CHAOS TO COSMOSThe path from chaos to cosmos was discovered by telling one's life story

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The oldest operating pier railway in Britain

Pedestrianised High Street in Hythe, Hampshire

Anorak required for this trip, not just for train spotting and cold weather (it's September, but there's a biting wind), but as Wikipedia tell us, Hythe's position makes it one of the best vantage points for viewing liners arriving at the port of Southampton, which attracts many ship-watchers to the area, apparently. 

Before we got to Hythe, we passed through Beaulieu village, saw the rooftops of Palace House and the remains of Beaulieu Abbey. It was a grey day, but along the way, we saw trees everywhere turning shades of orange and red, expanses of heathland, many ponies and donkeys grazing along the roadsides and one after another of impossibly beautiful thatched cottages, so quintessentially English you could only imagine them to exist in Miss Marple's village of St. Mary Mead.

A couple of times proper country folk at their gates with their hounds - the type who have Chelsea Tractors because they really need them and wear jodhpurs and riding boots because they actually own horses - nodded as we passed.

This is deepest rural England. It was, however, noticeable that there were only two small village post offices and stores along the whole route. Not even one in every village, because the majority of those places closed long ago, unable to make ends meet as everyone drove to the big supermarkets. 

The Lord Nelson Pub Sign

The Lord Nelson pub (first listed as such in 1801) sign is unique, apparently, because it shows Lord Nelson after he'd lost his right arm in the attack on Tenerife (the date was actually, July 25th, 1797) and before he was wounded at the Battle of the Nile on the 1st August, 1798, losing his right eye. In truth, the sign shows only head and shoulders and neither arm, though, possibly that's to avoid showing one missing. The pub is in Hythe's now pedestrianized High Street, which runs inland from the pier head and where shops consist, mainly, of a Waitrose, a plethora of charity shops and a few places selling knick-knacks today.  

Among other famous British folk who've passed through this area was T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. Then known as T. E. Shaw, he turned up in Hythe in 1931, seconded by the RAF to the British Power Boats factory in Shore Road. He lodged in Myrtle Cottage at the junction of St John Street and Shore Road and left in 1932. Since he only lodged there for a short while, it really does seem like stretching the point a bit to put up a blue plaque or call this the "Home of British legend", but I saw in the local paper that "his" cottage was on sale for £350k.

Cottages on the sea front behind the pier

Hythe is strange for a seaside village, because it appears to think itself too posh for anything commercial on the seafront. Waterside there are just quaint cottages and the infamous pier carrying the equally famous, World's Oldest Pier Train

Hythe Pier

World's oldest pier train in Hythe, Hampshire

Pretty as Hythe is, I'd seen the lot in less than 10 minutes, so after a coffee and a chat with a couple from Hordle who I'd met when I caught the bus in Lymington, I decided to catch the pier railway and the Hythe Ferry. Both are decidedly cute and the half-hourly service (combined train / boat ticket) to Southampton is a real bargain at just £3.50 (single), considering the added attractions.

Inside the World's Oldest Pier Train

Opened in 1881 and electrified in 1922, it still uses Word War I locos. 

Hythe Ferry

At the end of the pier, I boarded the ferry, the Great Expectations. In the distance was a large ship, but it wasn't until the ferry took us up close that I realised that it was the soon to be retired Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2). 

The Queen Elizabeth 2 in Southampton docks on September 30th, 2008, the day she was to set sail on the Canary Islands Splendour tour: her last ever call into Tenerife before retiring.

What were the chances of catching a glimpse of her on the very day she was to set sail on the 12-Day "Canary Islands Splendour" tour, that would take the ship to Tenerife for her final visit to the island? I'd remembered, vaguely, the report around 18 months previously that she would make her last call this year, but I certainly hadn't remembered the date. Eerie, init?

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