Monday, September 13, 2010

modern archeology

I'm teaching at Canterbury again this year and have been researching potential project sites combining coastal landscapes, transportation systems and technological obsolescence. Whilst trawling the area, I came across the arcane fragment of home movie footage embedded above of the former Hoverport at Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate.

As well as being a sort of Super 8 version of Martin Parr's Boring Postcards, the footage is notable for an eerie lack of people, as if in anticipation of the port's future demise. A vacant and overgrown concrete apron is now the only remaining sign of Ramsgate International Hoverport which closed in 1982. Google earth reveals the ruins as a strange prosthetic attachment sticking out of the curve of the bay.

Aside from the various buildings - now long gone - the port consisted of a large flat concrete shoreline, a sort of artificial beach onto the which the craft slid up before settling down on its billowing black shirts, like a large hen on a nest of eggs. In period photographs the hovercraft themselves still appear incredibly modern, alien objects in the late '60s landscape, especially compared to the Austin Maxis and Mini Clubmans that would have motored gently on and off them. Given the relative size of the hovercraft to the surrounding houses they look as if they could have just carried on past the port and inland, hoovering up the potato fields of Thanet as they went.

The word Hoverport suggests something faintly incredible too, as if tit were the ground itself that rose up and transported you somewhere exotic. Rather than Calais. The operators seemed to be aware of the ambiguous half boat/half plane character of their craft too, referring to "flights" instead of sailings and dressing the crew up as natty BOAC flight attendants. Fittingly enough high aviation fuel costs in the 1970's - combined with a susceptibility to bad weather - killed off most commercial hovercraft services. Wikipedia's entry on them concludes that "except for the Solent Ryde to Southsea crossing, hovercraft disappeared from the coastline of Britain", as if they were a species of rare bird.

Appropriately enough, the former Hoverport at Pegwell Bay is now a nature reserve. It sits on a particularly sleepy stretch of the Isle of Thanet coast, just below the plateau of Manston Airport, another, almost, failed bit of infrastructure. For those of you of a hauntological bent there are more photographs and information available here, and here. From the last of these sites I have borrowed the lovely image below. There are also photographs of the port at various stages of dereliction here.


Anne said...

Now I'm confused. My first taste of continental Europe was via hovercraft from Ramsgate, but I'm sure it was in 1983.

I can attest that it was quite glam, but also terrible for seasickness - very bumpy. And we stayed in my aunt's caravan in Ramsgate which even then was a deadzone.

Will said...

I was taken on cross-Channel hovercraft as a child, and it was a terrible experience. Noisy, stuffy, bumpy and profoundly sickening - the bumpiness, the lack of fresh air and the lack of view (I remember rows of seating much deeper than a wide-body jet) were a recipe for seasickness. I would take any alternative over the hovercraft if given the choice today: ferry, plane, Eurostar, SeaCat, all were better. A technology for the dustbin of history. The SeaCat - now that felt like the future (but meanwhile far beneath the crap carpet, beneath the Channel, beneath the sea floor, giant tunnelling machines were digging the REAL future).

Th hovercraft did have the moment of arrival going for it. The terminal (this was Dover) had picture windows overlooking the apron, and the hovercraft would roar up out of the sea and come to rest - very dramatic and impressive. Then all the passengers would get out, reeling about and spewing.

Charles Holland said...

Anne, most of the sources I looked at said '82, but you might be right. Dover carried on sailing/flying hovercract until the late '90's I think.

Will, I'm sure you're right and they were perfectly horrible. They look cool though and I like both their incongruity in the landscape outside Thanet and the fact that they were a bit crap. Also, they had a Heroic British Invention angle which ultimately makes them a little more tragic.

Jonathan Clarke said...

I'm starting to feel old here, but I remember taking a hovercroft from Ramsgate (to Bologne I think). I suspect my experience was similar to Wills, in that it was dark, incredibly bumpy and there were waves of people throwing up during the journey. However, I still thought it was incredibly exiting (having not been on a plane at this time).

I had family close by, so visited the area pretty regularly. I think I was pretty destraught when I found out that it had closed a couple of years later. I actually made my Mum take me there to look around; hovercraft had just been abandoned on the concrete.

Markasaurus said...

I took the Isle of Wight hovercraft recently, and I was very excited. I expected it to be incredibly futuristic. Instead, it reeked of diesel and the view was nearly impossible because the windows are covered by ocean spray and are quite dirty:

It is incredibly fast, and for such a short journey it seems fine. I can definitely see Will's point about seasickness- I wouldn't want to sit on it for the trip across the channel.

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jade said...

I was ten yrars old in 1968_,I remember taking the hovercraft to France with my grand perants. I was sick all the way!! The hover port was in Ramsgate then. The hover- craft was much smaller than the one at pegwall hover port. Does anyone know why the hover port closed down and was the really 1982, I had left for France in 1981 so I do not know what happened. I had worked at the hover port while I was a student for 4 years/ 78?79,80,and 1981.Every summer,it was hard but with languages one was paid quite well in those days. so stange to stumble on this old video film thanks for the trip down memory lane. It tooke me back to my childhood years growing up in thanet and the memories of Ramsgate. I really this part of England.