Thorney Island is the last bastion of West Sussex before it morphs into Hampshire although, to be fair, it’s more of a peninsula than an island. If you’re travelling from the other direction, it’s also the start of the Sussex Border Path (which threads its way all the way to Rye) making it a great starting point for exploring Sussex.
A little bit of background
Thorney Island had been inhabited for thousands of years and was originally an island, cut off from the mainland at high tide. However, in 1933, a plane crash brought it to the attention of the Air Ministry. They thought it would be a great place for an airbase and the locals were moved off. It formed a strategic position for the RAF during WWII and the RAF remained in situ until 1976. It’s now owned by the Ministry of Defence but it’s also a nature reserve.
Walking the island
If you’re walking the island and want a map, it’s Ordnance Survey Explorer 8 although once you’re parked up, you don’t really need one as you have to stick to the coastal path that runs all the way around the island. We parked at the Prinsted car park and walked the island anti-clockwise and the entire walk back to the car was exactly 12 km. As you might expect, it’s completely flat so it’s a reasonably easy walk.
The east coast of Thorney Island
Walking down the east coast of Thorney Island, there are various points of interest. You start by passing a small marina before reaching a Ministry of Defence security gate where you have to buzz to be let in. You’re now on MoD land and their signage is quite aggressive, telling you to stick to the path. The path around the island is pretty overgrown in a lot of places and although it wasn’t raining, our legs were soaked from the long, wet grass consuming the path almost instantly.
As you walk down the east side you look out over Nutbourne Marsh Nature Reserve and can just see West Itchenor in the distance. You also pass St Nicholas Church (St. Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors). The church is believed to date back to the early 12th century and is one of the oldest churches in Sussex. The tower dates back to 1100 and the font is early Norman.
When we walked the island, we met a local man who told us his family had lived on the island for generations before being moved off and many of them are buried at St. Nicholas. It also has an Imperial War Graves Commission graveyard with soldiers from WWII (both English and German) and it’s worth lingering to read some of the poignant headstones.
The church sits in West Thorney which might feel strange as you’re on the east coast but there was once an East Thorney near West Wittering which now no longer exists.
As you head down to the southern most tip of the island you find sandy Longmere Point which leads onto Pilsey Island (an RSPB reserve but with no public access). At this point, you can see East Head (which juts out from West Wittering) and Hayling Island. On a clear day, you can see the Isle of Wight apparently, but we were not blessed with a clear day.
It will come as no surprise that the island is a haven for wildlife and in particular birds (including Dunlin, Wigeon, Curlew, Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers and Skylarks). But it’s also known to have a seal population and if you’re lucky, you might spot them round here.
The south side
The path gets really overgrown along the south side but there are some rugged-looking beaches and a couple of benches commemorating fallen soldiers. We were 7 km in at this point so it was a great place to get out the thermos flask and reflect as you look out over Gunter Point Nature Reserve. Then suddenly you’re at Marker Point where you turn northwards and start heading up the west side of the island.
The west coast of Thorney Island
The west coast is curvaceous, with little green inlets and views of Emsworth Marina. Halfway up, you reach the military fence and breathe a little sigh of relief as you buzz out and are released.
When you reach the boxy holiday homes on stilts, you almost double back on yourself as you head back past some splendidly opulent houses to Prinsted, the car and a good lunch. You may have met a few runners or walkers but on the whole, this is a pretty off the beaten track walk with stunning coastal views throughout and a real taste of our great Sussex coastline.