On the train to Portsmouth this morning, I started reading Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin, one of my favorite writers, as percipient readers of this blog might recall. The journey being short, I didn't get very far. Chatwin is still at school. But some defining characteristics have already been elaborated. He's a collector of the unusual and happier alone out in the world that at home.
I don't know how much I will be able to identify with him, but I share his urge to see new places and the quest for the unknown. On the other hand, my collector's drive is poorly developed and entirely immaterial, restricted to countries visited (32) and airports traveled through (76). But I do like the unusual, quirkiness, efforts that have never seen the inside of a box.
Wherever I go, I seek out oddities rather than attraction. Oftentimes, I walk in the opposite direction from the one indicated by the guidebook or dive into a dark alley just to see what's there. I took this approach in Portsmouth and promptly got lost for an hour and a half. In return, I saw a lot of grey and a lot of dilapidation, but nothing glorious, just general shabbiness.
Then I got to the Southsea neighborhood from where I felt it mandatory to travel to the Isle of Wight. What's on the Isle, you might ask. I couldn't give much of an answer. Paul Theroux rode a train there during his royal encirculation, but I don't remember if he liked it. For me, the island was only important as the endpoint of a ferry crossing of the Solent. The journey was the real destination, a journey by Hovercraft as it happens.
Hovercraft are certainly on a special shelf in the cabinet of technical curiosities. They are also amazingly fast. Hovering, they are not impeded by the friction/drag/viscosity of water. For three decades, there used to be a regular service across the English Channel. A crossing took half an hour. When I moved from Grenoble to London, this had been discontinued. I crossed the Channel on a catamaran, which took 50 minutes. The operator went out of business about a year later. These days, service is safely back inside the box of tradition and takes two hours.
One has to travel to the Isle of Wight to experience hover travel in the UK. The first thing I noticed was thunder. The top speed of over 50 mph is achieved by 3 MW of air for lift and thrust. A strategically placed fusion reactor would be most beneficial, but the boat has to make do with two pairs of diesel engines that are so loud I heard them before I even knew I was near the terminal.
When I got there, I noticed a second thing: there's no pier. The craft hovers as easily over the pebbles of the beach as over water. They just push a ladder to where it comes to rest. You clamber in, the engines are thrown into gear and the boat (cause that's what it should be when you're crossing a waterway) roars, shudders, rises, turns and then takes off like a speedboat. It takes waves rather smoothly, despite the idea that a simplified picture of the machine – world's largest outboarder strapped to a bouncy castle – gives, but the noise is furious.
Late start but fast
On the way home, my thoughts bounced around another technical oddity, not exactly related to hovercraft but also a way of getting across water without touching and highly unusual. It's much to my dismay that I haven't collected a single transporter bridge in all my years of traveling. Here's a list of those that exist with brief notes:
- Pont Transbordeur, Marseille – Destroyed by the Nazis when they retreated. I only saw the foundations on one side.
- Rendsburger Hochbrücke, Germany – I learned about this when I researched this post. A friend of mine lives nearby.
- Rochefort-Martrou Bridge, France – I drove by, completely oblivious.
- Vizcaya Bridge, Bilbao – I knew it was there but not why I didn't drive down there when I visited.
- Aerial Bridge, Duluth – This is one that I actually saw, but when I was there, it had long been converted into an aerial lift bridge.
- I also saw and even crossed the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge, London, but this isn't transporting and probably never will be.
- Newport, Middlesbrough and Warrington Transporter Bridges, UK – Two within easy reach. The third is disused.
- Puente Transbordador, Buenos Aires – Rather far away and not transporting since 1947.
- Schwebefähre Osten, Germany – For tourists only, though who's to say?
There's quite a bit to see left in this world.