Hythe - A good landing place

For many, Hythe might just be part of the commute to work via its ferry, but the pier, train and launch has played a major part in the area's history, as Jill Belcher discovered

It’s an ancient route for travellers, steeped in history, yet the Hythe to Southampton ferry is very much a service for our times.Drivers, commuters and holidaymakers can avoid the planet-polluting drive of more than a dozen miles to the heart of Southampton – let alone the traffic jams and costs of parking – and have the opportunity to get up close to ocean liners in Hampshire’s busy port. It takes them only 10 minutes and there’s even a free bus into the heart of the city and to Southampton railway station.They are following a long tradition, as there has been a ferry service between the town and the city since at least the 16th century, although the pier at the start of their journey has only been in place since 1881.And history looms large as they trundle along the 640-metre pier, pulled by the world’s oldest operating pier train, originally built in 1917 for the First World War mustard gas factory in Avonmouth. Accident proneThe Hythe Ferry and Pier Train once held the title for the world’s longest continuously-operating service but that came to a sudden and dramatic end on November 1, 2003, when the dredger M.V. Donald Redford collided with the pier, slicing a 150ft hole through the middle section. Only minutes before, crowds of football supporters had been on the train returning from a match in Southampton. Very fortunately, the vessel missed the train, which was at the shore end at the time of the incident.The service continued to operate from the Hythe Marina pontoon and, thanks to swift action by pier, railway and ferry owners Swindon-based White Horse Ferries, the pier was re-opened only two months later.It wasn’t the first mishap to befall the service. It had been struck and damaged in July 1885, when the schooner Annie hit the pier midway along the northern side, and it had been hit by a sailing barge in 1915 and a landing craft in 1945. 

ProgressionWhen Hythe pier opened, on the very first day of 1881, luggage had to be transported on two-wheeled hand-pulled carts, some of them pulled by young women porters. The solid cart wheels eventually caused damage to the wooden planks of the pier, so plans went ahead to build a tramway, something which had been envisaged but not carried out in the original scheme.Local builder and undertaker Edward J. Kingham won the contract in 1909 and the tracks were sunk between the planks on the north side of the pier. Even then, it was a hard job for the porters who had to hand-push the four-wheeled trucks, occasionally taking the extra weight of passengers in them, as well as goods and luggage. Four small wooden huts were built along the pier to act as shelters in bad weather.After the First World War, the decision was taken to replace the hand-pushed tramway with a new electric railway on the south side of the pier and this eventually opened in July 1922 and has continued ever since.The project has had its fair share of entries in the history books. On June 4, 1944, King George VI paid a surprise visit to Hythe Pier, arriving by launch from Southampton. In the know were two groups of sailors, who had had to make hurried preparations once the 5pm ferry to Southampton had left.One party had less than 10 minutes to clean the train ready for its royal passenger while another – decked out in their best uniforms – manned each lamppost to form a guard of honour, saluting as the King’s railway carriage passed. The party then departed for Broadlands at Romsey.

The passengersOther distinguished travellers have included King Alfonso of Spain (en route to Osborne House in 1906), Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1907, Princess Beatrice of Battenburg in 1909 and Prince and Princess Henry of Prussia in 1911.And, of course, Hythe does not forget the many heroic servicemen for whom the pier was their departure point for D-Day in June 1944.Today’s passengers tend to be commuters, many of whom take their bicycles on board, or holidaymakers. The ferry is a vital link between Hythe and the villages of the New Forest and Southampton, while for trippers it is a unique and very pleasurable way to see some of the world’s greatest ocean liners, including the Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2, when they are in port.It’s a comfortable ride on the two vessels which operate from the pier and which have a yearly refit. The catamaran Great Expectations was built by White Horse Ferries operated across the Thames from Tilbury to Gravesend. Hotspur IV was built in 1946 and has operated from Hythe ever since.And it’s still a very friendly service at Hythe, thanks to the ‘family’ of staff, many of whom are long-serving. There are three train drivers, of which Gerry Barton is the longest-serving. Four skippers, including ferry, pier and train superintendent Sath Naidoo, keep the two vessels running, while Margaret Swain has clocked up 21 years as office manager and can answer any question from travellers.

Sponsor a plank

The pier is undergoing major works to ensure it survives for another 120 years and the affection in which this historic Hampshire service is held is apparent in the way the public have responded to the Hythe Pier Restoration Fund's unique money-raising effort.Decking planks are being replaced with new replenishable hardwood planks from a well-respected and managed renewable source.If you sponsor �10 or more, your name will be entered into a permanent record book, ‘Friends of the Pier’. For �30, you can sponsor three metres of planking and your name will either be engraved alongside others into one of the new planks fitted to the pier or onto a solid brass plaque which will be fitted to the pier.A donation of �60 will sponsor a five-metre plank, with the names of yourself and your partner engraved into one of the new planks fitted to the pier or on a solid brass plaque.If you sponsor a seven-metre plank, costing �90, you can have a message of up to 30 letters engraved on a new plank or on a plaque. Contact Hythe Ferry Office (02380 840722) for details.

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