The correct plural of hovercraft is hovercraft. I checked. And I must have seen more of them today than any other day in my life. Even better, they were not all slowly rusting away in a slightly odd but truly fascinating museum (some were). Throw in a Spitfire and another ferry journey and you can begin to imagine the fun I had today. And that was just the quirky transport parts of a day that delivered superb, warm sunshine and a whole plethora of items of interest along the south coast of England.
I rode all day to Brighton today with Jon, my kind host from the OS, and I was happy to let him take charge of route choice and navigation. He did a splendid job as both tour guide and pacemaker, and took a step into my world by taking his bike home on the train from Brighton, so I had company for the whole day. The hovercraft featured quite early. The museum is in Lee-on-Solent, a pleasant sea front town that faces the Isle of Wight and was once a place of great importance in the age of sea planes. Some of the original hangers and ramps onto the beach are still there, as is an airfield just behind. In a couple of these hangers you can now visit an eclectic collection of retired hovercraft that range from an old cross channel monster, which you can go inside, to the military version used by James Bond in Die Another Day. It was great fun. And then, 2 minutes away, we saw a 2-seater Spitfire come in to land and a very happy looking passenger in full flying gear pose for photographs with his family at the end of what must have been a very expensive treat!
From here we followed the coast along quiet roads as far as Gosport, a town that sits just across the busy harbour from Portsmouth, home for centuries of the British Navy and its dockyards and quays. Today, the most eye-catching feature is the Spinnaker Tower, a legacy of the Millennium, and truly a landmark that Portsmouth, a fairly low-rise city, can be proud of. As often happens with such projects, it has been an anchor for broader redevelopment of the city’s waterfront. It soars above the city and the harbour like a white sail, visible from every direction. For a while it was painted red and white as part of a sponsorship deal with Emirates Airways; but those are the colours of local rivals Southampton Football Club, whereas Portsmouth play in blue. It caused local uproar and was repainted blue in a win for people power over big business. Quite a cultural faux pas! Now it is white again, which I think is best. And you get a superb view of it, along with the other points of interest like old warships, and historic city walls and towers, from the passenger ferry that crosses the harbour from Gosport. It all looked a picture in the November sunshine.
We rode awkwardly around the cobbles of the historic old town of Portsmouth and stopped when we reached the Clarence Pier in nearby Southsea. This is where the flights made by the fleet of new hovercraft arrive on the mainland from Ryde, in the Isle of Wight. It is a quite a spectacular sight. It simply arrived at the beach and drove up from the water onto a short ramp, stopped abruptly, and deflated the lower section. A few minutes later and it began its return journey with a 180 degree swivel, before speeding away across the water. It is hard to believe this is the only commercial hovercraft service in the world.
And now today’s trivia question: what is the third most populous island in the British Isles, after the mainlands of Great Britain and Ireland? The answer is Portsea Island. Not heard of it? Well, it is the 9.5 square miles of island upon which the city of Portsmouth sits. And Portsmouth is the most densely populated city in Britain outside London. To get to or from the island, you have to cross a bridge. The 3 road bridges are very busy routes; but we made good use of national cycle route 2 to cross back onto the mainland and connect with pleasant lanes, beyond Havant, to reach the very agreeable small city of Chichester. We somehow entered and left it along the quietest of roads and easily reached the city centre, which is dominated by the large and graceful Chichester Cathedral, with its central spire and adjacent but separate bell tower.
It stands right in the middle, next to the meeting point of North, South, East and West Streets. Where they intersect is an ornate market cross cum clock tower, with a clock facing each of the cardinal points. No excuse for not knowing the time here. We stopped for tea and a mince pie in the busy shopping area and then carried on along more country lanes towards Littlehampton. Here we crossed the River Arun on a shiny red swing bridge and regained the coast. And from there it was onto map 198 and all along a very built-up part of the south coast through a series of towns like Worthing and Shoreham, that I discovered were surprisingly large. Like everywhere today except Portsmouth itself, these places were all new to me. Worthing is also very much a seaside resort and its art-deco pier was voted the best in Britain in 2019. So there!
The daylight, as we knew would happen, drained away; but we were now riding through an unbroken section of well-lit streets and – for many miles – cycle paths along the promenade. In time, we rode along through Hove, past large seafront buildings of various vintage; at least some of them grand and Victorian, until we finally arrived in Brighton itself. We passed the tall i360 tower – Brighton’s vertical answer to the London Eye – and the infamous Grand Hotel, bombed by the IRA during the Conservative Party Conference in the 1980s. Finally, and not a little hungry, we reached the pier and the end of our ride. Just beyond, on the sea front, was a handy outdoor Fish and Chip cafe and bar at the foot of Brighton Zipwire. It was an ideal place to sit out in the warm sea air (in mid-November, no less) and enjoy a well-earned meal, before I wished Jon well, thanked him for his great generosity and hospitality and sent him on his way with a wave. It had been an excellent day.