Prior to the construction of a wooden bridge in 1825, the precursor to the present-day concrete structure, the only land link from Langstone to Hayling Island was via a causeway exposed at low tide. One evening, we decided to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, and struck out along this route, which is three-quarters of a mile long and known locally as the Wadeway.
Archaeological investigations carried out in 2005-06 determined that the hard-surfaced track is medieval in date and was probably laid during the early to mid-14th century, most likely in response to sea-level rises and storm surges.
We headed southwards across the harbour and were quickly enveloped by the mist drifting over the mudscape. Three mute swans ghosted up a meandering tidal creek running parallel to the path, their white plumage glowing in the light of the waxing gibbous moon.
At this time of year, the harbour hosts thousands of waterbirds. Though we couldn’t see them, we knew that we were surrounded by waders – their evocative trills and whistles resonating across the mudflats. As our eyes began to adjust to the dark, we picked out the shadowy shapes of dunlin scurrying like mice along the water’s edge and the unmistakable silhouette of a foraging curlew.
Surprisingly, many species of waders feed at night, particularly tactile foragers like curlews, which use their slender, crescent-shaped bills to probe the sediment in search of marine invertebrates. The tip of the bill is slightly bulbous and packed with sensory receptors sensitive to pressure and shear force, allowing them to detect the presence of prey.
We pressed on, serenaded by the curlew’s mournful vibrato cry, the breathless piping of a flock of oystercatchers, and the sharp, percussive call of a redshank. The whomp, whomp sound of deep wingbeats alerted us to the approach of a skein of dark-bellied brent geese and we gazed up to watch them pass overhead.
As we neared the Northney pile navigation marker, the flinty path petered out. We were just a few hundred feet from the opposite shore, but the crossing was severed by New Cut, an impassable deep water channel dredged for the Portsmouth to Arundel canal in 1823. With the tide turning, and sulphurous mud sucking at our boots, it was time to turn back.