Complete Guide To: The Solent

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It's easy to make a splash along this impressive stretch of water, with centuries of nautical history to discover, plus beaches and boating galore.

Where and why?

The Solent is unique: a recreational playground (the busiest for boating in the UK) and an area steeped in history and natural beauty, with pretty fishing ports, islands and a wealth of activities in its many harbours and estuaries. Originally a valley through which the Solent River flowed, it has increased in size over the last 15,000 years, eventually creating the body of water we now know about 2,500 years ago.

Portsmouth is the place to start; its Harbour railway station is so close to the Solent that the platforms are built over the water. The station is well served by trains from London Waterloo and Victoria, Brighton and Bristol (0845 748 4950; national rail.co.uk for times and fares).

The naval base is home to almost two-thirds of the Royal Navy's surface fleet, including HMS Ark Royal, Illustrious and Invincible. The Historic Dockyard (023 9283 9766; historicdockyard.co.uk; daily 10am-6pm; 5.30pm, November-March) offers an intriguing experience of the Navy past and present.

HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship, is the world's oldest surviving commissioned ship, seeing action in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Visitors can visit the Great Cabin where the battle was planned, the spot where Nelson was fatally shot, and the once-crowded decks where more than 800 men lived, worked and fought.

In 1545 the Mary Rose sank off Portsmouth as Henry VIII watched; 437 years later she was raised and housed in the Ship Hall. She is the only surviving 16th-century warship on display anywhere in the world. The hull and decks are maintained behind glass in a controlled environment and sprayed constantly with a fine mist of wax solution, which can make it seem very foggy and dark on first entry. The exhibit is to be closed this autumn for two years to allow for the construction of a new museum.

HMS Warrior sits outside the dockyard. Launched in 1860, Warrior was the world's first iron-hulled, armoured warship powered by steam as well as sail. She was the most formidable vessel of her day, being bigger, faster and more heavily armed than any other warship of the time. You can experience life on-board, displayed over four decks, including the captain's cabin, the engine room and gun deck.

Admission to a single attraction (Mary Rose with the museum, HMS Warrior or HMS Victory with the Royal Navy Museum) is £12; the "standard annual admission" ticket (£18.50) should be purchased if you are interested in more than one attraction.

On the opposite bank of the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour sits Gosport. At the Royal Navy Submarine Museum (023 9252 9217; rnsubmus.co.uk) you can go on board HMS Alliance to experience life under the water with first-hand guidance from ex-submariners. Open daily, 10am-5.30pm (to 4.30pm, November- March), admission £9. The Gosport Ferry (023 9252 4551; gosport ferry.co.uk) provides easy pedestrian access. It departs from the railway terminal every 15 minutes from 5.30am to midnight daily, and more frequently during peak hours; adult return £2.20.

Is there more to Portsmouth than the Navy?

Yes. The 170m-high Spinnaker Tower (023 9285 7520; spinnakertower.co.uk) provides a view of the whole eastern Solent and the mesmerising ballet of ferries, yachts, jet skis and rowing boats that dance along its waters. An internal lift takes you up 100m to the lowest of the three viewing decks. Open daily 10am-6pm; 10pm on many Saturdays and throughout August; admission £7.

As you might expect there are plenty of places to eat fish in Portsmouth. The Lemon Sole restaurant (023 9281 1303; lemonsole.co.uk; open daily) in Old Portsmouth is highly recommended. You choose your own fish and seafood from the counter, decide how you want it cooked and pay by weight. The sea bass is a personal favourite and a typical serving costs about £14.

For local accommodation, try Fortitude Cottage (023 9282 3748; fortitudecottage.co.uk), on Spice Island in Old Portsmouth. The top-floor double room in this B&B has a private balcony and roof terrace with 360-degree views of the Solent. Prices for this room start at £75; £60 for a twin.

Any beach life?

On a hot summer's day there's not much space to be found on Southsea beach. This pebbled strip stretches from Old Portsmouth to Eastney and is complemented by an equally long seafront promenade. Sandier and quieter beaches are to be found over the water.

The Isle of Wight boasts some Blue Flag winners, including Ryde beach, which extends for six miles towards Seaview. Just along the coast there are smaller but equally attractive beaches such as Seagrove (accessible only by foot), St Helens and Bembridge. For more information, call 01983 813813 or see islandbreaks.co.uk.

A ticket to Ryde?

For an express ticket to Ryde and beyond, take Britain's only surviving passenger hovercraft service, which is offered by Hovertravel (023 9281 1000; hovertravel.co.uk). This departs from Southsea near Clarence Pier every half hour and takes 10 minutes to make the journey to Ryde. A day return costs £10.90. Ryde's hovercraft terminal is conveniently situated next to the bus station.

Wightlink (0871 376 4342; wightlink.co.uk) runs a FastCat high-speed catamaran for foot passengers, accessed from within Portsmouth Harbour station. This runs every half-hour and takes about 18 minutes. A day return costs £13.77; ordinary returns within three months cost £17.85. The ferry takes you to Ryde's 19th-century pier from which there are great views of the town. Ryde Pier Head is also a railway station, the northern end of the Isle of Wight's sole contribution to the national rail network, a seven-mile line to Ventnor. The rolling stock used comprises antiquated trains from the London Underground. The main way of getting around the island, though, is by bus; call 0871 200 2233 or visit islandbuses.info for times and fares.

To take your car to the Isle of Wight from this end of the Solent, the only option is Portsmouth to Fishbourne. This is also run by Wightlink and departs from the car-ferry port near Gun Wharf. Book in advance for the lowest fares.

Where should I stay?

A good choice is Ryde Castle (01983 563755; rydecastle.com), located right on the seafront and recently refurbished. One possible reason for its construction was to defend the eastern Solent and Southampton Water from the invasion of the Spanish Armada. In the First World War it served as a hospital, in the Second World War it was an army base. Double rooms with breakfast cost £110. For something cheaper, Trentham Guest House (01983 563418), one road back from the Esplanade, offers comfortable en suite double rooms with breakfast for £50.

A week in Cowes?

Cowes is a good base from which to visit the north shore of the Isle of Wight. It's divided into East and West Cowes by the River Medina; the two conurbations are linked by the Chain Ferry "floating bridge", which runs back and forth continuously and is free for foot passengers (car crossings cost £1.50).

West Cowes has been a yachting resort since Tudor times. The first week of August marks Cowes Week, a sailing regatta which started in 1826. West Cowes Castle, built in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's defence plans against the French, is the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The 22 guns lining the esplanade are from William IV's yacht The Adelaide and are used to start the Cowes Week races.

East Cowes' leading attraction is Osborne House (01983 200022; english-heritage.org.uk/osborne), once the country home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Victoria died here in 1901, and soon afterwards the house was given to the nation. Nowadays visitors are able to explore 18 of its rooms. Outside there are terraces, landscaped gardens and the Swiss Cottage – the royal children's playhouse. (You may recognise the setting from Mrs Brown, the 1996 film starring Judi Dench). It opens 10am-6pm daily to the end of September; to 4pm in October, more limited hours during winter; admission £10.20.

Red Funnel (0844 844 9988; redfunnel.co.uk/travel-connections) provides vehicle and passenger ferry services to Cowes from Southampton. The car ferry to East Cowes runs hourly during the day taking 55 minutes; foot-passenger day return is £12 from Southampton. For vehicle customers, as with Wightlink, prices vary. Red Funnel also operates a high-speed catamaran for foot passengers only into West Cowes. This takes 23 minutes and runs every half hour; £17.60 return from Southampton.

And at the west of the island?

Yarmouth is a popular yachting centre on the Isle of Wight. The Square is at the heart of the town, and contains a number of historic pubs and restaurants. The town doesn't have any beaches but has good walking along the coastal path in both directions. The nearest stretch of sand is a few miles down the road at Colwell Bay – a long, safe beach with excellent views of the western Solent.

Yarmouth's 16th-century castle remained in military use until 1901. Along with Hurst Castle (see next page), it guarded the busy seaway of the western Solent. For more details call 01983 760678 or see tiny.cc/ gQhdJ. Open 21 March-30 September, 11am-4pm, Sunday to Thursday; admission £3.60. u

oFor accommodation, try Jireh House (01983 760513; jireh-house.com) in The Square. This 17th-century building once formed part of the Town Hall. Six rooms are available, with doubles starting at £78, including breakfast.

The gateway from the mainland to Yarmouth is Lymington in the New Forest. The Wightlink ferry for car and foot passengers runs every half-hour between the two towns, and takes 30 minutes. A standard day return for foot passengers costs £11.05.

What will I find on this part of the mainland?

Try Lymington. Here the High Street drops down to Quay Street – a quaint cobbled street lined with period cottages – at the end of which you come to the busy Town Quay and marina where fishing boats and yachts mingle. Stanwell House (01590 677123; stanwellhousehotel.co.uk) is a boutique hotel overlooking the High Street, with 27 tastefully furnished rooms, a secluded garden, conservatory, bistro and seafood restaurant; doubles start at £135, including breakfast. Just along the road is Hurst Castle (01590 642344; hurstcastle.co.uk), a Tudor fort transformed into a massive battery in the 19th century. It stands guard on Hurst Narrows, the channel not even a mile across, separating the Spit from the Isle of Wight at Cliff End Battery. You can walk to the castle along the dramatic mile-and-a-half shingle ridge of Hurst Spit or take the ferry from Keyhaven. Open daily April-September, 10.30am-5.30pm, 4pm in October and weekends during winter; admission £3.50. The ferry runs every 15-20 minutes April-October, 10am-5.30pm; £5 return.

To round off your trip, head for Buckler's Hard (01590 616203; bucklershard.co.uk), a waterside village steeped in maritime history (Nelson's favourite ship, HMS Agamemnon, was built here in 1781). A museum there includes reconstructed interiors from the late 1700s and there is a lovely open area to sit, have a picnic and relax while looking out across the river. Open daily, 10am-5.30pm in July and August (closing earlier September to June), admission £5.90.

I want to get out on the water

Kite-surfing, windsurfing, jet-skiing, rowing, sailing, diving, swimming, sea-kayaking... all this and more is available on the Solent. A good way to test your aptitude for watersports without spending a fortune on gear is to go to an activity centre. Try Portsmouth Outdoor Centre (023 9266 3873; portsmouthoutdoor.co.uk), Calshot Activity Centre (023 8089 2077; calshot.com) or X-Isle (01983 761678; x-is.co.uk) in Bembridge.

Sunsail hires out yachts from Port Solent (0844 463 6817; tiny.cc/M4e9). For a taster session, ask for a watersports factsheet from Isle of Wight tourism (01983 813813; islandbreaks.co.uk). If you have your own equipment, head to Southsea for wind or kite-surfing; Lee-on-Solent, Bembridge and Ryde for sailing, jet-skiing and kite-surfing; and for kayaking try Yarmouth, Ryde and Cowes.

Where is the Solent?

The water separating the English mainland from the Isle of Wight sounds easy enough to define. Common thinking is that Hurst Spit forms the western boundary, however the eastern boundary is less precise. A line from Southsea to Nab Tower (part of a First World War anti-submarine defence system near the Isle of Wight) is one possibility. The Queen's Harbour Master, Lt Cdr John Saunders of the Royal Navy, says: "The Admiralty Charts of the area would tend to support [this] theory." However, the eastern boundary could extend as far as Selsey Bill, due south of Chichester. Likewise, there is no definitive answer, he says, as to whether the harbours of Portsmouth, Langstone, Chichester, and Southampton Water, form part of the Solent or not.

Southampton (023 8083 3333; visit-southampton.co.uk), at the top of Southampton Water, is a top travel destination whether or not it is officially part of the Solent. As the cruise capital of northern Europe, there are nearly 300 cruise-ship movements from here a year. Ocean Village (023 8022 9385; tiny.cc/2glkh) hosts the start and/or finish of many of the world's long distance sailing races. The Solent's airport is north of Southampton (0870 040 0009; southamptonairport.com) in Eastleigh, with connections across the UK and beyond.

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