There is now just one place in Europe where you can travel by commercial hovercraft service – from Southsea to the Isle of Wight – and it’s great!
The Isle of Wight, a highly scenic island separated from the southern England county of Hampshire by the body of water known as the Solent, is a popular tourist destination – particularly in the summer months. Tourism is crucial to its economy, and its direct value in 2015 was £263 million. But, obviously, every tourist (and local) needs to cross the water in order to get on and off the island.
Car ferries and, more recently, also fast ferries – owned by the railways for much of the 19th and 20th centuries – ply the routes between Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington and Ryde, Fishbourne, Cowes and Yarmouth. A train ferry was trialled between 1882 and 1888 using the Scottish vessel Carrier between St Helens and Langston, however this came to nothing.
Travel to the island beneath the Solent and through the air above it have both received serious consideration in the past. A railway tunnel under the Solent was mooted on numerous occasions around the turn of the last century, most recently in the 1920s, but was not encouraged by the Southern Railway which had very recently invested in new ferries and piers.
Commercial air travel to the island dates back to the 1930s. On 1 May 1934, Railway Air Services in conjunction with Spartan Air Lines Limited began a service from London. C.F. Dendy-Marshall in his book A History of the Southern Railway (1936) rather quaintly describes:-
Passengers are conveyed from Imperial Airways, adjoining Victoria Station, to Croydon Air Port by motor car, and thence fly to Cowes; the whole journey taking an hour and a half.
This service was short-lived, and was the average holidaymaker was priced well and truly out of the market for it. By the way, the unusual-sounding (to us) “Croydon Air Port” was London’s primary airport from 1920 until 1959, when it closed. The airport in Cowes was at Somerton Aerodrome, now part of the BAe Systems radar testing site, and saw its last commercial air services in 1951.
However, you can still fly to the island, in a manner of speaking. The fastest way from the mainland to the island is in fact to take a flight from Southsea to Ryde – by hovercraft – the only place in Europe where you can travel on one.
Hovertravel operate a service from Southsea to Ryde, with at least one departure per hour for most of the day, but, crucially, the flight time for the 4 ½ mile journey is only in the region of 10 minutes. The hovercraft can only take foot passengers. The standard single fare is £16.50 with a return priced at £21.00, although they frequently offer some useful special deals. This is slightly more expensive than the ferries, however the benefit is two-fold – firstly, you’re paying for speed, and secondly, it takes you right to the heart of the transport hub of the island at Ryde transport interchange (plus of course, you get a pretty much unique mode of transport!)
The convenience of the hoverport at Ryde is easy to see. Just a 2-minute walk over the footbridge sees you either on the station platform of the Island Line (the only remaining railway on the island, which runs from Ryde to Shanklin and uses 1930s-vintage former London tube trains) or in the heart of Ryde bus station. The hoverport at Southsea is slightly less convenient – being located some way out of the town – but this is more than made up for by the Hoverbus service to and from Portsmouth and Southsea, which costs £1.75 each way and connects into and out of each flight.
To be quite honest, I don’t know why the hovercraft as a method of transport has not been used more widely. Passenger hovercraft can trace their history back to 1962 when a service was operated between the Wirral and Rhyl. Three years later, the first service to the Isle of Wight began. Ryde is a perfect demonstration of where this mode of transport can come into its own. Whereas ferry services must dock at the end of the ½ mile-long pier, and passengers complete their journey into the island’s largest town on foot, by road or by rail. The dock cannot be closer to the town as low tide would leave conventional vessels unable to reach it. This is not a problem, of course, for a hovercraft which can hover over dry land just as well as it can over the water.
1966 saw the commencement of cross-Channel hovercraft services, and in 1968, the first car-carrying hovercraft was built. This heralded what was surely the heyday of the hovercraft; but in the face of competition from the then-new Channel Tunnel, and the increasing age of their fleet, conventional catamarans were the replacements when the last SR.N4 was withdrawn in 2000. With that, and relatively little fanfare, hovercraft disappeared from the English Channel. This left the Southsea to Ryde route as the last remaining hovercraft route in Europe – and, aside from a short-lived trial across the Firth of Forth, it has remained so ever since.
Hovertravel currently have a fleet of three hovercraft – one, the “Freedom 90”, dates from 1990 and will soon be retired, but the other two, “Island Flyer” and “Solent Flyer”, are brand new (dating from 2016), and represent a £10 million investment by Hovertravel.
So, this hovercraft service is unique in Europe. But is its value merely rooted in curiosity, or is it a viable proposition for daily travel to the island? My answer to that is unequivocally, yes! It is fast, versatile, very smooth and above all very safe. If you haven’t already tried it, I would really recommend a trip to the Isle of Wight on the hovercraft service.