Shingle beaches of the Solent

Posted on 22 Aug 2005

Wind and waves have built the beaches and shingle spits of the Solent. They vary from the great spits at Hurst Point and Calshot protecting the Western Solent and the entrance to Southampton Water, to the small spits of Newtown Creek, a wonderful secluded harbour. Most of the spits of the Solent build from the west to the east and nearly all have a hook, or series of hooks at the end which turn at right angles to the main line of the spit.

Behind the spits are muddy creeks and salt marshes, havens of peace for wildlife – wonderful places. As the flooding tide advances over the black mud, Curlew, Redshank, Dunlin, Oystercatchers and Knot rise in the air and fall back, feeding in front of the advancing water. The salt marshes at the very top of the creek form the most colourful of habitats. Flowering starts in May with drifts of pink Sea Thrift, followed in July by powder blue Sea Lavender with a final burst of colour from the Sea Asters in August. The salt marshes at Keyhaven, Newtown, Beaulieu River and Calshot are nesting sites of Gulls, Common Terns and Little Terns. All these havens exist because of their protective shingle spits.

The shingle spit itself is not just a heap of dead stones. Any part of the beach above Mean High Water Springs can be covered in plants. Nearest the sea are the Moses plants which have their fruit and seeds carried along by the high spring tides. Sea Kale, Sea Beetroot and Spear Leaved Orache are the most common. All of them used as vegetable plants in the past, gathered for their early spring green. Further up the shore above spring tides are found spectacular plants such as Yellow-Horned Poppy and Rock Samphire. At places like Yarmouth on the Island with sand amongst the shingle, the prickly Sea Holly grows. The most spectacular of all the shingle plants is Golden Samphire. A pure golden aster like plant it picks out the old shingle spits running out into the salt marshes. This can be seen most clearly in late July and early August along the spit to Hurst Castle. Bands of gold run from the main spit towards the moored boats in the Keyhaven Harbour.

The strangest shingle beach of all is Browndown. This is an apposition beach built out from the original shoreline in a series of storm crests of shingle. Each crest adds to the width of the beach and it has been built out half a mile into the sea. Browndown Beach stretches from Lee-on-the Solent to Bay House in Stokes Bay. It is the second largest beach of this kind on the south coast and is only exceeded by the spectacular Dungeness Point. The plants are a strange mixture, peculiar to this stretch of beach. There is a large area of Heather, Gorse and Bracken with Burnet Roses growing amongst it. There are hollows full of salt marsh plants such as Glasswort never covered by the sea. Here can be found some of the largest populations of rare plants in Britain, Nottingham Catchfly and Little Robin.rnrnIs all this worthy of protection? View it by boat or by walking along the sea walls facing out over the spits and salt marshes. View it in October to March, when birds arrive to spend the winter and the Solent has regained its solitary wildness. For myself, I love the Keyhaven and Pennington Marshes, the unspoiled wildness of Newtown Creek, or the edge of the River Yar on a calm, short, November afternoon with the sun setting.

Some of the wild spits and salt marshes are protected for conservation by Hampshire Wildlife Trust, Hampshire County Council, the National Trust, English Nature and MOD, Defence Estates. Although these shingle features are all temporary, subject to storms and rising sea levels, I wish that these wild places may yet last for a long time to come.

Richard Hedley, Hampshire Wildlife Trust

Taken from the Autumn 2001 issue of the SPS newsletter.