Buckler’s Hard New Forest, maritime workshop of renown
Reflections on our maritime past and safe havens too by Mark and Hugh
This week's reflection by Mark based on one of Hugh's skilful and amusing cartoons brings us back closer to home and our familiar environ, to Buckler's Hard.
"When I was a boy my family used to take the annual summer holiday in a chalet on the cliffs of Whitsand Bay in Cornwall. One day my father told us that a famous yachtsman who had just sailed all the way around the world was coming home. I remember being handed his heavy binoculars to view the huge fleet surrounding his boat as he slowly crossed the bay from west to east, then around Rame Head and into Plymouth. Then I remember the television news of him being knighted by the Queen at Greenwich. The sword was the one used by Queen Elizabeth the First to knight Francis Drake, now that really is history.
From one Sir Francis to another - and over to Buckler's Hard
The famous yachtsman was of course Sir Francis Chichester and his epic voyage started and ended at Buckler’s Hard. I have stayed at the Royal Southampton Yacht Club marina at Gin’s Farm a few times and I think it’s a delightful place. I can understand why Sir Francis made Buckler’s Hard his home port. The far-reaching marshes with the almost unbroken sound track of warblers chattering away as they perch safely in the depths of the reeds are restful to the soul. Many marinas are busy places full of activity. Not this one.
Our naval power and our hunger for oak
In a previous article we spoke of graffiti and the fact that some of our Forest trees are defaced with simple messages of undying love. Others are marked with the Royal broad arrow signifying that the tree was destined for shipbuilding. In Nelson’s time these slow growing oaks were being harvested at an alarming rate, far faster than they could replenish naturally.
Alternatives were tried, non-native trees for instance, but what saved the oaks from further depletion was iron. This new ship building material saved the oaks of the New Forest. A great many ships were built at Buckler’s Hard including Nelson’s favourite, HMS Agamemnon. Sailors, bored with the trend for unpronounceable historic names, invented their own. The Agamemnon became ‘ham and eggs’.
When you visit Buckler’s Hard, please stop awhile at the top of the gentle slope that ends at the river. Take in the cottages at either side and then, at the base of the slope, the river into which was launched some of England’s most fearsome warships. As someone who used to sail small yachts, I have stood and stared with incredulity from the top of the hard, to me the idea of launching and then manoeuvring a massive ninety-gun ship in such a small area is hard to imagine. This ship was 170 feet long and 44 feet wide. Those ancient mariners must have had a great deal of skill to have achieved so much with just oars. After all, there are more bends in the river than the average anaconda. Sailing out would be an utter impossibility so it could only have been human power that did the job.
If you like a walk then you really ought to try this one
There is a riverside walk that takes you all the way down the west bank of the Beaulieu River from the village itself to Buckler’s Hard. On the way you will pass Bailey’s Hard which is where the old brick works used to be, the kiln is still there. (See previous article, Home sweet home - see link below.) The walk is a delight and there can be few sights more relaxing than that of small boats on swinging moorings in sheltered waters. I wonder if much has changed here? Would a sailor of Nelson’s time see a great deal of difference between now and then? Most trees grow and die in a short time and as such the vegetation might have changed but then, oak trees last a very long time, yew even longer. But the hills, the curve of the river, the marshes, I doubt much has changed in the last three hundred years.
Port. A safe haven for mariners
In order to understand exactly how important any port is, let alone Buckler’s Hard, you need to listen to two stories.
The first is from a work colleague. He was offered a free trip on a yacht from Cherbourg to Southampton. The owner wanted crew as it was a long trip so my friend packed an overnight bag, kissed his wife goodbye and duly took the ferry over. So far so good. When they left France, the weather was ‘a bit blowy’. During the crossing the wind strengthened and, proportionally, my friend’s seasickness worsened. Sent down below to his bunk he curled into a miserable ball and pulled blankets over himself as he willed the nightmare to end. He actually said to me as we sat in the office all those years later that if someone had handed him a pistol, he would have shot himself. I laughed and told him not to exaggerate. His face darkened, he was utterly serious, yes it was really had been so bad that he would have ended his life there and then. I was shocked.
The second story concerns our very own cartoonist Hugh who as a young boy with his mother and younger brother were on board a troop ship on a passage to Egypt. He tells me that when they were crossing the Bay of Biscay the weather was so bad and the movement of the ship so awful that he actually prayed to God to end his life. Again, a shocking thing to hear.
This is what a port, a safe haven, is all about. It’s about safety, shelter and succour. A port represents more than a place to tie the old girl up or to paint her with anti-foul. A port can mean the difference between life and death. Ports are important, regardless of size.
Imagine the joy that Sir Francis Chichester felt when he entered the calm waters of the Beaulieu River all those years ago. Enjoy the tranquility.
More tales and cartoons from Mark and Hugh
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Meanwhile if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:
Pond Life in our Forests
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...