Last post of the year. A bit of nostalgia.

Started by Gyppo, December 31, 2022, 11:27:40 PM

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   Hythe Ferry (End of an era, and a handful of memories.)

   I  nearly went on a boat trip today.  Seriously thought about taking the last trip of a local ferry service, which is shutting down on New Year's Eve after running for longer than my lifetime.   The reason cited is the rising cost of diesel and falling passenger numbers.

    But I decided that nostalgia was best left to memories of the original ferry, rather than the rather mundane modern catamaran based 'water bus' which replaced it many years ago.

   We used it to cross to Hythe, to visit my Dad's Mum, who lived there.  Initially in a caravan, and later in a house.  My Uncle Jack helped to build the house, along with several other properties along that street, and I thought it fascinating that he'd built their home.  Jack was a hod-carrier and occasional bricklayer.

     But, back to the Ferry, which was foot passengers only, but always had a few bicycles on board.  (It saved a long loop along the banks.)

   The Hotspsur, which used to ply between Southampton waterfront and Hythe, on the other side of The Solent, was a proper boat, with a 'below decks', and an upper deck where a little boy could run to the front.  (Not allowed or possible on the catamaran.  I could lean over and watch the stubby bow rising and falling against the generally small waves, and revel when an occasional bigger splash surged up through the fancy woven rope fender and sprayed me.

   These 'rainbows dancing o'er the bows'  were magical things whenever the sunlight was just right..

   Mum would hover nearby and probably worried I'd fall in.  But in reality the sides were too high for a little lad to get over without major effort.  And even as a small child I wasn't stupid.  Imprudent on occasion, but not stupid.

   The crew, who were generally large and slightly scary looking men to a little lad, gruffly chivvied me away if I got too close to the gaps in the sides where the ropes for the mooring bollards were located.

   At the bow end and the rounded stern there were 'Carley Floats,' wooden life rafts  which were clamped to the deck,  Ready to be released by a crewman if the boat sank.  With rope loops along the sides and thickly varnished wooden slats.  Inside the wooden framework was something buoyant, possibly a big slab of cork back in those days.

   Memory tells me each float had a little plaque which claimed it could support 16 people, but I wouldn't swear to that number now.

   Dad said that in the Royal Navy the floats were known to support far more men than the nominal rating, and could save the lives of a 'whole parcel of men, in the water, but holding onto the ropes until help came'.  He knew about this stuff from practical wartime experience.

   The floats generally served as seats, and on a sunny day Mum would sometimes serve up a little picnic during the crossing.

   There  was an inside cabin, where people would huddle when the weather was bad, and sometimes it was rough as hell out there on that short crossing, and the stubby little boat would bounce around and roll quite alarmingly.

   The crossing was generally protected by the land on either side, but occasionally the wind and waves would funnel along the gap and things grew 'interesting'.  It never seemed to bother the crew, although I believe crossings were sometimes cancelled if it was deemed too rough,  Just as with the larger ferries on the longer Isle of Wight crossing.

   There was a plaque screwed to one of the walls which read, 'This vessel is licensed to ply only in smooth waters.'  Looking back I assume there is a legal wave height or wind speed when smooth ends and 'troubled' begins.

   Sticking out to one side of the captain's bridge house there was one of those spinning devices, an anemometer, with four cups which measured wind speed.  It fascinated me.

   There was also a proper 'below decks' down a steep ladder where Mum hated to go.  She came down a couple of times to keep me company, and to make sure there was nothing to hurt me, but after that she stayed 'above'.

   My claustrophobia hadn't kicked in at that age.

   It was a fascinating place,  The inside of the hull was covered with thick paint, and I could see all the metal framework, steel plates,  and the massive rivets holding it together.  I loved being able to see how the thing was put together.  The deck down there was covered with some thick non-slip stuff which felt like tarmac.

   There were long bench seats bolted to the curving walls, and a sturdy rail down the centreline so that standing passengers had something to hold onto.

   By scrambling up onto the wooden seats I could just about see through the sometimes smeary portholes.  These were fascinating in their own right, held shut with massive brass wing nuts as big across as the spread out fingers of my little boy hands.

   If the boat was swaying a bit the portholes would periodically dip under water, and I was fascinated how green it looked when the sun was shining through.  Almost black on cloudy days.

   One day I saw a perfect picture, the green waters sliding past halfway up the porthole glass, and a big seagull hovering against the sky.  (If I was an artist I could probably still paint that scene from memory, it's still so clear, sixty plus years later.)

   I remember Mum came down to check I was okay one day when  she saw a 'rather furtive' man follow me down into the otherwise empty lower deck.

    He was talking to me and I didn't like him at all.  He may have been harmless, but when Mum appeared, looking a bit 'berserker pale', with her grey eyes stormy, he quickly slunk back back up on deck.  Looking back, and comparing it with other occasions when I felt similarly uneasy, I think this may well have been a near encounter with 'the dark side'.


   When we reached the other side of the water the trip was a  long way from over.  There was, and still is, a long pier, and a little electric train to take us to the land.  Inside were wooden slatted seats, once again thickly varnished like the Carley Floats.  Sometimes we walked, footsteps drumming on the planks, and other times we rode.  I have a feeling Mum didn't like the confines of the little train, except when it was raining.

   Occasionally we would see Uncle Jack, on a rare day off from labouring, fishing off the pier.  He never seemed to catch anything except the occasional small harbour crabs, and I've long suspected that a real fish would have spoiled the peace and quiet of his day out.  Sometimes we'd recognise his fishing rod, tied to the pier railings, next to his folding chair, but Jack wasn't there.

   Dad always reckoned that those were the times he was either in the pub, having 'a leisurely half', or going about 'some other business'.  Dad always suspected Jack visited a local woman occasionally on his 'fishing days'.  Their mother, an obsessively religious woman, would have been horrified.  But from an adult perspective I suspect she simply 'chose not to  know'.  She unbent just a little in her old age.

   As I got older I sometimes used to race the little train.  It wasn't fast, and with a few yards start, and nearly busting a gut, I could keep pace with it provided no-one walking on the pier got in the way.


   There is one other  story connected with that ferry.  I was there but too young to remember it personally.  But it became part of the family legends and I heard it retold often enough that I can picture it. as if I was watching...

   Mum and Dad had a bright magenta tandem, with a kiddy seat on the back.  Facing forward so I could see where we were going.  Mum said it was a proper racing tandem, with dropped handlebars, skinny wheels, and lightweight tubing.  A serious speed machine.  Very different from the hefty-tubed and fat-tyred 'touring tandem' they owned later.  They'd cycled the long way around to visit his mum, but decided it was worth hurrying to try and catch the last ferry that day.

   The man at the pier  entrance said they wouldn't make it, but waved them through without charging for a 'pier toll' ticket.

   Mum says they 'fair flew' along the pier, but halfway there they heard the ferry siren, signalling it was about to leave.

   "Dig in", said Dad. 

   They dug, and skidded around the right angle at the end onto the steep ramp leading down to the ferry jetty.  Totally ignoring the 'Cyclists Dismount' notice.  The ramp had wooden slats nailed across it for grip, and Mum swore that instead of bumping they just 'buzzed' under the wheels, like a cattle grid being crossed at high speed.

   The mooring ropes had already been slipped and the ferry was idling away from the jetty.  The crewman had just slid the gangplank aboard.

   "Hold that plank!"  Dad bellowed, in his best foreman's voice.

   The ferry crew saw the tandem charging at them, with a fiery little redhead at the front and his 'tall Amazonian wench' leaning over him from behind, seemingly hell bent on either boarding or diving headlong into the water.

   The plank was shoved back out, the ferry idled a little closer, the skipper sticking his head out through the side window, and they slammed to a stop on the deck.

   The crewman picked up his ticket machine as casually as if this was an everyday event and cranked out a couple of tickets.

   "Never had to make a pier head jump when I was in the Navy," said Dad, "But this will be a story to tell my boy when he's older."

   Many years later I  asked Mum if she'd felt scared, seeing the ferry pulling away.

   "Not really.  Your Dad always knew what he was doing."