All hail Hayling Island: Britain’s forgotten ‘Utopia-by-the-Sea’

Tracey DaviesThu, 25 March 2021, 11:11 am

hayling island - iStock
hayling island – iStock

Once marketed as ‘Utopia-by-the-Sea’, Hayling Island off the Solent coast of Hampshire, is often in the shadow of its glitzy big sister, the Isle of Wight. The catchy strapline was part of a big marketing plan in the 1800s by the developers of Norfolk Crescent, a grandiose housing development which included the fancy Royal Hotel, a seawater bathhouse and a seafront library, to promote Hayling Island as an idyllic place to live and stay. Sadly, it never caught on.

But for me, Hayling Island was always a utopia by the sea. My family spent every summer of the Eighties at one of its three holiday camps. Halcyon days were spent paddling in the shallows of the Solent, cheating at pirate crazy golf or screaming on the roller coaster at Funland. There’s something rather special about going to an island on holiday. And even though it was only an hour’s drive from my home along the coast, I would still get fizzy with excitement as we crossed over the Langstone Bridge.

My favourite camp was Mill Rythe, which is still there and now called Mill Rythe Holiday Village. Originally built during World War II, its rows of prefab chalets that surround the dining hall and entertainment pavilion explains its somewhat post-war vibe. It was taken over by Butlin’s for a while in the Seventies, when it was also the setting for the Seventies saucy comedy Confessions from a Holiday Camp.

But there’s much more to Hayling than merely the Hi-de-Hi experience. Blue Flag beaches, a temperate maritime climate and topnotch sailing conditions means this tiny island has a big reputation amongst the watersports crowd. It’s known as the birthplace of windsurfing – it was invented here in 1958 by Peter Chilvers – while in recent years it draws a loyal kitesurfing crowd.

Even Sir Richard Branson has a soft spot for Hayling, as it was where he broke the Guinness World Record in 2013 (along with 317 others) to form the world’s largest parade of kitesurfers to surf a mile. The Kitesurfing Armada Festival is now held on the island each year (10-12 September 2021; along with the British Kitesurfing championships, where after some cracking wave action it offers a host of live music, pop-up bars and street food stalls.

But for those who’d rather stay dry, I can thoroughly recommend tackling one of walking and cycling trails. During World War II, Hayling Island was an important military base and those newly built holiday camps were requisitioned for service personnel. Hayling Island was also where the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP) unit was based, which was pivotal to the success of the D-Day Landings. To commemorate Hayling’s war effort, a four mile (6.5km) WWII Heritage Trail opened in 2012 and winds around the Mulberry Harbour construction site, Sinah Common gun battery and the COPP Memorial.

Alternatively, it’s worth hiring a bike and exploring the Hayling Billy Trail, a nature trail and off-road cycling path which follows the old railway line down the west coast from Havant to West Town. Before 1824, the only way to get to the island was by a small ferry boat or at low tide when the causeway was exposed and folk could walk over. That year, a wooden bridge was finally built connecting it to the mainland, and in 1867 the new Hayling Billy steam train service opened the island up to thousands of daytrippers and holidaymakers who would flock down from the Big Smoke.

British Rail cuts meant the Billy service ended in 1963 and now the old railway line attracts wildlife and seabirds who gather to pick through the old oyster beds of West Hayling. Twitchers come to spot little terns, ringed plovers and, naturally, oystercatchers, while on the other side of the Langstone Bridge, harbour seals, bottlenose dolphins, and on rare occasion even the odd otter, has been spotted splashing about in its tidal waters.

hayling - iStock
hayling – iStock

But like me, most folk come to Hayling for its brilliant beaches. Stretching for three miles, the beaches on the south and west coast of the island look across to the Isle of Wight. The best one, in my opinion, is West Beach which is banked by sand dunes where you can sit and watch cruise ships, ferries and yachts flutter across the Solent. For swimmers, the West Winner sand bank is sheltered and its shallow lagoons warm up nicely throughout the day. Who needs the South Pacific when we have our own island idyll right here on our doorstep.

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