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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Bucklers Hard

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, history, Beaulieu

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’.  Vessels 150 feet in length, or more, 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’s hard to imagine now.  Neat late eighteenth century brick cottages line the single, car-less, street in the tiny preserved village of Bucklers 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.

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, history, Beaulieu

The cottages used to house the shipbuilders, the hotel was the home of Henry Adams, Master Shipbuilder between 1749-1805, the slipways, possibly 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 ships 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.  Agamemnon, said to be Nelson’s favourite ship, finally ran aground in the mouth of the River Plate, some 7,000 miles away from home, in 1809 and broke up; her wreck was found in 1993.

Bucklers Hard, old timbers, slipways, Beaulieu

All those ships from this tiny little place.  The last one to be built was a small cutter, Repulse, in 1818.

All the 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 Bucklers 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, plus ‘hard’ – local dialect for ‘a firm landing place’. 

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, maritime museum, Beaulieu

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 Bucklers 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 Bucklers 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 were needed to build a first rate ship of the line.  To clinch it, there were several iron foundries nearby.

Bucklers Hard, Hampshire, history, Beaulieu

Shipbuilding at Bucklers 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 way beyond 1818.  Whatever – by the mid-19th century, the village had settled back into relative obscurity. 

Bucklers Hard, Maritime Museum

All that changed during the Second World War, though, when the river became as busy as it had ever been two centuries previously.  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 repaired 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.

Maritime Museum, Bucklers Hard, Hampshire

You can happily lose yourself for several hours at Bucklers Hard, not least over a few beers in the Master Builders.  There’s a surprisingly 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.

St Mary's Chapel, Bucklers Hard.

In addition to the expected bits about 18th century shipbuilding, including bewigged and powdered gentlemen with drawings and set squares, as well as some fascinating material about the part Bucklers 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 believed to have been the model for the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ ornament on Rolls-Royce motor cars.  The ship went down in minutes and Eleanor Thornton did not survive – though Baron Montagu did.  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.

Master Builder's Hotel, Bucklers Hard.

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 at Buckler’s Hard.

Meandering down to the 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.

Bucklers Hard, slipways

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.

MGB 81, Beaulieu River, Bucklers Hard.

Gunboats aside, it’s reasonably civilised place, is Bucklers Hard.  There’s a fairly unimpressive cafĂ© near the car park and a fairly predictable gift shop; but, other than that, it’s lovely – and interesting.  It can get busy – and there are still working boatyards there.  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 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.

Beaulieu River.

More information about Bucklers Hard on the Bucklers Hard website.

34 comments:

  1. Fascinating little place, Mike, and one I'd never even heard of before. The scale of sailing ships is constantly a surprise to me; always much smaller than one might imagine.

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  2. I'd enjoy visiting this place. It sounds like such a wealth of history!

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  3. Thank you for enlightening me on the fascinating history of this small village, I really must pay a visit one day. I have been to Beaulieu and nearby Exbury Gardens many times but for some reason never made it to Bucklers Hard.

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  4. Ah, that whole area around Southampton and Portsmouth must have so many points of interest! Four thousand is a lot of trees for one ship. Thank you so much for including the map link and the pronunciation guide. I enjoyed the photos, including of course the lovely little chapel and needlework kneelers (?), the Master Builder's hotel (the fireplace looks so inviting!), and the uncomfortable looking cottage dweller. Nice post, Mike.

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  5. Your posts are wonderful at introducing new places to visit. I can't believe I've not heard of it especially as I have visited that locality!

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  6. Thank you for enlightening me on the fascinatng history of this small village, somehwere I really must visit one day. I have been to Beaulieu and nearby Exbury Gardens several times but for some reason have never made it to Bucklers Hard.

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  7. What a fascinating bit of history. I enjoyed this. It was back when ships where wood and men where made of steel. Hope your day is blessed. ~:)

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  8. A hard, a firm landing place...you gotta be kidding me. Did you type this without giggling?

    Immature snickers in the background.

    I really couldn't read on after that...snicker snicker. I could barely type.

    (yeah...we Americans are tacky)

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  9. Amazing to see the gun boat still intact.

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  10. Fascinating that after centuries this area once again became important during WWII. Thanks as always for the history lesson.

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  11. I think Sparky's comment said it best as this was a time when boats were made of wood and men were made of steel.....

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  12. I found myself lost in this account. Very well done!

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  13. Fascinating story. I'm inteigued with how such a big ship-building site could largely disappear!

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  14. I enjoyed this post, Mike! I LOVE maritime history; it's part of what I enjoy when we make our yearly trip to the North Carolina coast. We have a nice, new maritime museum in the town of Southport, which we visited a few years ago. It's small, but full of interesting artifacts. We took lots of pictures, but I still haven't gotten around to writing a post yet. I thought maybe this spring. :)

    Bucklers Hard looks like an interesting and scenic place to visit, just my cup of tea. Your pictures are lovely -- thanks for sharing. Hope you have a great weekend!

    Hugs,

    Denise at Forest Manor

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  15. Great post Mike!
    It is always a pleasure to discover new places thanks to you.
    Thank You~

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  16. A fascinating place. I imagine the car-less street with the brick cottages is often used as a film set for costume dramas.
    The museum looks great, I suppose I could spend a long time in there.

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  17. Maritime history is a lifelong interest for me - thank you so much for sharing this wonderful place and all the pictures! And now I can pull on my boots and head out into the snow for chores, dreaming of sunshine and green grass and docks and ships. And a beer in that cozy hotel.

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  18. Wonderful photos as always. We visited Buckler's Hard a few years ago. Didn't know about its use in WWII.

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  19. My grandparents lived in the New Forest so we went to Bucklers Hard quite often. I remember it quite well and it doesn't seem to have changed much. I seem to recall the little museum had creaky wooden floors that weren't very flat.
    We often went to the motor museum at Beaulieu too. Grandpa ran a garage in what is now known as Brompton Cross and my mother loved looking at old cars even though she hated driving. I think it reminded her of when she was a little girl.
    I often think about it as the Chef and I quite often visit the amazing collection of cars collected by the Gianadda family and on show at the Fondation Gianadda in Martigny. Which is better known for art exhibitions and a fabulous collection of sculptures: quite a lot to be seen on the roundabouts in and around Martigny.

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  20. Buckler's Hard has been on my wish list for a very long time, but somehow I never end up near it. Perhaps I should try harder!

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  21. Thank you for showing me Bucklers Hard. We ran out of time when we visited Beaulieu and always intended to go back. We haven't quite made it yet ;-)

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  22. Oh, I so enjoyed this post.
    A most beautiful part of the UK, we had a most enjoyable visit there a couple of years back, so reading your post has bought back some lovely memories.

    Have a great weekend and a good week too!

    All the best Jan

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  23. It looks like such a beautiful and peaceful place now, but it must have been very busy before. Thanks for giving me a new place to research!

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  24. What a great post about this place, Mike. I can just imagine all the bustle and noise of that era.

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  25. I think that I remember seeing Gypsy Moth there when I visited around '67/'68.
    Back in the day when I was in the WRAF stationed locally and dined in the Master Builder's. Thanks for jogging the memory.

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  26. Hi Mike - it's an area I've never visited ... the call of Cornwall - was the distraction ... now I must make time. It sounds fascinating and I love the history of the area - reading about the boats etc.

    Going back a couple of hundred years ... as Betty says it'd be bustling with people, workers, smithies, carpenters etc ... and then those lanyards just smarting against their lines ...

    Cheers Hilary

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  27. Thanks for another great mini trip. Amazing that it had another go in WWII.

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  28. Hi,
    I enjoyed this trip. I am off to share this post with my boys. They are all about WW11. We just finished reading a great book about Winston Churchill. I think a field trip to the U.K. is in store. ;-)
    Carla

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  29. So much history! I'd never heard of this place and really enjoyed your tour.

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  30. Nice descriptive post with the model giving some perspective and relevance to the place. It was interesting to read how shipbuilding disappeared only to return in times of conflict much later.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.