Peter Bruce discovers the rich heritage of the Hamble as he winds his way upriver
Exploring the hidden Hamble, Peter Bruce goes upriver in a dinghy
If you travel upstream on the Hamble at High Water past the mosaic of moored vessels, then pass under the frenzied traffic on the bridges at Bursledon, the scenery soon changes to one of perfect beauty and peace. The wide tree-lined river winds through lovely countryside and there is seldom more than the odd small craft in sight. Few people venture to this enchanting, divinely quiet location where the scenery is probably much as it was a thousand years ago.
Before the first bridge was built in 1783, access upriver was possible for masted vessels, and there are several traces of ancient wooden jetties along the bank. The wood on the left side, a mile up from the motorway bridge, is called Dock Copse, which suggests its riverside usage in times past. Nowadays, one of the first features to be seen going upriver, not far after leaving the last motor yacht behind on the Eastlands Boatyard pontoon, is a yellow can-shaped buoy marked ‘historic wreck’. This shows the position of the final resting place of two warships belonging to Henry V. The larger of these, the 600-year-old Grace Dieu, was commissioned in 1418 and was one of the biggest ships of her time. She was the largest ever clinker-built ship; her length was 66m. Grace Dieu saw very little active service and burnt to the waterline after lightning struck in 1439. The other ship that lies here is the 30m Holigost. Originally a Castillian vessel named Santa Clara, Holigost was captured and joined the English fleet in 1415. She was involved in two naval battles which were significant English successes in the Hundred Years’ War. But Henry V’s victory meant his navy was no longer much use to the nation, and Holigost was laid up and eventually sank on her moorings.
A third of a mile above the M27 bridge around the first bend, the Manor Farm pontoon will be seen: a beach and a landing place are the gateway to some nice walks, picnic spots and the opportunity to see the farm and its animals at what is now called the River Hamble Country Park. This was near the site of the secret wartime naval shore establishment HMS Cricket which was involved in amphibious craft and troops for the D-day landings. There are still notches in the riverbank left by wartime landing craft. Onward upriver, half a mile from the bridge opposite Catland Copse, the river narrows a little and bends to the left and then to the right, by which time all the bustle of civilisation is out of sight. Further on, where the river turns sharply left, a beach will appear on the right which is a bathing and picnic spot. Not far after that, the river depth becomes noticeably less and the river dries out at low water, but still gives at least 2m in the channel at high water. After the next lefthand bend, a field will be seen ahead rather than woodland and it is here, about two miles up from the bridges, that a decision has to be made as to which tributary to follow.
The lefthand one, which is the River Hamble, is navigable by dinghy another mile further up to Botley Mills, a mill since Saxon times. On the right, shortly after passing the river junction, is the YMCA Fairthorne Manor boathouse. When digging foundations for a previous boathouse near this point in 1888, a Saxon log boat made from a single oak tree dated around 700 AD was found, along with evidence of a Roman villa. Further on, there is one handsome private house and the YMCA camp. The river then becomes narrower with overhanging trees.
The Hamble is one of the busiest boating rivers in the country, but above the bridges, a different, more peaceful world emerges
When the tide is up, the River Hamble offers plenty to explore by small craft
A humble inflatable will get you away from the yachting crowds