Saturday, 4 October 2014

Days at Sea

On Tuesday, I drove out to Calshot, a shingle spit which marks the very end of Southampton Water, where the estuary meets the Solent, itself a sheltered side-channel of the English Channel, allegedly the busiest waterway on the planet.  It's one of those scruffy, nook-shotten corners of our island which have surprisingly rich histories.

There's a solid, round, gun-fort there within a sixteen-sided moat, like a great stone bolt screwed into the spit; perhaps it is what keeps the Isle Of Wight attached to the mainland.  It dates, like a number of such forts along the Solent, from the time of Henry VIII, with Napoleonic Era enhancements, and continues to keep Southampton safe from the French and Spanish fleets, though [whisper it] from a quick inspection I suspect the guns are now a bluff.

But, for much of the 20th century, Calshot was synonymous with seaplanes and flying boats.  It was here that the Supermarine S.5, the seaplane predecessor of the Spitfire fighter, won the Schneider Trophy in 1929 and again in 1931.  T.E. Lawrence was billeted at the RAF base here around that time.  I remember seeing flying boats moored on the water myself when we visited on a family holiday around 1960, in the last days of the RAF presence at Calshot. The great hangars are still standing, but are now a leisure centre, one of them big enough to house a ski-slope.

Even if you have no interest in learning to sail or canoe or windsurf, it's a good spot just to hang out on the shingly beach, and watch the gigantic container ships and cruise liners making their way up Southampton Water with the tide.

But here's a curious thing that I didn't know before.  On the way back, driving through Calshot village, I happened to notice a road named "Tristan Close".  Nothing unusual there: coming up with names for the roads in a new estate must be a terrible job, and planners often resort to themes.  You know, streets named after explorers, planets, cities, musicians... A particularly notorious estate near the university is known as "The Flowers Estate".  My son's secondary school was there, on Violet Road, which I often subliminally misread as "Violent Road".  I fully expected Isolde Way to be just round the corner from Tristan Close, perhaps followed by Liebestod Lane.

But, doing some fact-checking on Calshot's history, I discovered that -- following the eruption of their volcano in 1961 (if you are my age and British, you will probably remember this) -- the inhabitants of the extremely remote South Atlantic island Tristan da Cunha were evacuated half-way round the globe to, of all places, Calshot.

They didn't like it much, not least because their arrival was followed by the extreme winter of 1962/3 and devastating outbreaks of 'flu, to which they had little or no immunity.  The local community was also, shall we say, unsupportive.  Most of the islanders agitated to be sent back, which they were, but a few families did stay on, and they formed a close-knit community around, yes, Tristan Close in Calshot.

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