Whitstable to the Isle of Wight Coast


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Whitstable to the Isle of Wight

In Dover, Alice Roberts re-lives the glamour days of the hovercraft crossing to France. What brought the cross-channel service to an untimely end?


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There's a ceaseless movement

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of people and goods at the heart of Dover.

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14 million people each year catch the ferry to France.

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As sea journeys go,

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the 20 miles or so to Calais is hardly an ocean cruise,

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more functional than fashionable,

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but Alice Roberts is finding out when a Channel crossing

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was THE glamour ticket.

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In 1974, local girl Angie Westacott applied for a new job.

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It was to be the start of a 20-year-long love affair

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with the hovercraft.

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I never ever got tired of seeing that, and to this day

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if it came up I'd still be looking at it and thinking,

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"Oh, wow, that's fantastic, absolutely amazing."

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-So you got the job?

-Got the job, yes,

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and after a couple of days got used to the movement and the motion

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and absolutely loved it, and a lot of us did.

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It was the futuristic way to cross the Channel.

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This was the age of Concorde,

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the moon landings and giant passenger hovercraft.

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"With its payload of 90 tonnes, it can carry 416 passengers

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"and 60 vehicles in airline-style comfort,

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"at a cruising speed of 65 knots."

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They flew for 30 years before being wound up

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and the hover port at Dover abandoned.

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So what happened?

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Didn't the passenger experience live up to the glamorous image?

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There's only one way to find out for sure,

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and that's to cross the Channel in a hovercraft ourselves,

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with Angie and some of her former crew-mates as our guides.

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But in order to get to grips with the highs and lows

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of hovercraft history,

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I'm going to have to go right back to the beginning

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to where it all took off.

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The passenger hovercraft was British through and through,

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the brainchild of Christopher Cockerill, engineer and boat builder.

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He started experimenting in the early 1950s,

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and actually worked out the physics in his kitchen.

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Hovercraft historian Warwick Jacobs is going to show me how.

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Warwick, these are the things Cockerill was playing around with.

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Yes, just household objects,

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pair of kitchen scales, coffee tins and an ordinary air blower.

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A hairdryer in fact.

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Let's see what that can lift with just a jet of air onto the scales.

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-OK.

-Try it with one ounce first.

-So on this flat side.

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Yep, try it on the flat side, cos less air is going to escape.

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And that will easily lift one ounce.

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-No problem.

-Let's see if it will lift the two.

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No, so what we're going to do now is to create, as Cockerill did,

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what we've got here is two tins, one tin inside the other tin,

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and the jet of air comes down between the two tins

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forming a curtain or jet of air, which stops this inner air escaping.

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That's much more effective than just having a single jet of air

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-turning it into a ring.

-Exactly, the same amount of air

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doing twice as much work. Go back to one,

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and we'll see it should do that easily.

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No problem at all.

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Try it with the two.

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-Easy.

-Yeah.

-Let's see if it'll do the three.

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Yes, and I'm still not touching the plate, moving around on it.

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Will it do the four?

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And if lifts four ounces.

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If you scale that up,

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the bigger it gets, the more efficient, and it works better.

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So it's a curtain of compressed air pushing down

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that gives the hovercraft its lift.

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The first successful cross-channel flight was in 1959,

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Christopher Cockerill hanging on for dear life on

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the front of his prototype to keep it weighed down.

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So how do you control what is effectively

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a big floating hairdryer?

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Time for a flying lesson.

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Whay!

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Wow, I'm just...

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I'm travelling on a frictionless cushion of air,

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but my instructor Russ tells me I'm not properly hovering yet.

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What you're doing is just blowing a big hole in the water

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and because you keep losing confidence, slowing down

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and turning too tight, you're falling into that hole in the water.

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-Right, OK.

-You've got to keep moving,

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you've got to keep your turns gentle and keep your speed up.

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Wow, there's some quite big waves out here.

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I'm hanging on for dear life here.

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Those early pilots learning to drive these things

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really had their job cut out for them.

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-Can I have another go, Russ?

-I don't see why not.

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Once mastered, I can see it was a lot of fun for the early pilots,

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and when the commercial service started in 1968,

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the public loved it too.

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What went wrong then? Was there something about the ride

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that made the thrill fade?

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To find out, we need some passengers. I've brought Warwick and my dad.

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He's an engineer, and he also rode on the hover service in the '70s.

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We're going to fly the old route to Calais in this 12-seater hovercraft,

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with former crew members Angie, Vanessa and Brian.

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Really strange, I've never been in a hovercraft before.

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It's really quite bizarre. It is like flying.

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What was the quickest you did a crossing to Calais in, Brian?

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25 minutes.

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-Angie, you were handling drinks out to people.

-We were, yes,

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and in fact it was so quick that we didn't have time

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to serve all the passengers,

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so we'd phone the flight-deck and say, "Can you slow down?"

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-Dad, I thought I'd find you up here with the pilot.

-Yes, of course.

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From what I can see you're skidding all the time, isn't that right, Rob?

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Like on ice, we're chasing a bar of soap around the bathtub,

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a bit like that, trying to grab this bar of soap

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and you can't quite grab hold of it.

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In its heyday, no other crossing could match the hovercraft for speed.

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The big craft could take on three-metre high waves,

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but it wasn't always a comfortable ride.

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Stylish maybe, smooth, that was another matter.

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30 bone-rattling minutes in,

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we're experiencing the ups and downs first-hand.

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Our pilot Rob has just decided to turn around and go back to Dover.

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We made it halfway across the Channel, but the swell got too big,

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just over a metre, so we're now heading back.

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White cliffs of Dover.

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But it wasn't the occasional rocky ride that brought about

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the end of the Dover service. Even when the Channel Tunnel opened,

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passengers were still queuing to catch the hovercraft.

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Warwick, it seems like such a fantastic form of transport,

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so why on earth did it wind down?

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It was the ending of duty-free which finished the hovercraft.

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They could beat the tunnel, no problem, they were still faster

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right to the very end, but duty-free supplemented the hovercraft service.

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In fact, duty-free sales didn't just supplement the service,

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they became its main source of income.

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With spiralling fuel costs and no chance

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of replacing the ageing hovercraft, they were grounded in October 2000.

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After all those years of working on the hovercraft,

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-it must have been sad to see them finally stop.

-It was.

-End of an era.

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It's still sad, actually. Coming on this today is just fantastic

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because it just brings it back even more.

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The hovercraft's inventor, Christopher Cockerill, predicted that

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we would travel across the Atlantic in huge nuclear-powered hovercraft.

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In the end, it was a dream that stalled in the Channel.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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