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Wind is tearing like a banker destroying evidence and although the rain is holding off for now, it’s never far away, cradled precariously in voluminous steel grey cloud pantaloons ready to fall at any moment. Ladies, gentlemen and the rest of us, welcome to the British summer.
We are deep in the New Forest, driven by new Lost Promenade friend Cass and our first stop is Lymington on the Hampshire coast, a town that thinks it’s special, but is strangely featureless. Dominated by boating bores and with not much to distinguish it from anywhere else, it does at least have lots of charity, antique and bric-a-brac shops (although the interesting pickings to be found in them are pretty sparse, dominated by generic pastel-covered, twirly-fonted, killing-spree-inducing chicklit and the limp floral hand-me-downs of Middle England). However, there is an interesting retro shop which specialises in mid-century transport-related collectables, a refreshing change from the usual girlie vintage shops. Printed ephemera with titles like ‘Motor Car Lubrication Simply Explained: Running as Smoothly as a Ball’ and old signage, including one that would surely be in demand amongst sex offenders: ‘Mine’s a Minor’. The shop’s owner talks about the “equinox weather we’re having” and demonstrates a nifty vintage Kodak duffel bag that also doubles as an inflatable float; “The air is free. ” He directs us to the vintage cameras on sale: “Film photography is fashionable at the moment – people like low-quality flukey pictures”.
We continue on to a church hall craft fair and unlike the usual modern craft fair disappointment, this one is an old-school affair. No owl cushions, no cupcakes; instead there are dolls knitted by elderly ladies, and proper fairy cakes, just like it should be. One stall holder has crocheted a doll labelled ‘Ellie (Good Witch) and Her Bag of Good Wishes’. “I once knitted a bad witch with a wart on her nose but I prefer doing good witches” says her creator.
We also look at a shop plastered with officious signs, that claims to be the rudest one in Britain – “If you can’t leave these books tidy then leave them alone”, “Don’t be beaky”etc. However the most endearing junk shop in town is called Julie’s. “Please buy something, no-one else has today” Julie pleads, and so we duly oblige.
There is a market running the length of the high street. Nothing exciting for sale, however but our interest is held by a flower stall trader whose shout of “Any bucket on the floor for a fiver”, sounds suspiciously like “Fuck it on the floor for a fiver”. There is also another craft fair, this one in a Masonic hall, and featuring yet more old-style crafts. Amongst them is a stall of extra-realistic “reborn” baby dolls, laid out in satin layettes like the dead children of Victorian post-mortem photography. The artist’s website talks of “Genesis heat paint, kid mohair…babies filled with fibre fill, baby fat and glass beads to wieght them (sic)”.
We finish off at a stall run by “The Bag Lady” and Cass and Nhung both buy totes (Nhung’s has horses on, Cass’s has chickens) and try to persuade Tamsin into getting a bunny rabbit one, but she holds firm against their peer pressure.
Up till now Lymington hasn’t felt very seasidey at all, but near the harbour it starts to get a bit more so. However the boaty bit is dull, too similar to other boaty bits of towns we’ve visited to warrant much exploration. We stop for lunch at a hugely overpriced tearoom (£6 for a toastie, £7.50 for omelette and chips), then at the other end of the scale, top it off with a bargainous 50p New Forest ice cream from a street stall.
We’re done with Lymington so we drive on, passing through Milford-On-Sea in search of Hurst Castle. Gigantic globs of sea foam are blown onto the promenade, like escapees from an ogre’s snow globe, whirling around as a group of pensioners stoically carry on a game of crown green bowls buffeted by the cranky winds. No sign of the castle though.
We travel further along the coast in search of another castle when Nhung screams “STOP!” She’s spotted industrial installations in the distance, a sight always beloved of the Lost Prom. Eventually we end up in a place called Calshot, which is fringed in multicoloured beach huts and cavernous aircraft hangars and features an actual castle – a Napoleonic fort, at first a bit small and disappointing, but up close, quite sweet. It has a moat at any rate. There is also a silent coastguard tower and a forest of boat masts, jangling in the wind like a ferocious carillon. Across the harbour lies a metallic labyrinth of oil refineries and chimneys. The sky is an intense grey with a glowing light behind the clouds and if feels like the edge of a nuclear winter. It’s June and we’re in Hampshire, but it could be Chernobyl. It seems a long way from the stolid low-rises of Lymington. The Lost Promenade knows which view they prefer.
Otter nursery (we see it en route and imagine a baby otter crèche but it turns out to just be a garden centre)
Milford-On-Sea (closed by the time we reach it, so we only drive through)
£25 from Cass when she incurs a parking ticket due to the pay-and-display voucher slipping from view
Balance in the high winds
Yellow Kodak duffel bag-cum-float
Set of 1970s bird print place mats (from Julie’s)
2 handmade tote bags – one with horses on it, one with chickens on it
Brideshead Revisited (Nhung has always meant to read it)
A book called ‘Hampshire Days’
Crochet flower brooch
Pink knitted pig keyring
2 books about graphic design
A 1970s German Barbie doll promotional leaflet
Relief that we live in Sussex not Hampshire
In the late 1970s, a certain Nhung Dang escaped with her family from Vietnam via boat. Many Vietnamese refugees didn’t survive this journey, which numbered brutal Thai pirates as well as storms and illness amongst its dangers. But even as a baby, no sucker would dare mess with the Nhungsta, and eventually she and her family ended this chapter in the un-exotic red-brick suburbs of industrial estate-clogged Burgess Hill, Sussex. Their first taste of England however, was on a military base on a small peninsula off Chichester Harbour, called Thorney Island.
The Lost Prom, once again driven by honorary prommer, Lindsey, decided to visit Thorney Island , intrigued by its military status, and also attracted by its proximity to Hayling Island, a seaside resort in Hampshire. However, for Nhung, it was a more personal journey. Perhaps it would trigger some recollections? Perhaps it would just lead to muddy feet. But it was definitely worth a visit to find out.
The first problem was finding the island. We drove around for a bit before ending up at a barracks, the entrance manned by a severely cross-eyed guard. It felt like we’d suddenly slipped into a strange slowed-down dream and we got all tongue-tied. We were actually already on the island but hadn’t realised so when Lindsey said, “How do you get to Thorney Island?”, he looked confused. A flustered Tamsin chipped in, “We want to walk round Thorney Island. It’s an island. Called Thorney Island.” No shit.
As Thorney is still a working military base, access to the southern part is limited to a coastal footpath. To enter, you sign in at a checkpoint, giving your name and address and a mobile number. Unfortunately though, the dramatic James Bond-like entrance is the most exciting thing about Thorney. As we wend our way along the path, we realise it’s actually pretty dull. We see mudflats, we see grass, we see sandbags shoring up the seawall. And that’s about it. No sinister-looking buildings crammed with alien experiments, no cutting-edge new weapons making exciting whirring noises, no Smoking Man, no smoking guns. Nhung searches her mind for feelings or memories of the past, but there’s nothing here to encourage them. “I don’t know what I should be feeling”, she says. We’re reduced to trying to identify the different types of animal droppings (with Nhung as head poo monitor) and playing a game where you shout out two unrelated words for a band name and then think up a title for their first single. Our band is Gobshite Treacle. A sign saying ‘Slippery Slipway’ gives us the record title.
We come to the 12th Century St Nicholas Church. We can hear people singing hymns inside and the churchyard is full of neatly regimented lines of soldier’s graves, including some graves of Germans. All three of us really need a wee, but we daren’t go behind the bushes in case we’re caught on a spycam. We decide to cut our losses and continue to Hayling Island.
Hayling, like Thorney, is known for its variety of sea birds, but, as Lindsey says, “You can fuck off with your nature, Hayling Island.” As we drive across it, not a single interesting sight jumps out at us, until we reach Beachlands Amusement Park at the very tip of the island. We can almost taste the grease in the air from chips frying. So we drop into the Beachlands Cafe for egg and chips and a cup of tea, pausing only to marvel at a sign that says ‘No Barefeet Dogs’.
Fully fed, we’re tempted by a £1.50 lucky bag from a windswept looking stall. If you’re planning to go to Hayling and want a suprise, look away now. If not, here’s what a Hayling Lucky Bag contains: an Ice Age 3 credit card torch, 2 Shrek pencil tops, a crocodile shaped staple gun and, the pick of the bunch; a nodding dog with its head stuck on upside down and mould on its neck. The dog wears a gold medallion and is rabid-looking. The Lost Prom force poor Lindsey to keep it, treasure it and display it in her car.
We wander around the amusement park. There’s a tumbledown rollercoaster that makes a satisfying clattering sound, a waltzer with a cannibalism theme and a stuffed parrot that lays plastic eggs and squawks, “I like the sound of money”. Nhung gets an egg. It contains a temporary tattoo of the recently disgraced England football team.
We take the two mile return trip on Hayling Seaside Railway, a light railway run by volunteers. It’s a charming little train, with a lovely smell of engine oil and carriages with names like Marilyn and Michelle. During the journey, Lindsey absent-mindedly stares too long at a man who winks at her in a mildly threatening manner.
Back at Beachlands, we play a round of ‘Adventure Golf’ (one better than crazy golf!). Nhung wins. Tamsin comes last and loses a ball in the water. We snigger childishly at a sign that says ‘Skid Risk’, and then we go home.
Maybe we shouldn’t have pooh-poohed the nature stuff, because that apart, there really isn’t much to get excited about on Hayling or Thorney Islands. They both have the feel of places you’d only end up by accident, places you leave as soon as you’re able, places you only go to die. The air is thick with chip fat and a humdrum desolation.
Nhung’s sunglasses (later found)
“Lucky” Bag containing a nodding dog
Mini hairbrush mirror thing
Hayling Railway address book
Hayling Railway keyring
Fake tattoo in a plastic egg