The empty is­land

The stark and stir­ring cor­ner of coast you have to buzz to get in to.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: NICK HALL IS SE Y; PHO­TOS: TOM BAI­LEY

MANY THINGS MAKE Thor­ney Is­land a cu­ri­ous place, and a place for the cu­ri­ous. There’s the fact it’s far more tran­quil and calm­ing than any place along the crowded cor­ri­dor of the A27 has any right to be. There’s the fact you re­ally have to know where it is in or­der to get to it, be­cause it barely ap­pears on road signs. There is the al­lur­ing pres­ence of some­thing called the Great Deep. And then there’s the in­ter­com. There aren’t many wilder­ness spaces where you have to be buzzed in through a spiky metal gate un­der the un­blink­ing eye of a se­cu­rity cam­era, but Thor­ney Is­land is one of them. For this is a wilder­ness that has a ten­ant, and its name is the Min­istry of De­fence. Branches of the Royal Ar­tillery and SAS Sig­nals have their home on this strange seaborne out­post; it’s their turf and they are watching as you cir­cum­nav­i­gate the is­land on the only path that’s ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic. But de­spite their weaponry and envy-of-the-world tough­ness, they are car­ing ten­ants: Thor­ney is a care­fully man­aged wild place, a haven for over­win­ter­ing birds and a min­i­mal-devel­op­ment zone where most of what you see is un­al­tered coun­try­side.

But the first ques­tion is, where is it? For that we need to look at the line of is­lands and penin­su­las that lie south of the A27 be­tween Fare­ham in the west and Selsey Bill in the east. Dan­gling like the snag­gly teeth of a Mex­i­can ban­dit in a cow­boy film, they con­sist of Gosport, Port­sea Is­land (mostly taken up with the city of Portsmouth), Hayling Is­land, Thor­ney Is­land, Chid­ham and Bosham. Thor­ney is the qui­etest of the lot, due to its lack of pub­lic roads and its mil­i­tary ten­ants.

In truth, Thor­ney Is­land isn’t an is­land. It used to

be, up un­til 1870 when 72 hectares of tidal mud­flats were re­claimed to make Thor­ney ac­ces­si­ble by at­tach­ing it to the main­land just south of Emsworth. Even then it was still half an is­land, due to the pres­ence of a wide chan­nel which bi­sects Thor­ney from west to east: the afore­men­tioned, dra­mat­i­cal­ly­named, Great Deep. But then a sea wall was built across the western mouth of the Deep, an Army road bridge across the mid­dle, and a foot­bridge at the eastern end, and thus Thor­ney ceased to be an is­land, if by only the slen­der­est of mea­sures.

To­day it sits in the tidal wa­ters of Chich­ester Har­bour AONB, with busy places all around and yet, it­self, silent: a place of peace and still­ness, with a slightly som­bre un­der­tone. It lends it­self to pause and re­flec­tion, as you walk the Sus­sex Bor­der Path around the cir­cum­fer­ence and keep an eye out for the flap­pers and waders who share its shore­line. Oys­ter­catch­ers, herons, crows, grebes, spoon­bills: you’ll see them all in the half­world be­tween sea, mud and land that Thor­ney rep­re­sents.

Walk­ing on Thor­ney is dead sim­ple: all you can do is walk around it. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons sur­round­ing the word ‘ar­tillery’, the in­te­rior is a no-go zone. And even the coastal cir­cuit is con­trolled: it’s just as you cross the Great Deep (at ei­ther end) that you will come across a gate, an in­ter­com and a cam­era up a stick.

“It sits in the tidal wa­ters of Chich­ester Har­bour, with busy places all around and yet, it­self, silent: a place of peace and still­ness.”

STRANGE TEX­TURES The marsh­land around Thor­ney is a cu­ri­ous mix of soft mud, springy wrack and hardy grass­land.

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