White about now
A Solent crossing conjures memories
The umbilical link that once joined ferries and trains is obvious as you await passage to the Isle of Wight. Wightlink’s foot-passenger terminal forms part of Portsmouth Harbour station; in days past, porters heaved cases from platform to dockside down the long concrete ramp that joins the two. Early on a rainy Saturday in April, I found myself in a deserted waiting area.
Arriving next were an octogenarian couple bound for a school reunion.
Lithe, twinkling and keen to pass the time of day; he took the seat beside mine. After years in the RAF, civilian work took him down under where he flew passenger planes for a major airline, he told me.
“When I was a boy, it was paddle steamers between here and the island”, he said. “In the summer, the boats were packed with trippers, who would crowd on the landward deck, causing the boats to list over, lifting the opposite paddle wheel clean from the water. Crew members had to frantically corral passengers around the decks to obtain an even spread of weight”. I read later that a fleet of seven of these vessels plied this route until the 1950s.
My new companion was enjoying talking. He said that he assumed that, like him, I was an islander?
I explained what most detect from my accent – I grew up in Yorkshire. My previous visit to the Island was fifty years earlier. Today I planned a fleeting disembarkment to collect an tandem purchased on eBay.
We chatted on. He had left the island as a teenager for a peripatetic service life. Despite long absence, he beamed pride in his roots. The Island’s marine engineering, hovercrafts, and Bembridge, its tiny airport were all evidence of a settlement that punched above its weight, he enthused.
“Why am I burbling like this”, he wondered. A momentary frown creased his brow. “You are an islander yourself, aren’t you, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know”.
I corrected him a second time.
He nodded and was off again – visits to the island from famous aeroplanes, the radar station, a flight in a Spitfire that he had narrowly missed, the thrill of piloting a four-engined jumbo. I pictured him in his Captain’s uniform; an imposing sight, I imagined. He was still dapper.
“Where is it best for us to wait”, he asked me, reminding me that we islanders took pride in being ahed of the visitors in the queue for the boat? My origin story had no traction.
He took my ignorance in his stride and asked a staff member. Then he launched into his father and uncle’s part in defeating the Luftwaffe. Two rows of seats away, his wife pleaded “not the war, please!” Like my Tyke protestations, her words were lost to the ether. He didn’t stop, and with departure some way off, I enjoyed his sentimental tableaux.
“Rock The Boat” by the Hues Corporation enables me to pinpoint the childhood holiday that I spent on the Isle of Wight. Often claimed as the first major disco hit, in the summer of 1974 the joyful floor filler played endlessly in the island’s cafes and amusement arcades.
I sang it in my head as walked on to the craft, surprised that I could conjure up most of the lyrics. I was aboard White Ryder II, the high-speed catamaran that conveys the carless between Portsmouth and Ryde, the Island’s largest town. Travellers sit on a single, broad deck where nearly 260 seats are arranged in rows of 20.
Its operator, Whitelink has been in private hands for nearly 40 years, but happily this craft, and its sibling, retain a utilitarian ambience. It reminds me of Sealink, the nationalised operator of yore. Built in the Philippines, these 520 gross tonnage, 20-knot vessels have been in service here since 2009.
The twenty-minute journey can hardly be called a voyage, but it affords good views of the curious, circular ‘Palmerston forts’ that once protected Portsmouth. More recently they have served as luxury hotels and tv locations.
As I climbed the gangway to leave White Ryder, I was called from behind. It was my aeronautical pal and his wife. “Where do the busses go from these days”, he asked? “I told my wife that you’re an islander, you would be bound to know”.
I pointed them to an information desk, and hoped that they would make his reunion?
A moment later, my elderly friends were marching off, hand in hand, in the direction of the bus stop.
As I watched their backs, a line that had eluded my from my disco-hit ear-worm floated up from memory. “Don’t let me drift away, when love can see you though”.
It struck me that when the present is hard to comprehend, a place to share a vivid past might be the happiest destination for us all? With that in mind, and having been handed my second-hand bicycle, I resolved to return soon to the Isle of White and to rediscover its attractions for myself.