Today the Hamble is best known as a magnet for yachtsmen and women – there are around three and a half thousand boats on the river, with a combined value estimated at over a billion pounds – it has been described as the greatest concentration of idle wealth outside the City of Westminster.
It is popular with yachtsmen because of deep water, double tides, ease of access to the Solent & the Channel, ease of access from London and south east. Over the centuries it has also been popular with invaders, settlers, pirates, smugglers, shipbuilders and writers.
Let me take you on a journey, heading downstream from the Manor Farm Country Park above Bursledon. A yellow buoy on the eastern side of the river marks the wreck of the Grace Dieu, built for Henry V at Southampton in 1414-20.
The Grave Dieu was the largest ship to have been built in its day, the first North European three masted sailing vessel, built using a system of planking involving three thicknesses of wood, making it incredibly strong. It has been described as “the space shuttle of its day, the peak achievement of the military-industrial complex of the time”.
By the time it was complete it was redundant, it put to sea just once (suffering a mutiny off the Isle of Wight in the process) and after Henry’s death in 1422 the ship was laid up on the River Hamble. A skeleton crew looked after it, and three other Royal ships also laid up here, until 1439 when it was struck by lightning, caught fire and was burned to the waterline. It has been suggested that it was allowed to burn as this was easiest way of salvaging the valuable iron nails form the ship. Most valuable items had already been removed by this time and sold off (it is said that the canvas sails were sold to artists).
The remains of the ship belong to Southampton University (who bought it for £10 in 1975) and has been studied by the National Maritime Museum and by the University. In 2004 the Channel Four tv programme Time Team spent a weekend looking at the remains, in conjunction with Southampton University. It is believed the remains of another of Henry V's ships - the Holighost - also lies in the mud here.
The big house on the hill is Brixedene House, now called Bursledon Hall. It is said this was built for Herbert Pennington – the man who put the HP in HP Sauce. (It wasn't - there was no Herbert Pennington). At the outbreak of WW2 it was put at the disposal of the War Office and became quarters for officers and Wrens in the run-up to D-day.
As D-day approached the river filled up with landing craft and naval patrol vessels. The field was filled with tented accommodation and what is now the Manor Farm Country Park became HMS Cricket – a shorebase comprising about 120 buildings (including NAAFI, hospital and armaments stores plus barracks). For a year (the site was commissioned in July 1943) the woods teemed with activity as boats and men were prepared for the task that lay ahead.
Four thousand personnel passed through Cricket on their way to Normandy on 6th June 1944 and the weeks that followed. In June 2004 a memorial to those who served at Cricket was unveiled by Countess Mountbatten. In 1944 she had been a Wren based at HMS Tormentor, at Warsash at the mouth of the river – she spoke of how the Solent was so tightly packed with craft “you could have walked dry shod across to the Isle of Wight”.
Following the war Brixedene House became Southampton Children’s Hospital (Bursledon Annexe) and was sold off in the 80’s by Margaret Thatcher. It is now owned by a drugs company. On the Swanwick side are a couple of noteworthy buildings – Bursledon Brickworks (operational from 1897), now a brick museum and Swanwick Air Traffic Control (regularly in the news as its costs spiralled and its opening date was put further and further back).
Under the motorway bridge on the Bursledon side a number of stakes in the river are all that remain of one of the 18th century shipyards. These are marked as a shipbuilding yard on a chart dating from 1783, with several slips shown. This was a yard belonging to Calhoun and Nowlan. One of the ships they built was the Woolwich, later under the command of Captain Beaufort; the Beaufort Scale was first recorded in the log of HMS Woolwich in 1805.
2 Between the bridges
The three bridges that span this part of the river are the A27 road bridge, the Brighton to Bristol railway and the M27 motorway. The original road bridge was a toll bridge built in 1800, the current structure dates from the 1930s. Before there was a bridge here there was a ferry (bought out by the bridge company in 1810). The railway came to Southampton in 1840 but it was 1888 before Hamble, Botley and Swanwick were linked by rail. The bridge originally carried a single line but was built wide enough for a second line to be added in 1910. The largest bridge is the motorway, built in the early 1970s.
Between the railway bridge and M27 is Aladdin’s Cave chandlery (owned by the Foulkes family). Although the chandlery has expanded and there are now several branches around (including one at Deacon’s yard, another at Moody’s) the original chandlery is still in use. This is on a barge - a concrete lighter – and is filled with everything you could ever want for your yacht.
On the eastern bank there are a number of hulks, some in the process of being broken up, some quietly rotting away. They include the Thames barge Kimberly, built in 1900 as a grain carrier out of Ipswich and several hopper barges that were used to transport materials for the building of the motorway – and have been here ever since.
3 Bursledon Pool
Alongside the Elephant boatyard is an odd looking craft – now a restaurant, once a disco called Floaters, but originally the chain ferry or Floating Bridge that linked Woolston with Southampton across the River Itchen.
The Elephant boatyard takes its name from a ship built here in 1786, by George Parsons. HMS Elephant was Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Copenhagen (on which he put his telescope to his blind eye and “saw no signal”). A few years later it was under the command of Captain Frank Austen, brother of Jane. Another brother, Charles Austen, was captain of another of Parsons’ vessels, the Phoenix, in 1815.
Not all Parsons’ ships were built at Bursledon, with the yards full here he carried out shipbuilding at Warsash (eg the Hotspur) and Chapel in Southampton (the Rattler). The Hotspur was involved in the capture of an American ship, the Chesapeake, in 1813 and the captain of the Rattler was put in charge of Chesapeake to bring her back to Portsmouth. In 1820 the American schooner was broken up and her timbers used to build Chesapeake Mill at Wickham. In all almost 50 boats were built for the Royal Navy between 1692 and 1813 on the Hamble, helping to establish Britain’s naval supremacy during this period.
Elephant became the Mermaid boatyard for the 80's television series Howards Way. The house next door - Ewers - was the fictional home of the character Jack Rolfe and the Jolly Sailor next door was the pub that Jack frequented. In the real world Ewers belonged to a shipbuilding family - Philomen Ewer built five ships here between 1744 and 1748, including the 48 gun Falkland and 60 gun Anson. Ewer was also a significant landowner and timber supplier. There is a memorial in Bursledon’s St Leonard’s Church.
His son, Philomen Ewer II, and grandson, Philomen Ewer III, were captains in the militia and described as “gentlemen” (when the term still meant something) but do not appear to have been involved in naval shipbuilding. PE II’s will (1797) refers to a tankard and salver inscribed with the name of “the Faulkland”. It also mentions his six “lawful” children and two “natural” children – whatever that means.
The Jolly Sailor, a pub since 1845, was well used as a prop by the TV series “Howards Way”. Next door is Myrtle Cottage, once the home of Bert Betts, a local character after whom the slip road between the M27 and Windhover roundabout has been named.
Some more modern buildings stand next - Parsons Plot taking its name form the Elephant's builder; its neighbour a large conservatory with house attached, next door an ugly flat roofed building has been converted to an attractive Swiss cottage style house; alongside the crenellated Lands End House can be seen the boathouse built for Mr Costain (of the building company) in the 1930s, for his yacht “Happy Go Lucky”.
On Lands End point are the remains of a shipyard used more or less continuously from 1692 to 1813.
4 Lower Swanwick Shore
Over on the eastern side we can see Brooklands Farm and, on the hill above, Brooklands – once the home of the de Selincourt family – author Aubrey (translator of Greek classics); author Hugh (wrote The Cricket Match and drove round Hampshire countryside with his cricket whites, looking for a game where there may have been a need for an extra man), Daphne de Selincourt married AA Milne, she was the mother of Christopher Robin. Also the birthplace of Joshua and Orlando Spencer Smith, twins who played cricket for Hampshire in the late 19th C. (Not to mention the home of Charles Frere in Howards Way).
IIn 1912 a guidebook described the boats on the river at this point as looking like “flies on a dead snake” and declared that there was “surely no room for any more”. Room to squeeze more boats was found by creating another marina.
Swanwick Marina, the only large marina on the river not owned by MDL, has been here since 1827. During the 19th century Moodys was responsible for removing a large section of the 14th century royal ship Grace Dieu that was blocking the channel further upstream. Yachts are no longer built at the Swanwick site (they’re built in the West Country and brought to Swanwick for fitting out). In 2006 Moody's became Premier Marina.
5 Off Badnam Creek
Analysis of peat layers from this area show that as the last Ice Age retreated, some 12,000 years ago, oak and birch trees became established on the river banks. And that is how it stayed for the next 10,000 years. Stone age axes (c. 8,500 years ago) have been found in the area showing that people were living here then, similarly there have been bronze age finds (palstave axes c. 2000 bc to 650 bc).
It is believed that before the Romans arrived in Britain the Hamble River was a boundary between two Iron Age (c.650 bc – 43 ad) tribes. On Hamble Common, at the mouth of the river, is a large defensive ditch, indicating a promontory fort. There is also evidence of salt working, suggesting trade. At this time the standard of vessels and navigation would have meant that Europe would have been within reach
The Romans passed through but there were no large settlement like Clausentum (Southampton) or Portchester – the Roman road linking these two places crossed the river about five miles upstream. There have been coin hoards found dating from 350 AD. One interesting find, now in Fareham Museum, was made here at Badnam Creek – a piece of paper thin lead rolled to the size of a small cigar containing a curse (or defixio) from one Muconius – a request to the gods to destroy the body and mind of a neighbour who had stolen gold and silver.
It wasn’t until the Romans left Britain and the Saxons came that the area became settled. There was a great battle fought involving two Saxons, Cerdic and Cynric, and the Romano-British Natanleod, in 497 which may have occurred here – modern local street names record the fact – and placenames upstream Curbridge and Curdridge may recall these Anglo Saxon warriors.
Evidence of a more recent defence can be seen at the mouth of Badnam Creek.
In 1912 the men of the “Boom Defence” were stationed at Badnam Creek. A number of hulks were kept, with the aim of blocking the entrances to the Solent, Portsmouth Harbour and Southampton Water should an invasion be imminent. To mark their territory they planted the mast of HMS Sultan, a Victorian ironclad warship, at the end of their pier. This originally went down into the ground about 30 feet (where fresh water was found) and stood out of the water another 40 feet. During WW2 the top mast was removed.
6 The Long Reach
This long straight section of the river is known locally as the Long Reach. On the eastern side is a footpath linking Warsash and Lower Swanwick passing through Crableck (spot the blue telephone box) and Universal boatyards, At Universal, during WW2, midget submarines called X-boats were built. They were tested on the river before being taken (amidst great secrecy) to a base in Scotland. The X-boats were responsible for the sinking of the German ship Tirpitz, as well as being involved in the D-day landings.
The walk is well worth doing although difficult for pushchairs and wheelchairs because of some steps either side of one bridge.
On the western shore, after the houseboats of Badnam Creek the wetland is SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) , important for wading birds such as redshanks, greenshanks, plover (aka lapwings or pewits), heron, oystercatchers, Canada geese and Brent geese, and in recent years little egrets
Some of the houses of Old Bursledon can be seen behind, including Greyladies, once the home of Emmeline Shaw Storey, who was responsible for some interesting features within the village (chimneys and fancy brick walls).
7 Off Mercury Pier
Just above Port Hamble are the remains of two 19th C trawlers - Flash (built at Great Yarmouth) and Fortuna (from Hull). After their life as crabbers had ended these two boats were used as hospital and fever ships by the training ship TS Mercury. These are pretty much all that remains of the Mercury, these hulks, a small plinth on the shoreline and a memorial at Hamble Church.
TS Mercury was established as a sail training establishment for “poor boys of good character” to fit them for the Merchant and Royal Navy. Initially based on the Isle of Wight it moved to the Hamble in 1892. It was founded by Charles Hoare, head of Hoare’s Bank, master of the Vale of the White Horse Hunt, one of the founders of Hampshire Cricket Club, a pillar of the Establishment, forty years old, married with children. Co-incidentally the year that Hoare embarked on this philanthropic venture he was facing charges relating to his relationship with 15 year old Beatrice Summer. There are various stories about Charles and Beatrice, including one that he “bought” her from her parents – although both parties said that the money which changed hands was just a loan . . . Beatrice later married Hoare’s friend CB Fry, a cricketer (who played for Hampshire and England), footballer (played for Southampton in an FA Cup Final and for England), held the World Long Jump record for many years, was introduced to Hitler (they shared similar views on youth discipline), was offered the throne of Albania (he turned it down – it didn’t pay well) and stood as a Liberal candidate in the 19 General Election. Fry acted as Superintendent of the Mercury for thirty years.
The Mercury provided the opportunity for many hundreds of young boys to receive training for a life at sea. It is said that the regime was harsh, but so was life at sea. The facility closed in 1968, with the dormitory ship TS Mercury (formerly President, formerly Gannet) moving to Gosport and then to Chatham where it is being restored. The land base was replaced with a housing estate.
8 Passing RSrnYC and Port Hamble
The old Coastguard cottages here are now part of the Royal Southern Yacht Club, which moved here in the 1930s. The modern part of the Club was opened by its Commodore, Prince Philip in 1997.
The Royal Southern is one of several sailing clubs on the river; over at Warsash are the Household Division Yacht Club, Warsash Sailing Club; on this side the Hamble River Sailing Club Royal Southern and RAF Yacht Club. These are all very active racing and cruising clubs, organising events throughout the year (including the Hamble Frostbite series). During the 1972 Olympics half of the British Sailing Team was from Hamble, including John Oakley who went on to skipper Lionheart in the 1980 America’s Cup.
Port Hamble Marina was built on the site used in the mid 18th century by Moody Janverin, a local shipbuilder who built HMS Hinchinbrook and HMS Lively at Hamble as well as a number of other Royal Navy vessels at Bursledon, Lepe and Bucklers Hard. There was much naval shipbuilding at Hamble and Warsash but more particularly at Bursledon between 1690 and 1813.
Port Hamble Marina was the first marina in the UK, established in the mid 1960s. It was a development of Luke Brothers boat yard. The original brothers were boatbuilders who established a yard on the river at the end of the 19th century. In 1912 they were involved in designing and building a seaplane – this was less than a decade after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk for the very first time. Hamble has had a continuous involvement in flying from those pioneer days to this day.
Aircraft factories at Hamble have included over the years AVRO (founded by AV Roe, known as the first Englishman to fly), Follands, Hawker Siddley, British Aerospace and AHM and Hamble air field which as the College of Air Training.
The author Neville Shute worked locally as an engineer and learned to sail at Port Hamble where he kept his boat. Shute is probably best known for “A town called Alice” and “On the Beach” but a couple of his other books (“What happened to the Corbetts” ) are based in this area.
Individual boats on the river change all the time but Port Hamble is a base for many well known yachts. Busy times include Cowes Week, early August. Yachts taking part in the Whitbread (now Volvo) Round the World Race have traditionally been based here, taking advantage of the excellent facilities available. Former Prime Minister used to keep his yacht Morning Cloud here; other regular visitors include Jolie Brise – built 1907 as a Le Havre Pilot Cutter, won the first Fastnet Race.
The quayside at Hamble has been centre of the village’s fishing industry for centuries, with buildings here dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The area was renowned for its oyster beds during Roman times, in the early 12th century, when the Priory was built the monks were required to provide 20,000 oysters each Lent in exchange for boots, bread and beer. The oyster trade largely died out in the mid 19th century with crab and lobster developing at both Warsash and Hamble.
The foreshore here was built up during WWII by American Servicemen, in the run up to D-day, using the rubble of blitzed Southampton. A number of buildings here have interesting associations – the pink house, called Ferryside Cottage, was the crew house of Tracey Edwards and the all-girl crew of Maiden in the run up to the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race. At the top of the hill you can see the white gable end of Hamble Manor House – once owned by the East End gangsters the Kray twins.
That'll do for now.