As I live near the sea in Hampshire, books on the heritage of the traditional seaside holiday have always intrigued me. Hence, of course, I snapped up Sarah Freeman’s “Beside the Sea” tome on Amazon and promptly read the thing from start to finish.
One section called out to me – the one on Lee-on-The-Solent, or just plain old Lee-on-Solent as we locals call it. I couldn’t believe that at one point in its history, it was being promoted as a seaside resort.
Reading Sarah’s book, it appears that there was always a tug of love in the town between the forward thinking resort planners and those that just wanted a quiet residential haven. Due to a number of circumstances, the latter has won and its now a somewhat beautiful, breezy, yet sleepy little enclave.
It hides a lot of history however. In 1917, Lee was chosen as the ideal spot for the location of the HM Naval Seaplane Training School. This interest in flight saw, in 1931, the air speed record broken by Flight-Lieutenant Stainforth just before the war where he notched up an average speed of 408.8mph in the skies above Lee. The slipway down to the sea and a half-retained part of the mechanism for a crane that was part of the aircraft school is all that remains.
Just four years later, a confidence in the belief that Lee-on-The-Solent could evolve into a prime seaside resort lead to the construction of an art deco style Lee Tower (120 feet tall), pier, ballroom, cinema and Palm Court cafe and restaurant.
From the images from the seaside information stand (above), It had the look of a grand ocean liner with a similarly grand hotel opposite.It also, at that time, had a railway link too although that closed before the war too and wouldn’t have survived Beecham’s infamous rail cull no doubt.
The complex survived the war too, with the tower painted in camouflage to help disguise it from German air crews using it as an orientation devise. The Americans took it over and planned their part in Operation Overlord from the Lee Tower Complex. Noel Coward even sang on Tower Pier.
There however the story ends and the dream died. The Tower Complex never lived up to visitor expectation however – presumably because of its design, lack of local will and competition from both the1960s/70’s boom in foreign holidays and other more established seaside resorts back home. With the building of a raft of homes in the area too, it apparently made the resort feel more like a residential town than a resort – and Lee Pier was demolished in 1958 with the tower following in 1971.
So what remains of this once glorious vision? Well a restaurant and arcade are still there (they were built alongside), there’s an arcade of shops opposite that has a very 1930’s feel and the Dutch-gabled Pier Hotel is still recognisable. These are located on Pier Street – street names are always a good indicator of what had once been there.
On the actual site, there’s a remembrance garden.
You can still walk along the long Marine Promenade and at the Fareham end, (Monk’s Head), wind surfers reign supreme. It was the only real sign of life in the place on a sunny yet breezy afternoon in July.
Even the hovercraft museum (which I long to visit) is shut – hopefully temporarily.
I came away feeling more than a little sad about what might once have been and now lies mostly forgotten. I am thankful however for Sarah’s book for telling me more about my local history and leading to this recent expedition. If you would like to buy it too, here’s the Amazon link.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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