Local writer Serena Allott describes a summer tradition.
For at least half a century a growing throng of people have marked the lowest tide of the summer by trekking through the shallows from Ducie Beach off Bembridge to St Helens Fort, set some three-quarters of a mile out into the sea off the Isle of Wight. The walk is a fixture of the Isle of Wight summer season and each year – as the sun begins to set and the trickle of people striding out from the shore swells to a brightly coloured river of around 700 – it constitutes one of the most extraordinarily biblical sights that modern man will ever see.
The appropriate day is usually in the first half of August. The exact time and day seems to be carried on the wind, having been leaked to a favoured few by Bembridge Sailing Club who disclaim all responsibility because in these litigious times nobody wants to lay claim to an event in which hundreds of people – the oldest of them octogenarians and the youngest babes in slings – march into a stretch of sea with notoriously strong currents.
But it wasn’t ever thus. In the 1960s the walk was the basis of a private party enjoyed by the well-heeled community of Bembridge residents and summer perennials like Virginia Bottomley’s clan. But as Dr Roger Sawyer, author, historian and one of the original hosts explains: when the numbers grew to more than 100 and total strangers began holding out glasses to be filled, he announced he was no longer taking responsibility for anyone except his family. Still, as late as the 1990s a whistle was blown to mark the start of the walk and blown again when the time came to turn back; the participants were counted in and out. Even nowadays a number of small boats can be seen drifting near by with the air of anxious sheep dogs.
The fort is the goal but it is certainly not the attraction. One of the Napoleonic forts, ‘Palmerston’s follies’, it was completed in 1879 and for the first half of the 20th century was used variously as a gun-emplacement, an examination battery and a lighthouse. Sold into private hands in the Sixties, it enjoyed a brief renaissance, serving as a set for Dr Who and the Sea Devils and as the venue for a 21st birthday party, but it now looks sadly dilapidated. To ‘do’ the walk properly, you must join the queue to climb onto the narrow parapet that surrounds it and circumnavigate the fort before heading back to shore.
Aficionados know that the tide allows about an hour for the walk there and back (there are always a few teenage boys powering through the water in a determined effort to do it twice). The same people say that if you choose the correct route there is no need to get wet above mid-thigh, but the combination of excitable swimming dogs, splashing children and soggy four year olds suddenly needing to be carried means that few are very dry by the time they regain the safety of the beach where, traditionally, the evening is rounded off with a barbecue. As darkness falls the sea air will be rich with the smell of sausages.