Spotlight on The Hovercraft Museum, Hythe
00:16 31 October 2011
Spotlight on The Hovercraft Museum
Many of us will have fond memories of flying across The Channel on the Hovercraft and although they were decommissioned in 2000, the museum in Hythe is there to remember these magnificent vessels, as Claire Pitcher discovers...
Its as if it was only yesterday, the long drive down to Dover, before queuing at the famous ferry port to board the Hovercraft. When youre little these flying vessels look almost monstrous, with what looks like a huge rubber tyre stuck to the bottom. As I watched one speed down the slipway and on to the water I gulped and hoped the 30-minute cross channel journey would fly by. All you could see as you bounced across the choppy waters was spray lashing the windows it was a real adrenaline ride.
Twenty (ish) years later and Im sitting on the Princess Margaret Hovercraft again, only this time well remain on terra firma, in the safety of the Hovercraft Museum in Lee-on-the-Solent. Warwick Jacobs is Trustee and volunteer at the museum and there is nothing this man doesnt know about Hovercraft.
The first hover, the Princess Margaret, went in to service in November 1967. By 1969, all six craft were in service, each doing 10 trips across The Channel a day. In 1977, two of them were cut in half and another 55ft was added to the middle, which doubled the pay load. It was the biggest cut and shunt ever, but it also prolonged their life by another 10 years, informs Warwick.
When the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994 opinion was that it would be the end of the Hovercrafts, but they survived another 10 years. The reality was that flying across The Channel was still faster than driving underneath it. The Hovercraft had a loyal band of customers who would always use it, They couldnt see anything mind, laughs Warwick, because of all the spray. At 70mph the cushion of the skirt took the pressure. It was 12ft at the front and 9ft at the back so it was at an angle to take the impact. The pilots would weave in and out of the waves and there were the washes of other ships to contend with, but the sturdy craft could still go out in a Force 8. Warwick recalls the one and only time the Hovercraft had an accident, They hit the sea wall; people survived the accident but were thrown into the cold sea and drowned. That was the only accident in 33 years.
Hooked on hover
Warwick has been the Hovercrafts biggest fan since he was four years old.
My parents were from Birmingham and we came down here for holidays. I used to watch the Hovercraft go back and fourth to the Isle of Wight and my parents used to take me on it all the time. They both got a job down here and we came here to live when I was seven, so I could watch the Hovercraft all day, every day.
His first job was at 15 years old for Hovertravel, going to The Island and back, loading and unloading.
I used to sit down here on the slipway as a school boy watching the big Navy craft coming in. My dad made me a slipway and Hovercraft toys I had all the collection weve got here, plus the buildings, plus all the little figures in charge of it all. Thirty years on, Im doing it for real scary really. I never planned for it to happen.
Safe and sound
The museum is on the Daedalus Site and as you drive along the seafront you can see the boats outside the old hangars. The Trust opened the museum in 1986 and Warwick has been there since its inception, but how did it all begin?
I called Hovertravel asking for their last SR.N5 to be saved. They were sorry as it had been due for scrap just days earlier. Amazingly they called back a day later asking if I was still interested as the scrap man had not turned up. Warwick had to have it off the slipway on The Island within the week and when his mother refused to have it in the back garden it was time for Plan B, I went to the Hovercraft Society which was the only body then of all the people who invented it, designed it, built it and were the brains behind it. Its inventor Christopher Cockerell was the President, says Warwick. After going to one of their meetings he became secretary and used to take the minutes. He saw his chance, I piped up and told them we had a Hovercraft and I wanted to preserve it for the nation. The Society agreed to help and different companies stored it in the yards for a few years then it would move on to the next. Eventually a board of trustees was set up because it was getting too much for the Society to do and they have been a charitable trust ever since.
It wasnt long until we were donated a second craft, a third, then a fourth, it all happened so quickly and were up to 70 now.
With a little help
The museum has around 500 volunteers, Theyre all eccentric, says Warwick, Which is nice everybodys different. Theres such a good feeling being here, no one is getting paid so theres no rivalry everyone just wants to help. We even have entire families who come down and on Mondays and Fridays we have the engineering team in; the old boys who are ex RAF, Navy and Air Force, they come in to do the clever stuff.
At the moment, you can only visit the museum by appointment, because of the security on the base, but still they receive a thousand visitors a year this way. Another 5,000 come on the open days held every autumn and spring, where visitors can climb into the cockpit of one of the cross channel crafts, see the James Bond Hovercraft that was in Golden Eye, marvel at the ex-army crafts and even have a go on one themselves as they open the gates, close off the coast road and fly the boats out onto The Solent.
Thank goodness for Warwick and the team of volunteers for preserving these amazing pieces of history, as he says himself, Theres not much you can do with an old Hovercraft really, but theres a quirky Britishness to them, almost eccentric.