Portsmouth Life, Travels

Exploring Southsea at Sunrise

Today is the first weekday that I’ve woken up our new flat. My partner is a teacher, so we’ve woken up pretty early. We now live in Southsea, which as you might have guessed, is right on the sea. My ‘new home resolution’ is to take advantage of both the early start and the location and employ the ‘ultimate life hack’ of utilising mornings, by going for morning walks or dérives.

Dérive loosely translates to ‘drift’ in English but the original meaning or theory is a little more complex. This Wikipedia article goes into more detail, but the essence is to go on an unplanned walk through a mostly urban area and just experience what you see. It is similar to The Wander Society’s core concept: Salvitur Ambulando (‘It is solved by walking’). Both lend themselves to writers. Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman and Baudelaire are just a few writers whose work was notably influenced by their wanderings.

So off I went into the morning light. The sun hadn’t yet risen and the sky was a perfect deep blue. I had on thermals and a thick coat to fend off the chill that always seems to set in after Remembrance Sunday. I headed south, down streets not yet familiar to me, toward the instinctive pull of the sea. Autumn-dried leaves scuttled and crunched underfoot and accumulated at the wrought iron gates of large brick and stone built houses with bay windows.

The streets were quiet. But I passed a man on the pavement, and he smiled at me and said ‘good morning’. I said it back and relished in the only time of day British strangers address each other: the sacred morning. The thought of a dog walker wishing an unsolicited ‘Good afternoon,’ anywhere but a narrow country lane strikes fear into the hearts of the stiff-upper-lipped. Or even worse, a random ‘Good evening!’ has been known to send little old ladies shrieking up the street trailing their Pekinese and handbag. We are taught it from a young age before we even learn to make a proper cup of tea, ‘Don’t talk to strangers!’. Unless they are your neighbour and you are both putting your bins out on a Sunday evening, you do not engage.

But ‘Good morning!’ is safe, pleasant even. It is a knowing grin, a shared secret, a communal hardship or mutual delight. A million things are said with those two words: ‘We did it, we got up!’, ‘Can you believe all those people are still in bed, missing this sunrise?’ or ‘Bugger me, it’s cold today, isn’t it?’

And so, in light of that and the fact that it is actually ‘National Kindness Day’ today, I endeavoured to greet everyone I passed on my stroll. It felt a bit unnatural and not everyone said it back but everyone smiled and that made me happy. The nicest, cheapest gift you can give anyone is a grin, and they pretty much have to give one back, It’s only polite.

I emerged from the warren of streets out onto common: the blissful, wide, green, common. I cut across the wet grass, impatient for the beach, and noticed powdered diamonds glinting underfoot. Frost. The first I’d seen this year, although I suppose I’d not been out early enough to have seen it before.

The cold stung my face like the aftershocks of a hard slap. The crisp air had picked up the metallic tang of engines carrying busy people away on their day. I felt very lucky to have slipped through the net. One of the best things about being a student is the liberation from the expectation of you to have a full-time job. It feels wonderful to have moments of free time like this morning to generate reams of writing like this post, which would have never been conceived should I have had somewhere ‘more important’ to be.


The sun hit me as I turned onto the pavement opposite the promenade. The warmth and the rich orange sky seemed out of place, surely they belonged on an Indonesian shoreline?  It seemed too rich for the Portsmouth of my mind, but as I walked I began to realise this city is far more than that.

The explosion of sunlight illuminated the Victorian terraces and the rough stone wall that encircled the gardens, guarding them against errant pedestrians and the lecherous eye of property developers.

I crossed over to the beach. Due to a lack of a reason not to, I went and sat at the water’s edge. The pebbles were cold and bumpy under my layers. The water was remarkably clear for Portsmouth. Each wave broke into tiny, wild, white horses, and charged at me but fell back just in time. With each retreat the stones rattled like the sound of an army of impatient children shaking bags of marbles, waiting to be played with. The wet pebbles left exposed glinted in the sunlight like caviar or a dragon’s hoard of black diamonds. The waves dragged the stones back down an even slope, away into the unconquerable depths of the Solent, out past the squat round forts, toward the horizon, where the first clouds of the day were being blown from France.

My breath billowed around me, a foreign sight by the beach. The sun warmed my left side and reminded me of optimistic Australian sunrises. Although on those days the temperature climbed far higher than today’s predicted nine degrees. Warmed more than externally, I stood and made my way home. I didn’t notice the cacophonous crunch of the beach underfoot until I stepped onto the flat red tarmac of the promenade. I walked home quietly to the sound of seagulls and the thrown caws of crows. I walked past a bin with the word ‘LOVE’ spray painted across the front and a building called Eagle House with a square roof like a cathedral with a gilded golden eagle on each corner. I realise that Southsea contains too much to ever be written in one passage. And so I shall stop. And go for another walk tomorrow.


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