WHEN BRITANNIA HAD WINGS

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 11:47

The ability to see the past through rose-tinted glasses is, for some elderly people, a compensatory factor weighing against harsh realities of the present. Memories of the Cowes Weeks of eighty-odd years ago need no coloured lenses. For sheer elegance, variety, nautical and social splendour, today’s spectacles are not in the same class. That the increased number of racing yachts with their multi-coloured spinnakers make a fine sight cannot be denied, but after they have crossed the congested starting line, they leave the Solent looking almost empty.

I do not want to disparage the quality of present-day sailing, but for those of us who saw Britannia, Terpsichore, Shamrock, White Heather, Candida, and the superb schooner Westward with every square inch of canvas taut in half a gale, things will never again be quite so exciting. I can recall seeing them off Prince’s Green going full tilt, their gunwales submerged, breathtakingly close to the lee shore. On such days King George the Fifth could be seen near Britannia’s helm enjoying every spray-filled minute.

Apart from the racing yachts, literally hundreds of vessels of all shapes and sizes lined the Roads from Old Castle Point to Egypt Light. And how busy the Solent used to be! Throughout the six days there was ceaseless activity. Rowing boats and motor launches constantly ferried people to and from the fleet of steam yachts, ketches, yawls, cabin-cruisers, and cutters, all of which exhibited gleaming enamel and dazzling brass-work – the smaller craft going crazy at their moorings when Claude Graham-White’s speed boats, TNT and Gee-Wiz (Anthony Heckstall-Smith’s spelling) passed them. For me, the royal pinnaces were one of the most pleasing features. With the dark blue elegance of their hulls relieved by the royal arms, their chromium-plated bell-topped funnels glinting in the sunshine, they were a brave sight as they headed for the RYS Castle’s landing-place, or slid through the water towards Trinity Wharf when Queen Mary set out to visit Osborne House or Carisbrooke Castle.

The focal points of the armada were the royal yachts Victoria and Albert and the Alexandra – the former a floating palace in black and gold, the latter of similar design but only half as large. The Daily Sketch, for several years, enclosed tickets which entitled readers to a free motor-boat trip that circumnavigated the Victoria and Albert. Holding my ticket and a copy of the newspaper, I have queued for over an hour.

In the offing, guarding the royal yachts, a battleship lay at anchor. The names that come to mind are HMS Ramillies and Bahram. A sloop of the Royal Navy always pursued the racing Britannia.

Complementing the aquatics, various diversions took place ashore, where the Parade was an arena for buskers and cheapjacks. A Punch and Judy show, and a stilt-walker with long striped trousers hiding his stilts, delighted the children. A thimble-rigging conjurer who relied solely on sleight of hand performed at close range. Music was provided by a piper in full highland costume and by a local trio playing a portable harmonium, clarinet, and concertina. Sooner or later an escapologist would spread his mat, usually to fall into the hands of sailors who used every known knot and loaded him with chains and handcuffs, from all of which he never failed to free himself. This feat, of course, had to be practised at home, and generally resulted in my being helplessly bound hand and foot to the kitchen table.

The cheapjacks, I recall, included a coloured man whose teeth were a good advertisement for the toothpaste he sold. I believe he offered to pull teeth, but I never saw anyone accept. There was, too, a glib-tongued salesman whose stock-in-trade was a multi-purpose instrument which, with rhythmic word patterns that would have pleased Professor Henry Higgins, he said incorporated ‘the telescope, the microscope, the field, marine, or opera binoculars’. To ensure the public received full value for its half-crowns, the gadget had a built-in mirror and a compass. I saw one bought by one of my uncles. For the money, it was a bargain.

A line of gypsies with baskets of carnival novelties and confetti, a mascot seller with celluloid ‘Fumbs up’ dolls wearing only sashes, and a balloon vendor, added splashes of colour to the animated scene. For the gullible a fortune-teller produced duplicated predictions from a not very lifelike model.

All these characters, incidentally, played their parts on a stage unspoilt by functional architecture. The Terrace, a dignified continuation of the Royal London Yacht Club’s building, stood on the site now occupied by Osborne Court, its houses presenting a balconied façade cloaked with ivy. One of them, Solent House, was a superior private school for girls, their neighbour being Dr John Wasdale Hudson who saw me enter the world and brought me safely through measles, whooping cough and mumps.

Another important feature which no longer exists was the Victoria Pier with its pavilion housing The Joybells or Tom Percival’s Maids and Middies. Paddle-steamers from Bournemouth, Weymouth, and Brighton used it. Many times have I watched  the water cascading from the paddle-boxes of the now-departed Lorna Doone, Balmoral, and Emperor of India, and heard their safety-valves relieve the steam pressure – a sound very disturbing to the performers on stage only a few feet away. I remember, also, the Victoria which, even then, was almost a museum piece. Built in 1884, she was probably the oldest paddle-boat operating along the south coast. She was driven by the only oscillating engine in service that I ever saw.

At night, weather permitting, while the cream of British aristocracy on the lawn of the RYS Castle listened to an orchestra playing light music, in Queen’s Road on the other side of a wooden fence the townsfolk of Cowes were allowed to stand that they, too, might enjoy it.

My father and other men older than myself have told me that the marine pageantry I witnessed was not a patch on what they had seen when Queen Victoria was alive. Having in Mr Frank Beken’s book seen photographs of some of the splendid schooners which then participated in the races, the German Emperor’s Meteor, for example, I can well believe they did not exaggerate.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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