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The River Hamble – Heart of yachting, ship building – and Howards’ Way!

The masts of yachts moored on the River Hamble are a common site for those travelling on Southampton Water, marking the centrepiece of British yachting. The River has its source in Bishop’s Waltham, flowing some 6.3 miles, entering Southampton Water at Hamble-le-Rice and Warsash, a meeting point for a ferry crossing and the Solent Way. Today the Hamble is a popular centre for recreation, but its not too distant history has seen it at the centre of shipbuilding and military activity, not forgetting a TV drama!

The Hamble’s west bank can be accessed through Manor Country Park, where a leisurely stroll sees walkers arrive at the remains of Henry V’s ‘Grace Dieu’, just about visible at extremely low tides. Following victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Henry V embarked on a ship building programme, commissioning the construction of the ‘Grace Dieu’, then the largest clinker built ship constructed (remaining the largest ship built for a further 200 years!).  The building project was overseen by William Soper in Southampton, the ship sailing once to the Isle of Wight before a crew mutiny. Thereafter moored in Southampton Water, she was moved to the Hamble in 1434 before being struck by lightning in 1439. Local legend says ‘Grace Dieu’ was deliberately set on fire by its shipkeeper, to cover up his plundering of the ship’s materials! Today children can enjoy the ‘Grace Dieu’ play area at Barnfield in the Country Park, with ship inspired sculptors by Richard Janes.

Near this section of the Hamble River was found the home of HMS Cricket, an onshore Navy base, between 1943 – 46. HMS Cricket initially provided a training base for crew of the Royal Marine Landing Craft, then later for the assembling of troops and landing craft ahead of the D-Day landings in 1944.

Daniel Defoe, traveller and author visited the Hamble in 1722 and noted that Bursledon was a village that constructed ‘Ships of War.’ One such ship was HMS Elephant, constructed by George Parsons and launched in August 1786. The vessel, a 74 gun third-rate ship of the line, was selected by Admiral Nelson as his flagship at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, where it was ideal for the shallows surrounding the Danish capital. It was at this naval battle where Nelson famously put a telescope to his blind eye and commented ‘I really do not see the signal!’ – refusing to retreat and subsequently turning the tide of the battle. Today the Elephant Boatyard is situated on the site where HMS Elephant was built. It has been a family run operation since the 1960s, overseeing restoration and custom building of yachts.

Many locals remember the River Hamble being the setting for BBC drama ‘Howards’ Way’. First transmitted in September 1985, the series ran until November 1990. Later series locations expanded to include Guernsey, Malta and Gibraltar, but the River Hamble remained very much centre stage with the Jolly Sailor pub at Bursledon featuring in many episodes. Bursledon doubled as the fictional village of ‘Tarrant’, with BBC crews using the station car park for its wardrobe and make-up vehicles! The aforementioned Elephant Boatyard doubled up as the ‘Mermaid Boatyard. Other locations included Swanwick, Netley Abbey and Southampton City Centre. ‘Howards’ Way’ was praised for its realistic depiction of yachting, weaving events such as the Round the Island and Fastnet Races, the Americas Cup and Cowes Week into its storylines. A domestic response to the success of ‘Dallas’ the series drew a weekly audience of some 14 million at its peak. ‘Howards’ Way’ brought a surge in interest in all things nautical. Today the Warsash Maritime Academy on the Hamble, part of Solent University, provides modern day training for a future generation of Merchant Navy officers attending its courses. Anyone not fortunate enough to have access to their own marine vessel can explore the historic River Hamble on cruises offered by Blue Funnel during the summer months.  

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