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