Hovercraft – hovering to the Isle of WightWednesday, 29 June 2016
Remember hovercraft? Those air-cushion vehicles or ACVs were going to take over the world at one point, but today there’s only one passenger carrying service remaining. Until this week my last hovercraft trip was between Macau and Hong Kong 30 years ago. We’d got stuck in Macau, pinned down by a cyclone, and when the winds calmed down we were behind schedule and looking for any way to get back to Hong Kong. The hovercraft was the first transport available.
Assorted military and coast guard hovercrafts still operate, but as a fare-paying passenger if you want to float just a metre or so above the surface you better head for the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. Two Hovertravel hovercraft shuttle back and forth between Portsmouth on the mainland and Ryde on the island.
Earlier this week I took the train down to Portsmouth with Simon Calder, travel expert at The Independent, to try the regular hovercraft across to Ryde, the eight km trip takes just 10 minutes. The two current hovercraft have been operating for 30 years, but they’re soon to be replaced by new 88-seater Griffon Hoverwork GHL 12000TDs and we’d come down to try out the first one.
We traveled along the Isle of Wight coast to have a glimpse of Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight retreat. Government House in the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, Australia is said to have taken its inspiration from Osborne House. We then crossed the Solent, the entrance into Southampton, and looped back past No Man’s Land Fort before surging back up over the sand into Ryde. When the tide goes out you need to get a half km out from coastline to get your feet thoroughly wet at Ryde and it’s that long flat which makes the hovercraft the idea transport for this particular route.
I’ve got a long family connection with the Solent and made a return trip to the region in late 2012. Earlier that year I’d come up the Solent on the Queen Mary 2, at the conclusion of a trans-Atlantic crossing. As for that strange fort, it dates from 1880 when it was one of the Solent Forts built to repel any would-be invaders at this point.
◄ Walking between Portsmouth railway station and the hovercraft terminal we passed a pub named after that pioneering Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Now there’s a man who would have approved of hovercraft. In 2012 I had another Brunel encounter on the Thames.