By Tony May
Pictures By Andrew Popkin
The sound of the sea lapping gently at the shore, a warm, sunny day in Hastings, blue skies overhead and the piercing cry of seagulls invading your senses. Camera in one hand, sunglasses in the other and with arms outstretched for balance you are creeping gingerly across the pebbles on the beach at St leonards towards a Hovercraft ‘parked’ on the sand near the waters edge…
Think I’m mad?
Well, you and I would be if we tried that today but for a short time in 1966/7, amazingly, such trips were available from Hastings beach as these rare pics by our old friend, gandalfthegrey (better known as Andrew Popkin – THANK YOU, ANDY) bear witness!
The depth and variety of Andy’s photo collection never ceases to amaze me nor does his skill as a photographer. There is always something emotive and inspiring about an Andrew Popkin photograph and as such I always find writing about his work easy and a joy to experience. As with any form of art, good photography has to be about more than just the capture of the perfect image in the best possible light conditions etc. If a picture says little about its subject, or reveals nothing about its taker it is as sterile and lifeless as a blank canvas.
As a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes would tell you, a tremendous amount can be learnt from the ‘trivialities’ of life and Andy always seems to make certain to include as many day to day occurrences as he can in any photo he takes. Not only does this practice do wonders to capture the object of a picture it also ensures that the culture, mind set and fashions of the day are graphically preserved for posterity.
Take for example the picture of the Hovercraft passengers disembarking and walking back up the beach towards the promenade. Notice how formally everyone in the picture is dressed. Men in suits or ‘sensible’ jumpers, ladies wearing hats and totally inappropriate footwear and not an outward hint from anyone of joy from what must have been a truly invigorating experience. If the same photo were to be taken today how different would it be!
How different? I’ll tell you how different!
For a start, there is no way today that such a venture could get a license to operate from such a venue. Health & Safety regulations would make the cost of insuring people to walk to and from the promenade over pebbles without the use of specially laid mats impossible to obtain. Adequate provision for disabled access would need to be in place and the lady walking her dog would likely be fined as dogs are no longer allowed on the beach along stretches of the Hastings coastline!
As far as the people themselves are concerned, the chances these days of all of the passengers being of British Origin is extremely unlikely (and just for the record I mention this NOT from a racist point of view but from a purely factual and observational one). Equally unlikely would be the chances of the women in the photo all wearing skirts. It is, in fact, sobering to think how, if a similar photo were taken today, only the view would have any chance of being the same and yet I am willing to bet that most of you who first looked at this picture saw nothing remarkable in it or about it…
In fact, the SRN6 type Hovercraft was powered by a Rolls Royce engine and was capable of a top speed of 60 knots. It could carry a maximum of 38 passengers and travel for a maximum of three and a half hours on a tank of fuel. Townsend Car Ferries were based at Dover and according to www.doverferryphotosforums. co.uk pleasure trips ‘Off Hastings Beach’ continued until at least May 26th, 1967. As the people of Hastings found out, however, such power did not come quietly and predictably it was down to complaints from neighbours about the noise that the service was eventually abandoned. As for Townsend, the companies days ended in tragedy in 1987 when the Townsend – Thoresen car ferry ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ capsized just after leaving the harbour at Zeebrugge and sank with the loss of 193 lives. Following an enquiry into the disaster the company was acquired by P&O and all of its ships were re-branded with ‘P&O Ferries’, due to bad publicity.
According to one ‘insightful’ comment left under one of these pictures on Flickr, rides in the Hovercraft consisted of ‘twenty minute trips out to sea’. This comment tickles me somewhat because it would be one hell of a Hovercraft ride if it did not involve a trip ‘out to sea’, wouldn’t it? I mean, just imagine spinning around in a circle on the beach itself showering the promenade with stones or building up speed enough to jump the groins BMX teenage style!
No, seriously, it would be fascinating to find out more about the route taken by the Hovercraft. Some of the views along Hastings seafront are spectacular and the scenery about Rock-a-Nore is breathtaking – even without whizzing past the nudist beach! When Hastings new pier is eventually built I think the H.P.W.R.T. should think seriously about reinstating some kind of boat trips. We have so many natural advantages here in Hastings yet all too often we fail to make full use of them to promote our town as a holiday venue or as a place to come for a ‘smashing day out’. I know the Health & Safety/Insurance thing is likely to be a problem but this time we would be building something PURPOSE BUILT for the job from scratch rather than having to worry about the prohibitive cost of conversion.
There are apparently (according to various tourist boards along the promenade) Dolphins and Porpoises to be seen not far off the coastline of Hastings. Yet, in spite of having a ‘Sea Life Centre’ to pull in punters eager to see such things in the flesh there are no current boat trips available in town to take people to see their breeding grounds etc. I’m sure the good people at the ‘Sea Life Centre’ would welcome the extra trade and a ‘do it all ticket’ could provide some of our local Fishermen with some badly needed extra income if they were to supply the sailing vessels and sailors. Just think of it now, an eye-opening visit to the Sea Life Centre followed by an hour’s boat trip along the coast to see the breeding grounds. Then, on the way back, people could either be dropped off at Hastings new pier or return to Rock-a-Nore where Pat and Tush Hamilton would be on-hand to sell them one of their famous Fish Rolls. Wow! Even thinking about such a trip makes me as excited as a small boy at Christmas! Tell you what, I can smell that glorious fishy aroma, take in the fresh coastal air and drift off into a world of imaginary pirates and treasure already!
Maybe we could even get Ron ‘Popeye’ Everett cloned for posterity as well?
The only good thing to come out of the pier disaster is that, with a new pier now more likely, anything can be possible if the people of Hastings show determination and commitment in making it happen. We have one of the most stunning coastlines in the country – let’s start planning to make best use of it from now on!
You can find larger copies of the photos featured here and hundreds of other fabulous pics by logging on to Andy’s Flickr account here….
“Rye’s Own” February 2013
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