Sometime around 1965 Hovertravel Ltd. started a Southsea-Ryde hovercraft service using an SR-N6, the same type I crossed on from Ramsgate to Calais in 1966. This was the heyday of optimism for hovercraft. Since then almost all hovercraft passenger service has closed down, but this service has remained in continuous operation. (The only other public hovercraft ferry I know of is at Saint-Augustin
on Quebec's Lower North Shore, where the hovercraft has only recently been introduced.)
Then, some years ago, I was taking my family for a nostalgic trip around Portsmouth, where I used to work, and realised the hovercraft was still in operation. So taking a ride to Ryde sat on my to-do list for about 15 years until I finally found the right time during a visit my son Doug and I paid to my mother in February 2018.
We'd managed to choose a fine day for our trip despite the rest of our stay in England having some appalling weather. The trip was smooth with few of the bumps I remember from crossing the Channel on the SR-N6 52 years earlier. What I noticed most was how quiet it was compared with the earlier hovercraft, due mainly to being powered by diesel rather than gas turbine engines and having the propellers in ducts. With both the Southsea and Ryde ramps being close to houses I doubt the service would have survived if the noise level had remained the same as the original craft.
As I watched one depart before we boarded for our crossing I was covered by spray as it slipped off the ramp across the shingle and onto the sea. One of the staff had to sweep the shingle back onto the beach after each departure. Returning from Ryde in the evening the tide was low and we skimmed above the sand bars and shoals that were just off shore, highlighting the beautiful advantage of hovercraft over boats. The hovercraft are able to land at a ramp on the beach, whereas the boat ferries from Portsmouth
need to dock at the end of Ryde's 750 yard long pier.
We had no big objective for our day trip to the Isle of Wight so we walked to the few yards to the Ryde Esplanade rail station and bought return tickets on the Island Line to the end of the track at Shanklin. The northern end of the line is at the very end of Ryde pier to collect the regular ferry passengers. When the train first appeared it seemed like it had escaped from the London Underground in the 1960s, and in fact the trains are all refurbished tube trains, originally built in 1939 and 1940.
We got off in Shanklin, walked down the hill to the seafront and had lunch at the world's slowest restaurant. Maybe February is a slow month in seaside resorts, so I'll spare them a damning TripAdvisor review! We then enjoyed walking back to Sandown along the sands exposed by the low tide. Sandown station was a bit bleak as we waited there for nearly an hour for the next train.
It was dusk by the time we boarded the hovercraft for the return to Southsea. As we "flew" over the sand bars just off the shore at Ryde the evening sun lit the clouds beautifully. Crossing Spithead, the famous stretch of deep, sheltered water where the British fleet stages its reviews, we could see the forts in the distance which were built in the 1860s to guard these strategically valuable waters.
February may not be the ideal time to visit the Isle of Wight, although we definitely were not the only visitors to the island that day. But in summer there are plenty of things to do, including leaving the Island Line train at Smallbrook Junction to transfer to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. But riding the near-empty 80 year old hand-me-down trains suited us fine that day.