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They used to build big ships on the New Forest’s tranquil, pretty, Beaulieu River. Men of war that formed part of the Royal Navy’s wooden walls, when Britannia ruled the waves: vessels 150 feet, or more, in length, with 70 menacing cannons poking through gun-ports and crewed by hundreds of officers and men; ships that fought Britain’s battles from the English Channel to the other side of the world.
It is hard to imagine the bustle, noise and smells of those bygone days. Neat late-eighteenth century brick cottages line the single, car-less, street in the tiny preserved village of Buckler’s Hard. Families stroll down to the river’s edge, from which the tink-tink sound of lanyards slapping against the masts of smart yachts drifts across the water. The clink of glasses and bursts of laughter come from the Master Builder’s Hotel. Rum and roll-necks mix with day-trippers.
The cottages used to house the shipbuilders, the hotel was the home of Henry Adams, Master Shipbuilder between 1749 and 1805. The slipways, the hards or landing places, where ships were built and launched, are still there, the old supporting timbers yet visible at low tide. Here, in the space of about 70 years from the 1740s, some 52 navy vessels were laid down. They included three ships that fought at Trafalgar in 1805 – the Euryalus, Swiftsure and Agamemnon. The latter, a 64-gunner, was launched in 1781, saw action in the American and French revolutionary wars, again in the Napoleonic Wars, and was captained by one Horatio Nelson when he lost the sight of one eye at the siege of Calvi, in Corsica in 1794. Agamemnon, said to be Nelson’s favourite ship, finally ran aground in the mouth of the River Plate in 1809, some 7,000 miles away from home, and broke up; her wreck was found in 1993.
All those ships from this tiny little place. The last one to be built was a small cutter, Repulse, in 1818.
Every bit of land hereabouts, and the river (including its bed), has been owned for centuries by the Montagu family. Their seat is at Beaulieu (say ‘byoo-lee’), just a little upstream from Buckler’s Hard. That name, it seems, was first noted quite recently, in 1789, and comes from the Buckler family, or possibly the Dukes of Buccleuch (‘buck-loo’), ancestors of the present Montagus, with the addition of hard – local dialect for ‘a firm landing place’.
The story goes that the 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) was made Governor of the West Indian islands of St Vincent and St Lucia. His dream was to turn Buckler’s Hard, renamed Montagu Town, into a convenient, and profitable, place to import the islands’ main product, sugar. However, the French chased the British out of the islands (ownership changed hands frequently during this period) and Buckler’s Hard’s fortunes took another turn. There was a demand for ships, the river location was excellent and the New Forest, once one of William the Conqueror’s favourite hunting grounds, had an abundance of the beech, elm and – most importantly – oak, needed for construction. About 4,000 trees – an astonishing number – were needed to build a first rate ship of the line. To clinch it, there were several iron foundries nearby.
Shipbuilding at Buckler’s Hard declined – some say when wood and sail gave way to iron and steam, others when the shipbuilders became unreliable. The latter seems more likely, because wooden ships continued to be built elsewhere way beyond 1818. Whatever – by the mid-19th century, the village had settled back into relative obscurity.
All that changed during the Second World War, though, when the river became as busy as it had ever been two centuries before. In the early 1940s, Buckler’s Hard was used as a repair depot for motor torpedo boats, and towards the end of the war became part of the massive preparations for the D-Day landings in Normandy. Landing craft were patched up on the slips and crews were billeted in Nissen huts in the village. Segments of the Mulberry Harbours, the floating structures used to land vital supplies in the aftermath of the invasion of France, were constructed nearby and towed across the Channel.
You can happily lose yourself for several hours at Buckler’s Hard, not least over a few beers in the Master Builders. There’s a delightfully fascinating Maritime Museum, which tells the story of the place and includes a walk-through reconstructed interiors of cottages, showing how the 18th century inhabitants lived, and The New Inn, where they played.
In addition to the expected bits about 18th century shipbuilding, including bewigged and powdered gentlemen armed with drawings and set squares, and as well as some fascinating material about the part Buckler’s Hard played in D-Day, there’s an intriguing exhibition about the SS Persia.
SS Persia was a P&O passenger liner, sunk by German submarine U-38 off Crete on 30th December 1915 with the loss of 343 lives. Among those on board were the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu and his mistress, Eleanor Thornton. Miss Thornton is generally believed to have been the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy radiator mascot adorning Rolls-Royce motor cars. The ship went down in minutes and Eleanor Thornton did not survive – though Baron Montagu did. Curiously, Eleanor Thornoton has been immortalised, whereas Baron Montagu has not. SS Persia has subsequently been found and explored, possibly because it was reputed to have been carrying a fortune in bullion and jewels, and the exhibition includes many sad artefacts from the wreck.
There’s also a bit in the museum about Sir Francis Chichester (1901-72), the first solo yachtsman to sail around the world following the old clipper route in 1966-67, who used to moor his boat, Gipsy Moth IV, at Buckler’s Hard. After a chequered career since then, Gipsy Moth has been restored and still visits Buckler’s Hard on occasions.
Meandering down to the Beaulieu River, you’ll find a tiny chapel on your left, St Mary’s, which has been constructed in a former cottage. Underneath is a cellar, believed to have been used to store smuggled goods in days of olde.
Spotted on the river during a visit in 2009 was Motor Gun Boat 81. This is one of the last surviving MGBs of World War II and saw extensive action, including during the Normandy landings. And there it was, just sitting there. She was built by the British Power Boat Co at Hythe, Southampton, in 1942 and I believe might now be in the Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth.
Gunboats aside, it’s reasonably civilised place, is Buckler’s Hard. There’s a fairly unimpressive café near the car park and a predictably uninspiring gift shop; but, other than that, it’s lovely – and interesting. It can get busy – and it still has working boatyards, so you need to make sure kids don’t wander off. River cruises are on offer and there’s a pleasant-ish, 2-mile, walk upstream to Beaulieu village, a charming place where there are more opportunities for refreshment and retail therapy, including a splendid old-fashioned sweet shop. Nearby is Beaulieu Abbey, home to the Montagu family and to the National Motor Museum.
The paths along the riverside are fairly good, though I suspect they can get muddy. But the views of boats and birds between the trees and reeds are charming. The Beaulieu River was called the Exe by the Celts: Beaulieu is obviously French; it means ‘lovely place – and it is. It’s a short river – only about 12 miles from where it rises near Lyndhurst to where it spills into the Solent opposite the Isle of Wight. As you stroll along, glance across at the east bank; there are the grounds of Exbury House, yet another grand pile – this one owned by the Rothschilds. They are new kids on the street, however, only buying the estate in 1919. But Exbury gardens are fabulous, especially when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in flower.