10 May 2018
With a little help from Google Maps we found our way back to Hythe High Street. Here we sat for a moment or two on a shady bench and perused Google Maps. My next objective was on Shore Road where another famous resident of Hythe once lived. While I was searching for it I spotted a road called Sir Christopher Court. Behind it was a small park facing the water. Might this be where the hovercraft stone was hidden? As the park was right at the beginning of Shore Road, we decided to check it out.
This turned out to be one of my better decisions. The hovercraft stone was right there on the edge of the park facing the sea. In front of it was a rather beautiful white wrought iron bench depicting the Hythe Ferry and pier, at least I think that’s what it represented. The stone had led us a merry dance but it had been well worth the detour.
Had I been a little more thorough with my research, or perhaps if I’d known Hythe better, it might have been easier to find. The park is right behind the Hythe Parish Council Offices in a building called The Grove. This was where the basic hovercraft designs were refined in the early 1960’s. This little piece of shoreline, with its ramshackle sheds and odd assortment of machinery was where history was, quite literally made.
The slipway in front of us was almost certainly the very place those first hovercraft were tested, ultimately leading to the first cross Channel hover-ferry in 1966. The service, called Seaspeed, was a joint venture between British Rail and the French SNCF. It operated between Dover and Calis or Boulogne-Sue-mer until 2000. In fact, my first ever trip to France, in 1980, was on a Seaspeed hovercraft. I remember it being very smooth and fast, more like flying than sailing. Even CJ would have liked it. The two craft were called The Princess Margaret and The Princess Anne. Sadly, I don’t remember now which I went on but the former was used in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever. Both craft are now preserved in the Hovercraft Museum at Lee on Solent.
Now we’d finally ticked all things hovercraft off our list we had a cottage to find. It was once the home of Thomas Edward Lawrence, archaeologist, military officer, diplomat and writer, who acted as liaison during the Sinai and Palestinian Campaign and the Arab Revolt during World War I. The latter saw him dubbed Lawrence of Arabia and this is how he is best known. According to my research the cottage had a blue plaque, so should, in theory, be easy enough to spot. Theory and practice are two different things though. After we left the little park we walked slowly along Shore Road. It seemed to be filled with cottages any of which could have been the one we were looking for.
We started out on the seaward side of the road but the pavements were narrow and the cars coming past seemed a little close for comfort so we crossed to the opposite side. As we walked we scrutinised the cottages we passed, hoping to see a blue plaque. After a while we came to more modern buildings but we could see more old buildings ahead so kept on walking.
We passed the Murray’s Hotel, a wonderful art nouveau style building with an ornately pargetted gable including the name and the date 1901 in beautiful script. This rather attractive and unusual building was originally a pub, but it closed in 1975 and is now offices. Although we had yet to find T E Lawrence’s blue plaque, we both wondered if he had enjoyed a drink there.
None the of the cottages near the pub come offices had a blue plaque. In fact they all looked suspiciously modern. Soon there were no more cottages at all and we were passing the Hythe Marine Park. This was where George Wadmore set up his shipbuilding yard in the 1750’s. The business passed down through his family and his grandsons, William, Mark and John Richards, built small vessels for the Royal Navy here during the Napoleonic wars.
In 1927 Hubert Scott-Pain bought the shipyard and founded The British Power Boat Company. The company built racing boats and military patrol boats to a revolutionary new design. From 1930, they also made seaplane tenders for the Air Ministery. In 1931 the RAF seconded T E Lawrence to liaise with Scott-Paine on the design of these boats. We may not yet have found his cottage but we had found the reason he came to Hythe.
The shipyard continued to be used during World War II and beyond by the Royal Navy, the RAF, as RAF Hythe, and even the United States Army until 2006. It then became a marine business park and, although it is still home to a local Air Training Corp Squadron there is nothing much to see there now. The huge, shed like metal buildings didn’t seem worthy of a photograph so we kept walking for a while, in the hope that we might eventually come upon the illusive Myrtle Cottage where Lawrence stayed. Once we’d passed the Marine Park though, there didn’t seem to be much of anything except trees. Still we kept walking, although it seemed suspiciously like we were walking into the countryside rather than towards any kind of cottages. When we rounded a bend and I could see the towers of Fawley ahead, I knew we’d gone too far. Up ahead there was a bench by the side of the road with a view across the sea. We stopped at it and I tried to ignore the distraction of the beautiful view and concentrate on the map on my phone, hoping to find where we’d gone wrong,
The little Isle of Wight Ferries we’re going back and forth and the familiar landmarks across the sea made this an interesting place to stop, even if it wasn’t actually what we’d come to see. I fished a snack out of my bag and we stopped for a while to enjoy just sitting and looking.
By this time it was fairly clear there were no more cottages ahead and we must have somehow missed Myrtle Cottage. Once we finished our snacks we turned back, determined to find it if it was there. This time we scrutinised every single building with extra care, even the ones that looked as if they were modern. We were almost right back at the start before we finally found it. We must have missed it when we’d crossed the road.
It was a lovely little cottage with a pretty front garden and, just above the name Myrtle Cottage, was the blue plaque we’d been looking for. Lawrence came here shortly after witnessing an RAF flying boat crash land a few hundred yards off shore. The rescue boat he was in was too slow to save the aircraft’s crew, who sadly drowned. Afterwards he helped his CO to campaign for faster boats and this was what led him to Hythe and the British Power Boat Company.
He spent almost a year in Hythe, overseeing the construction and trails of new Seaplane Tenders for the RAF. Although he didn’t personally build the revolutionary new boats, his input was invaluable and he was instrumental in persuading a very sceptical RAF to accept boats that rose above the water rather than cutting through it. The boats he helped develop saved countless lives during World War II. Had he lived longer I’m sure he’d have been very interested in the ultimate conclusion of this concept, the hovercraft.
It seemed to us that a great deal of Hythe was much as Lawrence would have remembered it. The marine park might be bigger and more modern than the shipyard he worked in and new cottages and shops have sprung up, but the heart of the village remains much as it must have been back then. It’s easy to imagine him bombing up and down the country lanes on his Brough Superior.
For us, there was one more thing to see in Hythe, at least for this visit. My final FGO Stuart postcard was of St John the Baptist’s Church, which we’d passed earlier while we were cottage hunting. Looking at Stuart’s postcard on my phone screen, it wasn’t immediately obvious where the photo had been taken from so we decided to walk around the outside. This led us along a little, leafy cutway where a large dragonfly kindly posed for us.
Until 1823, the people of Hythe had to go all the way to Fawley or Dibden to worship. Then a small chapel, seating just two hundred and fifty people, was built near the centre of the village. Soon the chapel was too small to cope with the growing population and, in 1874, this new church was built behind it. We’d hoped to find the red brick church with its Bath Stone dressings open but, when we reached the front, we were disappointed to find the doors closed.
From this side it was also clear that Stuart’s photograph must have been taken from the back of the church. Usually, a walk through a graveyard would mean lots of stops to look at graves but, by this time, CJ and I were both very hungry. We marched through, barely looking at the graves at all.
It was soon clear that this postcard was not going to be any easier to recreated than the one of the pier. As before, we walked up and down, trying to find the right spot, finally settling on a shot taken from the car park of Waitrose, which was obviously not there in Stuart’s day. Sadly, the view was spoilt by a badly placed lamppost and street sign but I did the best I could.
With the final postcard ticked off my list it was time to find something to eat. There were lots of places in the little village but they all seemed a touch expensive. In the end we settled on good old chips, purchased from a quaint little shop called Philpott on the High Street and eaten on the bench we’d sat on earlier.
We’d had a lovely day out but now it was time to head for home. As we walked back along Hythe Pier, looking out across the water towards Southampton, we knew there was much more to see in Hythe. Despite being full of chips, CJ handled the homeward journey just as well as he had the outbound trip. As we gently glided into Southampton Docks we both agreed this would not be our last trip to Hythe.
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