Langstone Harbour

Posted on 21 Aug 2005

Langstone Harbour is the quiet expanse of alternating water and mud that lies between the bustle of Portsmouth Harbour and the natural beauty of the yachting centre of Chichester Harbour. History has passed it by but it has been intensively studied by scientists and although not favourable for boat moorings, those sailors who use its waters are passionate about maintaining its serenity.

Langstone is a large Harbour (over 18 km2) and at low tide only 1/5 of this is water and travel is restricted to the three main channels. It has 27 km of shoreline. It is therefore difficult to monitor and patrol, particularly with the small staff that can be afforded. It is one of the few Solent Harbours in which the number of moored boats has declined over the last 20 years so that the income of the Harbour Board has decreased, whilst the demands of both maritime and environmental regulations has increased. The original act setting up the Harbour Board recognised the financial problems when it set up the Board to act under the regulations governing local authorities and gave it the right to have any deficits made up by a precept from the local councils. To ensure that the demands would be legitimate, the Board has a majority of councillors from Havant and Portsmouth and a complex set of rules to ensure neither authority could become dominant. This system has worked and up to a half of the income comes from the precept. The problem now arises as to how to adjust this system to fit in with the Trust Port Review.

In a White paper on the future of Transport the government “recognises that ports are a vital link in the supply chain and the need to integrate their operations in the wider transport networks” and goes on to detail broad policies for the commercial success and competitiveness of Ports. Langstone Harbour is not a Port for the “commercial exchange of goods” as one dictionary definition goes and none of the Policies are relevant. However in a document entitled “Modernising Trust Ports, A guide to good governance” Langstone Harbour qualifies as a Trust Port, because it is controlled by an independent statutory body, with its own legislation and without shareholders or owners. It would appear all that is required is to replace elected members by independent appointed members, but this puts the precept in jeopardy. Why should Councils automatically cover the deficit of an organisation over which they will have no control and little knowledge?. A solution that satisfies both Councils and users is difficult to find without the arrangements for supervision becoming either more expensive and cumbersome (to the detriment of the actual running of the Harbour) or less in line with the dictates of the Trust Port revue.

The archaeology and past landforms have recently been very well described in Our Changing Coast. A survey of the intertidal archaeology of Langstone Harbour, Hampshire. CBA Research Report 124. The final synopsis provides a fascinating glimpse of an early landscape with hunter gatherers camping on the dryer ground between small streams which fed into the Solent River until the rising sea gradually inundated the area.

For thousands of years the muds that accumulated after the area was flooded were the dominant feature of the harbour. Maps and charts from Elizabethan times down to the late 19th Century attest to this, the word “ooze” is to be found over most of the intertidal area. Then came the hybrid rice grass gradually covering the muds until the Harbour looked like a meadow dissected by deep, steep-sided channels. It came, and now it is gone and, as of yore, bare mud is revealed by the receding tide. In retrospect it is possible to recognise that the decline had started in the 1940’s, long before there was concern about climatic change and sea level rise. This was documented in the 1970’s and the consequences forecast. The cause is unknown though over the years it has been attributed to a range of factors fashionable at the time. Elsewhere in Britain the plant can still cause concern by the rate in which it spreads and accumulates mud. Its absence increases the erosive power of the waves and in a Harbour with such a narrow strip of undeveloped hinterland this is a cause of concern. The west of the Harbour has a sea wall that will be maintained to protect the city of Portsmouth but the north and east lack development that would economically justify the maintenance of sea defences. Here, forming a thin strip round the coast, are the separate nature reserves maintained by the Hampshire Naturalist Trusts, Hampshire County Council, Havant Borough Council, the Langstone and District Wildfowlers and the RSPB whose reserve also includes some low lying islands. These are the essential high tide roosting areas for the abundant bird life that feed on the muds. If industrial development were to be considered there is no land to offer in mitigation but for the present natural erosion there no land in mitigation. To complicate the position yet further, the mixed salt marshes that used to exist in sheltered embayments have been reclaimed, and this handsome vegetation type is only to be found as scattered remnants and is not reforming anywhere in the Harbour. Only the rapidly eroding islands retain, for a while, patches of this type of marshland.

Each reserve has its own warden and with such a concentration of observers it is not surprising that the Harbour continues to amass data on the bird numbers adding to the longest continuous set of observations in Britain. (Well over 250 species have been recorded see for a very comprehensive list of birds whilst a fascinating diary of daily natural history interest is to be found at When in 1970 the Hampshire River Authority asked what effect an increase in sewage would have on the harbour it is not surprising that the effect on birds was taken into consideration. Six years of interdisciplinary work produced a large report detailing, amongst other things, pioneering work on what was becoming known as eutrophication in the marine environment. The conclusion that the harbour was eutrophic, the vegetation was in decline and the bacterial count was high and that all this was detrimental, raised no public interest. The major recent development has been the public increasing awareness of the importance of environmental health. During the last decade a series of EU directives (shellfish, nutrient, bathing etc) have resulted in further research which reached the same conclusions as the earlier work and a massive investment in sewage treatment has meant a clean up in bacterial and ultimately nutrient discharges. One suspects that the visible effect of the nutrient enrichment (large green algal mats) will linger for many years because of the material incorporated in the mud and the nutrient richness of inshore waters. One may wonder how many decades will pass before some of the ecological questions posed in 1970`s will receive research attention and how much marshland will be left to research.

The harbour is regulated by a Harbour Board and its Advisory Committee ( There is marina near the Harbour Mouth and a range of boat clubs round its margins (most with their own websites). It is the only local harbour with a zone devoted to waterskiiing (but skiers must be a member of the local club (

On the Hayling shore there is a launch site for those windsurfers who would prefer to practise in the sheltered waters of the Harbour.

A public footpath runs most of the way round the Harbour.