There are some things which manage to be perfectly symbolic. The Chrysler building perfectly symbolizes the art deco movement, Rolls Royce perfectly symbolizes luxury, Facebook perfectly symbolizes the mega-corporation of the digital age. A few weeks ago in Lee-On-Solent I may have found the perfect symbol of Britain: the SR.N4 Hovercraft, specifically The Princess Anne.
Part of a class built in the mid-sixties, these giant hovercraft used to ferry 427 people and 60 cars at a time across the English channel at 75 miles per hour. The fastest and most glamorous way to cross the channel, her sister-craft even made a cameo in a James Bond film. The hovercraft carried on plying this trade until changes to tax laws and the opening of the channel tunnel finally put an end to the service in the year 2000.
The Princess Anne currently resides at the world’s only hovercraft museum, a slightly run down collection of hangers on a former naval base just across the water from where the first ever hovercraft flight took place. Like so many small museums, there’s a real charm to the place. The museum volunteers are wonderful, I end up speaking to about half of them, the Rolleicord hanging around my neck being a good conversation starter. One delightful man even asks if there’s anywhere not on the visitors’ route that I want to see, he’ll quite happily take me there (if it’s structurally sound enough).
This structurally sound qualifier is more restrictive than one might first imagine. The Princess Anne is in a bit of a state these days. Out of commission since 2000 she’s looked better. Built out of aluminium and balsa wood she doesn’t have the inherent heft that might hold a traditional ship together.
Inside feels like it hasn’t been touched since her last channel crossing, teetering on the edge between luxury and dereliction. A menu proudly advertising in flight drinks sits on the bar, an intercom telephone sits just off the hook as if not quite replaced properly in the haste of a fast Dover-Calais turnaround.
But she leaks badly, the inside smells of damp and the smell of kerosene lingers. Labels peel on ancient bottles in the tiny bar, in a few places the carpets have started to rot. A volunteer told me that every time they go up to patch the leaking roof someone drops a spanner and it goes right through. Puddles form in her cracked rubber skirts. Her once eye-catching red white and blue livery is faded and peeling, neglect and the south coast sun taking their toll.
Not so long ago the museum saw her sister-craft, The Princess Margret, scrapped. The two had sat opposite one another on the hardstanding at Lee-on-Solent for over a decade. Six years ago, a grey haired volunteer tells me, he witnessed the macabre spectacle of her being scrapped mere yards away, watched over by her surviving sister. All that hope and optimism, pride and memories gone. Ripped apart and turned into razor blades.
I speak to more volunteers, all incredibly friendly, their chattiness probably increased by the fact that I am one of a small handful of visitors to the windswept museum. Some lament the loss of the Princess Margaret, the scrapping still evidently a recent wound. Some quietly opine as to how long they can preserve the Princess Anne; these craft were never designed to last this long after all. Some talk to me enthusiastically about restoration work. I hope they can preserve this relic, forged in the white heat of the ’60s technological revolution, though a bucket catching occasional drips of water on the vast vehicle deck suggests that preservation won’t be without challenges.
This sentimentality on my part isn’t really for an era I wasn’t even alive to see, at least I don’t think it is. It’s more lamenting a mindset. Want to make your country seem impressive? Build a hovercraft, build a Concorde, put a man on the moon.
I’m not totally naive, I know that all three of the feats that I just referenced had their roots in military schemes and weren’t done purely out of a sense of innocent national pride. Somehow I still prefer the idea of national pride and patriotism being tied to something tangible, though. Be proud of your country is a sentiment often peddled, but so often it boils down to little more than be proud of YOUR country simply because it’s YOURS. No real reason seems to be offered as to why.
I’m not saying that I want a hovercraft to solve every political woe, I’d sooner take a properly funded healthcare system, a fair and equitable justice system, frankly, even a publicly funded library would be a good start. But along with the hovercraft these are all tangible reasons to be proud of a nation, rather than just a vague sense of historical ownership.
I’m aware this article has been a bit light on photographic detail. There’s been no praising of the Rolleicord’s Xenar lens, no comment on its awkward EV interlock. I’ve even resisted the temptation to lament the discontinuation of Fuji Pro 400H, or to note that I prefer its rendering of this sort of colour palette over Portra’s.
I’ve not even commented that I rarely photograph in colour, or that the indispensable Rolleinar 2 helped me get some shots that I’d otherwise have been unable to. I haven’t even mentioned that the reason these photos exist as they do is because of a problem with a repair on my Leica IIIc.
The truth is that I haven’t mentioned those things because none of them are why I love photography as a hobby. I love photography as a hobby because sometimes it makes me stand on an abandoned naval base in the middle of winter looking at a 50-year-old hovercraft and muse on how palatable patriotism seems destined to shift into nationalist populism. How many other hobbies can do the same?
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Wow — now I’ve got to go to this museum! I remember riding that thing across the Channel on a very un-summery summer day in July 2000, right at the limit of the wave height considered safe. It wasn’t pleasant, and took about three times as long as scheduled. And then, as Jacob notes, the service was discontinued.
Sad, because on its day, the hovercraft was a great, quick way to cross La Manche. Not just quick across the water — 40 knots if the conditions allowed — but quick on and off as well. Today’s ‘fast’ catamaran ferries take far longer to unload when you just want to get on with your holiday.
Yes, they were delicate, and they turned unsustainable amounts of fuel into as much noise as flight, but they were magnificent in their way. I’m glad someone’s taking care of this one.