10 May 2018
Hythe is a quaint little place that seems half stuck in another, gentler age. The narrow High Street may be pedestrianised these days but the shops with their bow fronted windows look much as they must have when Jane Austin visited back in 1807. Red white and blue bunting was strung across the street and no one seemed to be in much of a hurry, unlike the busy city centre we’d left behind us. Despite its slightly old fashioned air, I knew there were some modern amenities and, once we’d left the pier, we both decided our first port of call should be one of them. Anticipating the journey CJ hadn’t had any breakfast, for fear of seeing it again on the boat, so we headed down the High Street to Costas for croissants and coffee.
While we were enjoying our refreshments at a sunny table out in the street, I went through the FGO Stuart postcards I’d saved on my phone. Part of the plan for this visit was to try to recreate them, if I could find the right spot. As it happened, we were in almost the perfect place for the first one.
Stuart’s photograph had been taken a few yards away from our seats, looking up the High Street towards the pier. The buildings in the old postcard are all still there, some have been painted and the frontages and shop signs have obviously changed over the years but, apart from the pedestrisation of the street, barely anything else has changed.
In theory, the next postcard should have been easy to recreate. It featured a view of the pier. After the success of my first photo I was feeling confident as we strolled back up the High Street but, when we arrived back at the pier this quickly evaporated. In Stuart’s day there were no buildings at the landward end of the pier and it looked very much as if he had stood on the foreshore to take his photograph. Now the ticket office, an estate agents and the public toilets completely obliterated the view Stuart had had of the pier. In the end we walked a little way along the road and I did what I could from Prospect Park. The photos were from a completely different angle but they were the best I could manage.
As it happened, Prospect Place was on my list of places to visit so our detour was no hardship. The inventor Christopher Cockerell lived, and died, in Prospect Place, in one of the pretty little cottages overlooking the park and the water. There was supposed to be a stone with a plaque somewhere on the waterfront near his house. It wasn’t clear exactly where but I had an idea it might be in the park. For a brief moment I thought I’d found it when I spotted a large stone in the corner of the park but, on closer inspection, it turned out to be a memorial to the young Commandos who had camped nearby before they embarked for the D Day landings. It was good to see it covered in poppy wreaths, showing the people of Hythe had not forgotten them.
We searched the rest of the park, CJ even went as far as to climb down onto the shingle beach, but the stone we were looking for was nowhere to be found. When we were absolutely sure it wasn’t there we turned our attention to the houses opposite. Perhaps we’d have more luck there?
As we were now on Prospect Place and I knew the house number was 16, it should have been an easy matter to find it. To be honest I’d expected to see a tell tale blue plaque on one of the little cottages. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a house numbered 16. Perhaps the information I had was wrong or maybe I was missing something. Feeling rather discouraged, especially as I’d actually done some proper research for once, I took photos of all the cottages in the hope I’d be able to find out more later.
Christopher Cockerell was born in Cambridge. From an early age he was interested in engineering and spent a lot of time building crystal radio sets and inventing things like a steam engine to work his mother’s sewing machine. His father encouraged his creativity, offering him £10 for every patent he took out. This quickly became rather expensive.
In 1935 he married Margaret Elinor Belsham and got a job at Marconi where he worked on developing broadcasting equipment for television and was instrumental in the development of the first equipment used by the BBC. When World War II broke out he was part of the research team that created the first radio direction finder, an invention that was soon in every British bomber and saved countless lives. This was the invention he was most proud of but the one he is best known for is the hovercraft.
The idea for the hovercraft began with a quest to make boats go faster. Cockrell had seen the Thorneycroft company’s experiments where a little boat was partially raised from with water by a small engine and it occurred to him that lifting the whole boat out of the water, meaning it had virtually no drag, would achieve even greater speeds. His first experiments involved a vacuum cleaner and some tin cans but the idea took many years to develop. Convinced it would work, he financed the project by selling his personal possessions.
Even when the prototype was built and the patent filed, he found it difficult to sell. As the hovercraft was not quite a ship and not quite an aircraft, the shipbuilding and aircraft industries weren’t interested. The British Government were, but weren’t prepared to stump up any money. In fact they set the whole thing back by putting it on the secret list, thereby stopping Cockrell from making his design public. It was 1958 before it was declassified and the National Research and Development Corporation had a full size prototype built by Sanders-Roe on the Isle of Wight. A subsidiary company, Hovercraft Development Ltd, was formed, with Christopher Cockrell as Techincal Director. In 1960, the company moved to The Grove, at Hythe and Cockrell bought a house in Prospect Place.
In 1969 Cockerell was knighted for his achievement. Ironically, it never really made him much money. After tax he earned just £28,000 for more than ten years work. He spent the rest of his life in Hythe and, after a short illness, died on 1 June 1999. One of the houses I took a photo of is probably his. Which one remains a mystery.
So, with one success and two abject failures under my belt I decided to head for Hythe Marina. Maybe we’d find the hovercraft stone there somewhere but, if we didn’t, there’d almost certainly be some interesting things to see and some great views. We left Prospect Place and turned onto West Street. Straight away it proved to be a good plan. We’d hadly walked more than a few yards when we came to a pretty little bridge with a wooden kissing gate. The bridge crossed a small stream, the name of which I haven’t been able to find, just before it passed through a sluice into the sea. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
The bridge took us to a path that followed the shoreline along the edge of the marina. We could see masses of ship’s masts on the other side of the wall across the road but we kept following the path, curious to find out where it would take us. We passed expensive looking houses with manicured gardens, a huge bouy being used as a sculpture and rows of benches where we might have sat looking out over the water if we’d wished.
The flats on Weston Shore seemed close enough to touch, the distance between them and the end of Hythe Pier far shorter than either of us had expected. As the path turned sharply left, following the line of the marina, we came upon a large anchor and a big, square World War II memorial. Beyond it, on the far shore was the grain terminal and the span of the Itchen Bridge. There was no hovercraft stone though.
We turned the corner and carried on, folllowing the sea wall until we came to a dead end at the lock gates where all the little boats go in and out. From here we could see the port of Southampton, where our journey began this morning. It seemed strange to think we were so close, and yet, so far away from home.
As we couldn’t go any further forwards we spent some time wandering around the marina admiringly all the colourful boats and expensive houses. It was all very beautiful but well outside anything we could ever hope to own.
All this wandering was not part of my plan, but, so far, most of the things I’d wanted to see seemed to be illuding me. It was time to head back towards the centre of the village, maybe we’d have more luck with some of the other things on my list.
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