Hurst Spit: New Forest Walk Summary
- Start / Finish: The length of the spit that stretches south into the Solent from Saltgrass Lane in Keyhaven to Hurst Castle.
- Distance: 1.5 miles each way.
- Parking: Free road parking on Saltgrass Lane.
- Defining Features: Spectacular seascape views of the Solent and Needles and a Tudor castle to visit.
- Pros: Great views, flat all the way and a castle at the end; and the option of a ferry ride back for the weak and weary.
- Cons: Can be very windy & exposed to the elements (some see this as a pro), and hard going on shingle.
The walk up Hurst Spit is one of my favourites. This is a source of some bemusement to the rest of my family. After all, the surface of the spit is shingle all the way, so it’s quite hard going, and it’s a good 1.5 mile trudge. It’s an artificially bolstered spit, so it can’t be described as a natural formation any more; if it had been left to its own devices it would probably be largely washed away by now leaving the castle as a derelict island at the end. And unless you keep to the slightly harder (and mostly invisible) well-trodden path, the going is even harder.
Have I talked you out of it yet? I hope not. As JFK said about going to the moon, we don’t do it because it’s easy; we do it because it’s hard. And the scenery, whilst not perhaps as spectacular as a lunar sunrise, is amazing – and invigorating.
You can make the walk as long as you like by starting further up the coast at Milford, or by approaching via the Solent Way from Lymington; but we usually make it a little easier on ourselves by parking at the end of Saltgrass Lane in Keyhaven, crossing the old wooden bridge past the ever-present crabbing children, and up the steep shingle rise to the top of the bank.
A couple of words of warning though; there are two things to watch out for when parking on the road: traffic wardens and (almost as unstoppable), the tide. The former are easily avoided by keeping clear of the yellow lines, and the latter by ensuring that you’re not parking during the rise of a spring tide. Whilst it won’t wash your car away, you’ll certainly get wet feet if you judge it wrong – just as I did last time I was there.
So on with the walk. After summiting the small but surprisingly steep hill that leads to the top of the spit you’ll be presented with quite a view. To the west is Milford and Christchurch Bay leading down to Bournemouth and Poole. These can be seen over the top of the ‘rock armour’, great blocks of bluish-grey, coarsely crystalline larvikite rock from Norway, much of which was brought in to bolster the spit along with shingle from the Shingles Bank of the Needles after the last potential beach-flattening crisis in 1989. In high winds this can be a spectacular place to stand, and in very high winds you’ll struggle to stand at all.
The Needles and Shingles Bank
To the south lie the unmistakable Needles rocks and Needles lighthouse, standing guard off the western end of the Isle of Wight. If you look carefully (and it’s rare now not to be able see this), between the Needles and Hurst Spit you should be able to make out the dark shape of the Shingles Bank, with waves breaking over it, an aptly named bank of shingle(!) upon which many a day sailor has got into serious trouble. You’ll be able to make this out more clearly as you progress along the spit.
To the east you’ll see the Isle of Wight and the Western Solent over a swathe of salt marshes and Keyhaven lake. You might even be able to make out Spinnaker Tower at Portsmouth. A the end of the spit you’ll see, of course, Hurst Castle itself, the destination.
Windsurfing and Kite Surfing
As you walk towards it, to the left is Keyhaven Lake where I learned to windsurf quite a few years ago. there used to be a local chap with a camper van and a trailer full of windsurfing boards that he’d hire out when enough water was in the lake. It was a great (if a little pungent) place to learn; nicely sheltered from the sea cashing on the other side of the spit, but with brisk south-westerly to get you shifting. Today you’re much more likely to see kite surfers here, and it looks like they have even more fun.
Further up the water on the Keyhaven side, the river moorings begin, and a fleet of 20-30 foot yachts line the lake (more of a river by now). There are also posts along the spit that give you an idea of how far you’ve come.
Hurst Castle and Ferry
Hurst Castle lies sprawled out in the distance, not really appearing to get any closer until you get about half way. By this point (if you can make it out amongst the myriad boats moored all the way up to Keyhaven itself) you may be able to spot the little Hurst Castle Ferry picking its way through the moorings. This is the bribe that I’m often obliged to dangle in front of the kids in order to persuade them to make it all the way there! The ferry docks right in from of the castle, so for those unable or unwilling to make it on foot, it’s a very pleasant alternative means of transport.
The closer to the castle you get, the more you’re struck by its size; it’s not very tall, but extremely long and sprawling thanks to the additional 19th and 20th Century fortifications added to Henry VIII’s original keep. This original part of the castle was built in 1544 as part of a network of coastal defences.
Hurst Castle and the Needles Passage
On our final approach to the castle my son regularly challenges me to a race to see who can touch the wall first; needless to say he always wins. Before the castle itself you’ll come across large weather-worn red brick blocks, made smooth and shapely over the years by exposure to the prevailing south-westerly wind and accompanying salt, the relics of 19th century gun emplacements.
At this stage you have a few options. You could circumnavigate the castle itself; it’s possible to walk all the way around, although you’ll need to climb over a few of the groynes. If you take this route (depending on the state of the tide) you’ll be able to see how viciously powerful the currents are between the end of the spit and Fort Albert on the opposite Isle of Wight shore. This is a real bottleneck, and any yachts passing through either fly with the tide, or stand still against it. This is also one of the best vantage points to watch the annual Round the Island Race when literally thousands of yachts pass out of the Western Solent through the Needles Passage early on a June morning.
Alternatively you could continue walking the spit to its conclusion, passing the 1867 Hurst Lighthouse and it’s distinctive low outhouses. The spit curves completely around and by the time you reach the end you’ll be facing Keyhaven across the water and salt marshes. You could also enter the castle itself; it’s looked after by English Heritage and the Friends of Hurst Castle and is open all year round. It’s possible to visit the original keep as well as the more recent additions. I find the WW2 barracks and garrison theatre to be quite emotive; there is a sense here and there of things being left in a hurry, to be claimed by the elements. Old artillery shells and guns from the First World War stand alongside enamel baths and billets from the Second.
The Way Back
Once you’ve visited, picnicked, walked and admired the views you can either opt for a trip to Keyhaven on the Hurst Ferry, or a walk back the way you came. I like to walk back, and if the family has chosen the ferry, depending on its leaving time, I can sometimes beat them back if I keep up a brisk pace. To save them the walk from Keyhaven Quay back to the spit I try to make it to the car and drive around to meet them as they arrive; I’ve managed to beat them a couple of times, but even if I don’t, the sense of achievement is all mine!