What makes Buckler’s Hard so special

Buckler's Hard and the Beaulieu river from the air

Buckler's Hard and the Beaulieu river from the air - Credit: Archant

Barely touched by the passage of time, Buckler’s Hard survives as a unique record of a once thriving shipbuilding centre. Article first published in Feb 2018

Whether stopping-off in historic Beaulieu village, berthing in the nearby marina, or mooring on the tranquil waters of the estuary, landlubbers and sailors alike find it hard to resist the pull of Buckler’s Hard. Yet to understand what makes this place special, there’s one person who knows better than most: Mary Montagu-Scott.

As part of the dynasty who have been custodians of the Beaulieu Estate for over four centuries, Mary has invested a considerable amount of her time and energy into conserving Buckler’s Hard. That this reminder of the nation’s seafaring heritage continues to fire her interest and imagination is there for all to see, in the ongoing enhancements enjoyed by the thousands of visitors who descend each year on this haven alongside the Beaulieu River.

A keen dinghy sailor herself, Mary, who’s also Commodore of the Beaulieu River Sailing Club as well as being the present High Sherriff of Hampshire, has long-held a passion for the area’s history. So, it comes as little surprise that back in 2015, she was instrumental in persuading Portsmouth’s then newly established boat building college to run training sessions in traditional techniques at Buckler’s Hard. A timber framed shipwright’s workshop part-funded by the New Forest National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund, was recreated on the water’s edge for this purpose. And since then students have been learning the skills employed during the 18th and 19th centuries when over 50 warships were built for the British Navy, including Lord Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.

“To hear the sounds of the adzes (a type of axe) at Buckler’s Hard again has been fantastic,” enthuses Mary. “It’s great to see timbers from the estate woodland being brought down and cut using traditional tools by the students. These days, many people have lost touch with the use of hand tools so when visitors and children in particular see someone skilled in using a traditional axe instead of a piece of machinery, it’s a case of ‘wow’. We’re hoping before too long, to have more partners from across the country, and maybe international ones, coming down to use the facility.

“When my year as High Sherriff ends in April I shall be returning with great vigour to getting the shipwright school more established. Currently, we only have the one building but are hoping to expand the workshop buildings to include a forge.”

With metal working an active part of the site until the late 1800s, archaeological digs have already pinpointed where the original forge stood. And once re-established, Mary confirms this means it will once again be possible to build “proper boats”, at Buckler’s Hard.

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Clearly excited by this prospect of reintroducing more historic crafts, in the meantime the workshop she says is already being put to further use.

“We’ve also been running other courses, such as timber framing and cob wall building, and so are looking at expanding the use of the workshop for traditional and rural skills.”

One building that has survived the comings and goings through the centuries is the chapel at Buckler’s Hard, which holds a strong personal connection for Mary.

“It’s my nearest church and our family’s privately owned chapel. This is where I got married in 1997, and both my children were christened there. So it’s a very special place for me.”

And the more recent addition of a sundial close by, which intriguingly features a motif of the WW1 merchant ship SS Persia, torpedoed by a German U-boat off Crete, also has special significance for the current Montagu family.

“My grandfather was one of those who went down with the ship and his secretary, the Spirit of Ecstasy model Eleanor Thornton, drowned. They had a daughter with them who survived, my aunt.

“We had this wonderful memorial unveiled on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Persia, in honour of the 343 passengers and crew who perished,” Mary explains. “A service of remembrance was held in the spring of 2016 and we had an enormous response with around 120 relatives attending.

As she goes on to reveal, a unique limited edition collection of hand-made jewellery has also been commissioned, providing a lasting memory of this tragic episode in maritime history.

“I’m wearing a lovely ring on my finger right now. It is gold with a ruby recovered from the wreck and I wear it every single day. These rubies had been on the seabed for 88 years, so they really are a part of the story, particularly for anyone who is connected in some way with it. I like to think a bit of the SS Persia is always with me.”

That Mary took the trouble to work with the designer in the coming up with the rings, bracelets, pendants, cufflinks and earrings currently on sale in the Maritime Museum - which also displays salvaged artefacts, is further proof, if needed, that Buckler’s Hard under her watch will never become a Disneyesque theme park.

“It’s the real thing, an authentic 18th century village where ships were built and the beautiful Beaulieu River remains unspoilt to this day,” she says. Adding: “Everything we do here is about preserving all the special qualities of Buckler’s Hard. When talking about what has changed, I’m pleased to say rather little.”


Don’t miss

• The Maritime Museum which recalls the Buckler’s Hard history.

• St Mary’s Chapel where a viewing window reveals a smugglers’ hidey-hole.

• The shipwright’s and the labourer’s cottages that recreate everyday life in the early 1800s.

• The replica shipwright’s workshop, built using hand-hewn timbers from the Beaulieu Estate.

• A gentle riverside stroll along the Beaulieu River (river cruises restart Easter 2018), or take the ancient woodland trail.

Getting there

• Where: Take M27 exit junction 2 following the brown and white tourist signs towards Beaulieu. At Beaulieu Village, follow the signs to Buckler’s Hard. Satnav: SO42 7XB.

• When: Buckler’s Hard is open every day except Christmas Day. Winter opening hours (until 31 March 2018) are 10am to 4.30pm.

• How: Admission costs (inc. full day’s parking) £6.90 for adults, £6.40 for children 5-17 years; a family ticket is £19.70. Or buy an annual pass: £12.50 per adult, £33 per family, for unlimited free visits and 10 per cent discount on gift purchases from the Maritime Museum shop.

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