other common phrase: “up shit creek without a paddle”.
Anyway, whilst I’m sure the abundance of wildlife, flora and fauna that are supported by these mudflats would have detained anyone of a more naturalistic bent than myself along the way, things only really started to pick up again for me as the beautifully reconstructed Old Shoreham Tollbridge hove into view. The last of its kind in Sussex, and one of the last of its kind anywhere in the world, the bridge was built towards the end of the eighteenth century, prior to which people and animals were pulled from one side of the estuary to the other perched precariously on a flat raft. Walking across the bridge’s slatted wooden surface, it’s difficult to avoid the sensation of being pulled back in time, or indeed several different moments in time, with the 10th century St. Nicholas’ Church as a backdrop and the towering spires of Lancing College looming Gothically in the foreground.
This riot of architectural styles (and on-going evidence that my prejudices about the likely attractions of my neighbouring town were completely and utterly ill-informed) continued as I crossed the bridge and turned back up the riverbank path to discover the Art Deco terminal building of Shoreham Airport – the oldest licensed airport in the UK, which now caters to privately owned light aircraft.
Given that riverbank path passes directly under, and perilously close to, the runway flightpath, it looks like there’s some great potential for mischievous pilots to faithfully recreate the dive-bombing scene in North by Northwest, casting unsuspecting ramblers in the role of Gregory Peck, although fortunately as I was passing it looked like the rain had put the kibosh on any such aerial antics for the day.
After all this, one might reasonably have thought that I’d had my fair share of aesthetic variety on this walk, but I think it’s fair to say that Shoreham had been keeping a bit of a corker up its sleeve a little further up the riverbank. Having driven through the town many times en route to somewhere else, I knew that there was a houseboat community there, which I’d been meaning to visit for ages, my London life having been bookended by periods of messing about on the river.
My first ever ‘flat’ in London, aged 18, was in fact a cabin under the wheelhouse of a converted Dutch coal barge called Henjo, near Battersea Bridge. I was actually quite lucky to have been allowed to live there at all, given the fact that I decided to first go and introduce myself after a somewhat extended pub lunch just round the corner. Rather pleased with myself for having negotiated the narrow, rickety gangplank onto the roof of the barge, I mistook the urgent waving of a sunbather on an adjacent boat for a friendly greeting, only to find myself crashing through a perspex skylight a split-second later, having just managing to grip its frame on the way down, which left me hanging in the middle of the living room below, looking sheepishly down at the understandably shocked faces of my shipmates-to-be. Not the height of cool, it has to be said.
And my final six years in the city were spent happily aboard the small but perfectly formed purpose-built houseboat Caspian (just visible bottom right of the photo) with Hammersmith Bridge directly outside my back door and one of the finest pubs on that stretch of the river, The Dove, at the end of my footbridge. I also had the good fortune to be a part of what must be a fairly exclusive band of boat dwellers to be moored next to a mature flower garden in the middle of a river. My neighbour’s wife had been talking for some about returning to land to pursue her dual interests of gardening and still-life painting, the latter which she was satisfying at the time by travelling down to Kew Gardens to create watercolours of wild flowers. Desperate not to leave the river and spotting an opportunity to kill three birds with one stone, my neighbour promptly purchased the hull of a huge old tug, filled it with earth, had it landscaped and breathed an audible sigh of relief as his wife began to happily interchange between gardening gloves and easel.
Whilst this horticultural reconstruction was undoubtedly imaginative and consistently drew admiring looks from people passing by on the towpath, the Shoreham houseboats certainly give it a run for its money, and what they might lack in conventional beauty, they more than make up for in sheer eccentricity.
The word ramshackle could have been invented especially to describe this motley collection of craft. Some have been embellished so much as to be almost unrecognisable from the original vessels that traversed the waterways. Others retain more of their original character, although no less unconventional – in particular the 150ft German minesweeper, Fische, that rears up ominously over its less sturdy neighbours. But the undoubted piece de resistance of this armada of oddness is Verda, which looks like it was conceived by Captain Nemo after having spent a week in the company of Timothy Leary.
It was, in fact, designed and built by the wonderfully offbeat artist and archetype of English eccentricity, Hamish McKenzie, Shoreham’s answer to Salvador Dali. Hamish had taken the concept of customisation evident all along the riverbank to an entirely new level, having adorned his boat with any number of not-strictly-nautical adornments, including a passenger coach, a television, a one-armed bandit and the side of a car welded into the hull, not to mention a fire engine as a conservatory.
Both the fire engine and the main boat house pianos, the latter of which I found Hamish perched at as I went to explore further, playing a composition that was one part madrigal and two parts John Martyn. Before I sound too much like tabloid door-stepper, I should explain that my walk serendipitously coincided with Hamish’s launch of his book A Cat ‘o’ Nine Tales (or Ramblings from the Riverbank in 9 installments)* – a photocopied sheath of essays, part autobiography, part philosophical musing and part commentary on the vicissitudes of modern life, weaved though with an environmental theme – for which he had opened the boat to the general public, and the first installment of which I picked up for the princely sum of £1.50, in return for which he also kindly allowed me to take the portrait at the top of this post.
And I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing a photo from the book of Hamish at the centre of the collage above, in which I’ve tried to give at least a flavour of the architectural detail of the dwelling that undoubtedly deserves to be right up there in the annals of alternative lifestyles. I suspect it might also provide an inkling into just one of the sources that Hamish draws his visual inspiration from.
Before the last leg of the return journey to Shoreham, the Cheeky Guide itinerary offers an optional diversion to the remains of a Napoleonic Fort at the far end of Shoreham beach. Somehow it seemed like a fitting end to the walk, partly because it offered the prospect of yet one more architectural artifact to add to my already impressive collection, and partly because I thought a slightly more conventional tourist attraction might represent a gentle return to reality after my recent brush with psychedelia.
Fat chance. As I neared the Fort and heard what sounded suspiciously like cannon fire, I began to wonder whether I had unwittingly ingested something of a fungal nature courtesy of Mr McKenzie, and was about to be thrown headlong into a multi-coloured reconstruction of a nineteenth century French invasion of my own making. Which, in the event, wasn’t actually a million miles away from what happened (although without the swirly bits).
What I had actually stumbled on was an event called Military History Day featuring an impressive roll call of historical militia units (or at least middle-aged men dressed up as them) including The Nothe Artillery Drum Corp, The Fort Cumberland Group, The Trafalgar Drummer, The Slightly More Recent And Decidedly Non-Martial Lancing Community Brass Band, not to mention the members of Dad’s Army and the Boer War veteran (who, weirdly, also looked suspiciously like Clive Dunn) that kindly agreed to pose for the photograph below.
Now maybe all that visual stimulation had clouded my judgement, but by the end of the day I must admit that if I’d been forced to make the choice between spending the weekend devising new ways to turn my home into a fitting tribute to Albert Hoffman, or being barked on a pretend parade ground by a quantity surveyor from Eastbourne in fancy dress, the decision wouldn’t have been too challenging. I suppose it all boils down to how you define surreal.
* For anyone interested in getting hold of the first & further installments of what promises to be, at the very least, a bit of a left-field read, Hamish tells me that he plans to distribute copies of his book at the Transition Stall at Shoreham Farmer’s market (if they let him!).