Very few populated islands lie off the coastline marking the Western Group’s boundary, and when this series was conceived, a remarkable, long running coincidence linked two of them.
St Mary’s is one of the pair: principal landfall at our most westerly outpost, the Isles of Scilly, blessed with Britain’s mildest climate, and ranked as a dreamscape by ornithologists and environmentalists alike. The other is the Isle of Wight, complete with needles, now-defunct coincidence – and an attached, surprisingly little known, but truly world-beating story…
Until October 2012, helicopters flew from Penzance to the tiny airport on St Mary’s, maintaining a scheduled service which began in 1964 and had run continuously for forty-eight years. Long before its demise – the reasons for which are explored elsewhere in this series – it had entered the record books as the only remaining genuine scheduled public helicopter service worldwide.
The other half of this record -breaking coincidence remains very much alive and well, flying from the Portsmouth suburb of Southsea, hundreds of miles along the south coast. Here you can buy a ten-minute ticket to Ryde, crossing the Solent on one of the rarest of today’s flying machines, a Hovercraft.
This service began over forty eight years ago in 1965, making it another airborne record-breaker: the world’s longest-running scheduled passenger-carrying Hovercraft service. Two craft make the Portsmouth to Ryde crossings seven days a week: one of them is the “Solent Express,” a state-of-the-art BHT130 machine powered by four turbo-diesel engines, weighing 75 tonnes, and capable of carrying 130 passengers at speeds up to 45 knots.
This was the first craft designed and built entirely by Hovertravel’s sister company, Isle of Wight based Griffon Hoverwork – created in 2009 by Gibraltar-owned parent company the Bland Group, through a merger with Griffon Hovercraft of Southampton. This move finally and completely consolidated a previously diverse industry which began on the Island, bringing half a century of Hovercraft design, manufacture and operational experience under common ownership for the first time.
Hovercraft excel where boats and road vehicles can’t easily venture: crossing sand, mud, rocks, weeds, logs, debris, rivers and rapids; they’re apparently also very good at ignoring sea mines… Thus machines built on the island are employed in commercial roles including survey work and civil engineering support, coastal, ice and airport crash rescue services – even mobile medical clinics. National security and military operations embrace border patrol, surveillance, water policing and customs duties – some even provide weapons platforms.
With such a masterful CV, tackling the Solent – and the acres of sandy beach around Ryde at low tide – is akin to a flight in the park. Thus the BHT 130 recently took challenging trial passenger crossings of the Firth of Forth between Edinburgh and Kirkcaldy in its stride, only to be beaten by bureaucracy. After two years of deliberations, Edinburgh planners voted against construction of suitable river ramps and a terminal; Fife planners meanwhile voted in favour, and in 2011 the project unsurprisingly collapsed in disarray.
But even without Scotland, Isle of Wight-built hovercraft have little left to prove: they operate on all five continents and in over 40 countries worldwide, in environments ranging from South American jungles to Arctic snow and ice.
Sadly the hovercraft principle itself is not a west country invention: the honour belongs to Christopher Sydney Cockerell, a talented engineer born in Cambridge in 1910. He spent the second world war contributing much to radar development, before a career change in 1951 saw him take on a small Norfolk boatyard.
Here it occurred to him that an air cushion might bear the weight of an object on water, markedly reducing the costly drag encountered by floating vessels. Reputedly he experimented with a vacuum cleaner, pumping air into a coffee tin, inside which was a smaller tin, which duly lifted off – and hovered. By 1955 patents had been granted relating to a prototype – which Cockerell described as a “Hovercraft.”
British reticence ensured the path from primitive experiments to workable prototype was both tortuous and perpetually starved of development cash. Cockerell persevered, and in 1957 the Ministry of Supply belatedly allowed the government-backed National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) to fund development of the first hovercraft capable of carrying a person.
The contract was let to flying boat maker Saunders Roe, based at Cowes, who snappily christened the machine the “Saunders-Roe Nautical 1,” later shortened to SR N1. It first flew on 31 May 1959, and six weeks later crossed from Calais to Dover – on the 50th anniversary of the first Channel crossing by air.
Later, aircraft industry rationalisation saw Westland Aircraft take on Saunders-Roe hovercraft interests, and in the 1960’s Christopher Cockerell gained a CBE, before falling out with both the NRDC and Westland. In a scenario spookily reminiscent of the fate of motor industry legend Sir Alec Issigonis around the same time,
He nonetheless continued as an adviser, receiving his Knighthood in 1969. The very next year the industry abruptly dispensed with his advisory services, after which he moved on to hovertrain development and wave power theories.
Britain’s hovercraft industry became resurgent under new ownership in the 1990’s, and the “Hovershow 1999” exhibition was a landmark event, the biggest of its kind since the 1960’s – which included celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the first Hovercraft flight. Sir Christopher, then aged 88, was too ill to attend, but a specially organised flypast honoured his achievements. He died the following day.
A lottery funded plaque now stands in Cockerell Rise, East Cowes, marking the spot where Christopher Cockerell lived and worked during his time spent on practical hovercraft development. His retirement was spent in Hythe, on the edge of the new Forest: here another memorial looks out in silent tribute over Southampton water towards the Solent – where Britain’s only scheduled Hovercraft service continues its record-breaking run.
If you’d like to know more about the Portsmouth to Ryde Hovercraft service, Sir Christopher Cockerill, or the history of Hovercraft development in general and the cessation of services across the English Channel, have a look at these:
To find out more about the Bland Group, visit www.blandgroup.com
To find out more about Griffon Hoverwork, visit www.GriffonHoverwork.com
To find out more about what happened to the Isles of Scilly Helicopter service, see the first of this series.
Footnote: WGMW vice-chairman Robin Roberts remembers his first trip in a commercial hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais.
“It was a very efficient and rapid service but my abiding memory was the pounding from just a mild swell, not unlike air turbulence in an aeroplane, which meant ‘in-flight’ service had to be suspended. In calmer conditions the speed of embarkation, crossing and disembarkation gave hovercraft a strong advantage over traditional ferries, but the lack of room and susceptibility of services to adverse weather meant they were not as reliable as ships.
“Today’s Channel Tunnel probably runs the hovercraft very close in terms of service and speed, but of course, it is an all-weather service”.
Passengers disembarking the ferries at Calais actually drive past the former hoverport on their left about 2km north-east of the present port, which is now used for other purposes but has a characteristic very wide concrete apron around it.”
The annual Western Group driving day one year included small hovercraft for participants to try over a handling course laid out near the paddock, but many ended their runs sitting in the thick hedgerows having failed to master the inherent understeer.
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…