Ferry tales and other stories...

Carole Varley discovers that Hythe has to offer much more than meets the eye as she took a walk and talk around the historical town

Ferry tales and other stories…

Carole Varley discovers that Hythe has to offer much more than meets the eye as she took a walk and talk around the historical town


Photos by Jason Allen

It’s a site from which people have been ferried to and fro across Southampton Water since time immemorial and has one of the longest piers in the country with the oldest continuously operating public pier train in the world that was the first in the country to employ a woman train driver.

Hythe even hit the national headlines recently as bucking the trend when it comes to High Street occupancy. So, while it can’t help but be overshadowed by Southampton, its much larger neighbour, it does rather seem to hide its light under a bushel.

Most Read

One person who would like to change all that is the (now former) train driver in question, Sarah Marsden, who today holds a series of history walks and talks in the town. “I’d like to get the numbers of people visiting Hythe up,” she says. “I’d like people coming from Southampton to see it as their gateway to the New Forest.”

That’s not to say that Hythe doesn’t get visitors, of course, many of whom arrive via the ferry which is currently operated by White Horse Ferries, along with the pier and railway, from the huge P&O and Cunard cruise ships that ply the waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and dock just around the corner.

Indeed, the visiting passengers are possibly one of the reasons why the independent shops are thriving in the town’s quaint high street – much of it still comprising cutesy Georgian cottages with floor levels lower than the street. Magpie Fashions, for instance, a high-quality clothes shop handily sited next to the pier’s railway terminus, offers a variety of cruisewear among its ranges.

Indeed, with the International Boat Show, the biggest show of its kind in Europe, taking place this month from September 14 to 23, Hythe is expecting a tidal wave of showgoers travelling there via its ferry. It was the same story in July, when the town was thronged with visitors who came to watch P&O celebrate its 175th anniversary by, for the first time in its history, bringing all seven vessels of its cruises fleet together in its home port before sailing in procession out into the Solent.

It’s just that Sarah feels that Hythe has a lot more to offer than has so far been recognised. As someone whose parents worked for the cruise lines, whose husband was in the merchant navy, whose son is a skipper and who spent several years herself working for White Horse Ferries in a variety of capacities from boat crew to their famous train driver, Sarah knows a lot about boats.

She also knows a lot about local history. She begins our history walk and talk by telling us how the town grew from Hythe Hard, a gravel shingle reaching out into Southampton Water, which was formed by the rivers Test, Itchen and Hamble flowing into it. This made it an important landing place, from the time of the Roman settlement at Clausentum (named after the Roman emperor Claudius who came to England in AD49) which is thought to have been sited on a promontory overlooking the River Itchen, to the days when the ‘werrymen’, to use the local parlance, would convey their passengers across the water in flat-bottomed boats.

Skipping through the centuries, Sarah tells us how the area was harried by Viking attacks, and how Henry VIII used the stones from the nearby dissolved Netley Abbey, which we can see across the water, to build Netley Castle, as part of a chain of 12 fortifications to defend his major ports. Today it has been made into private apartments, but still looks imposing.

The day we visit the weather is blustery, but sunny and, while the white-sailed yachts go billowing silently past, Sarah takes us to Prospect Park, overlooking the glittering water, which is occupied with people soaking up the sun on one of its all-too rare appearances.

“On a hot day the place is packed with picknickers here,” she says. From here, and to our right, we have a good view of the pier, which was built in the last century after the boats just “kept getting bigger” and were no longer able to reach the quay. So, with the backing of the town’s great and good, in 1881, the mayor proudly declared opened Hythe Pier, which stretches 700 yards from the centre of town into the deep water channel of Southampton Water, making it the seventh longest pier in the country. The railway was opened in 1923, using electricity that the company generated itself, selling the excess to the businesses in the High Street.

The catamaran Great Expectations is the usual vessel for the ferry, and this is backed up when necessary by Hotspur IV, who is something of a vintage lady herself, dating back to 1946, although she did get an overhaul and new engines in 1968.

One of a series of Hotspurs used on the crossing, the first being a paddle steamer in the last century, she was named after Sir Henry Percy, the first Earl of Northumberland, a direct ancestor of James Percy, who acquired the ferry company in1887. The Percy family firm, General Estates Company, still has a presence in the town.

Overlooking the water to our left is an unassuming pink house, which Sarah tells us is owned by the Cockerell family and where the hovercraft inventor Sir Christopher Cockerell, ended his days in 1999, aged 88.

Other famous names connected with the town include T E Lawrence, of Arabia fame, who lived here for three years, working at the British Power Boats Factory with the dashing figure of Hubert Scott-Paine on designing and racing the power boats that were to become rescue vehicles for crashed airmen in the Second World War. Indeed, aircraft feature quite strongly in the recent history of the area, Sarah tells us as we walk to the other side of the pier, with the wartime Spitfires first being rolled out at nearby Woolston, and Hythe becoming an important maintenance base for the BOAC flying boats, until their demise in the 1950s.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that it is the liners looming over Southampton Water that dominates the past and present of the town. “One of the unique features of this part of the coast, from Swanage to East Sussex, is the double tide,” says Sarah.

This prompts prolonged periods of deep water to facilitate the arrival of the very large ships, which we can see to our left from the pier. This is where the Titanic sailed from on her maiden voyage, and today one of the perks of travelling on the ferry from Hythe, is the chance of a close-up view of the huge ships docked there.

The pier and ferry are not just all about joy rides and pleasure trips, though, as Sath Naidoo, who has been operations manager for White Horse Ferries for the past 15 years, will attest. Given that the journey is made by busy commuters all year round, timings on the train and ferry, which connect with services on the other side, are crucial.

Although they do get winter waves crashing over the top of the boat occasionally, they’ve never had to interrupt the service except for once, in 2003, when a drunken dredger driver (who went to prison for eight months) smashed right through the pier, missing a crowd of people heading home from a football match by mere minutes.

Everyone in the company, which employs from about 25 to 30 people at any one time, from drivers to directors, helped with the building work to restore the pier to its former operative glory as soon as possible. “Yes, we all helped out,” says Sath, which acts as something of a metaphor for the town of Hythe itself. Sitting sidelong to, but not subsumed by Southampton, “Hythe has,” to use Sarah’s words, “kept its heart”; and that’s something worth seeing.

Comments powered by Disqus