Between Two Ports and the Hard Place

The Gosport to Portsmouth ferry is a busy, popular and long-standing service. Let Lewis Baglow help you to look at it in brand new ways. 

As a child, in the seventies, I would have nightmares about going to the city of Portsmouth. Not because I had heard tales of naval press-gangs bludgeoning people in the alleyways, or the Battersea-esque landscape that spewed smoke like dragon’s nostrils; it was because we always caught the ferry from Gosport. How I feared the flaky, green painted iron-bridge that descended to a corrugated cowshed; floating on similarly coloured water. Shook at the sleeper style flooring, requiring you to step over the gaps, as the waves underneath grabbed unsuspecting passengers by their sodden shoes. Cowered at the clonk of the rust-laden vessels as they berthed portside, simultaneously jolting us crammed in cattle backwards and worst of all: buckled at the large bulbous Dalek style rivets that held the whole structure together. Oh how I wished that blue Police Box would appear and take me away! Now, forty years on and after extensive therapy, I have returned to face my childhood torment again; and make the sailing between two ports and the hard place.

This vital ferry service operates between the quiet seafront town of Gosport and the busy docks lining the quays of Portsmouth (known locally as The Hard, due to its natural mooring shoreline). Its main ticketing office, based in Gosport, nestles amongst the coloured blooms of various trees and flower beds that encompass the Falklands Gardens; a memorial to the 1982 conflict in the South Atlantic; whilst from three convergence points, an endless stream of passengers filter through the waterfront complex, day and night, to cross the bridgeless expanse of water that separates them from the busy city.

It is the latter end of the rush hour ritual when I arrive at the ticket booth. The last stragglers, of the insect-like commute, soldier past me with their multi-trip passes in hand. Armies of black-suited banker ants rush to save the world, whilst the red secretarial varieties seductively tap along the pink-paved pathways towards the jetty; careful to avoid the green dockyard species that shamble around in groups. Along the promenade, bored pensioners begin to take their seats ready for today’s performance of life goes by; filling the air with the unmistakeable seafront aromas of battered halibut and vinegar’d chips from the mid-morning special of the local fishery. Centre point and standing predominantly amongst the gardens, a two-tiered fountain begins to fill with the flow of disinterested employable; all scouring the base for loose change, in hope of the next special brew.

In front of me, the queue quickly dwindles towards my destiny of facing a plastic window that’s embedded into the side of the ticket building. Kennelled within, a well-travelled sea dog sits inside an uninteresting office; grunting his acknowledgment of the cupronickel-for-paper exchange of a boarding ticket. Now three pounds lighter, I begin to feel the weight of expectation as I start to approach the entrance to my haunted past. The orifice of the jetty looms menacingly, causing me to pause briefly as I become distracted by the seagulls circling around the blue backdrop above; screaming at the pigeons below who were now pestering the pensioners for their carbohydritic scraps; as dark diesel clouds plume across the sky from the main bus terminal next door.

To my surprise, the old pontoon bridge of my childhood has now gone, replaced in 2011 with a new sleeker model, along with the Rolls-Royce of corrugated cowsheds; a futuristic design reminiscent of a Starbase rather than Homebase. A twenty first century jump into a new millennia from a ferry service that has operated for more than 400 years; making it one of the oldest running services still in operation within the United Kingdom. Today’s lunar cycle has presented me with the lowest of tides; leaving me to teeter on the edge of a three hundred degree incline to the berthing bay below. Through large glass panels either side, I torment the subdued tide with my dry shoes as I begin my descent into the depths of hell. With an unhelpful nudge of nature’s gravity, I am forced to partake in a Naomi Campbell fall-style walk down the steep gradient; as semi-mounted cyclists freewheel past me with smug grins. With my boneage intact, I successfully make it onto the floating jetty and proceed to recover on the plastic ‘bus stop-style’ seating that runs along the edge of the interior.

Through the large windowed panelling that surrounds me, as well as the obligatory advertising posters, I watch as two ferries interchange with each other on their voyage to each respective pontoon; jostling for position amongst the bustling crowd of yacht masts swaying within the moorings of the numerous marinas that line the shores. Beneath my feet, the pontoon creaks and moans as it purposely buckles over the contours of lapping waves; creating a false sense of alcoholic intoxication that would benefit any weekend reveller looking for a cheap night out. Inside the terminal, a myriad of shoppers and students have gathered; patiently rocking as our designated vessel begins to manoeuvre into its docking position alongside us. With a ten knot and two hundred tonne jolt, the ferry grinds along the edge of the pontoon; squaring up to two sliding doors that allow access on and off the vessel. The waiting herd all take a sideways step from the resulting knock-on from the berthing ferry, which amuses me greatly; not just from the recollection of a childhood memory that still continues to this day, but from how I wished I had a banjo to facilitate the involuntary barn dance that ensued with each docking. With a quick lasso of the mooring ropes, around the necks of the bollards from the ship’s hands, this rodeo was ready to get under way.

The castered rumble of the sliding doors resonates throughout the corrugated structure, as the cattle market shuffles itself into position by the embarkation point. Fenced off by metal railings, the stampeding departees begin their race to the summit of the calamitous catwalk that ominously awaits them; as through the jostle ahead of me, the call of ‘Watch your step, please!’ brings flashback feelings of the trepidation I would feel as a youngster. Caught in the inescapable forward momentum, I squeeze through the waiting doorway; until I pause briefly at the see-sawing craft before me. Timing the motion of the bobbing ledge, I step clumsily aboard; mimicking the actions of a child’s first experience of a department store escalator.

Now on board, the smug cyclists line in an orderly fashion amongst the miniature roll-on, roll-off surroundings of the welded interior. Rows of coach-style seating face the bow viewing area whilst through a doorway opposite; the train-carriage layout of tabled seats offers the ambience of a side-street café full of coffee breaking shoppers. A set of ladder-like stairs lead me up to an open-aired deck; where I take a seat upon one of the wooden-strutted life rafts that sit neatly between two large funnels. To my relief, a red ant taps seductively to join me on my potential desert island; ‘Well, at least if we sink, I chuckle to myself, ‘we’ll be amongst the first to be evacuated, what with red ants and children and all that.’ The pontoon doors slide again with thunderous closure, leaving the breathless disappointed to curse their misfortune and wasted last-minute dash; as the strangulated bollards gasp air again, allowing us to depart on our five-minute voyage.

A kick of the dual rotored engine lathers up a frenzied whitewash of piranha snapping bubbling; inviting the children on-board to clamber the railings and marvel at the underwater agitation that rumbles around us. Deep vibrations begin to resonate through the seat up my shoulders and, with a roar of dark plumage above me, we slide away from the pontoon. The pushed momentum allows the engines to quieten to a buzz; massaging me around the neck line as I squint at the skyline dominance of the Emirate-sponsored Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth’s scaled-down Burj Al Arab. With arms leant back, and legs stretched forward, I smile at the warmth against my closed eyelids; savouring in the tranquillity of being water-bound. Gone are the day-to-day rumblings of the road tearing traffic; replaced by the propelled rolling of the Isle of Wight hovercraft on the outskirts of the harbour mouth, the only service of its kind within the UK. Quirky honks and hoots randomly resonate from the various seafaring vessels that float freely along the lane-less spaghetti junctions. Calming slurps of lapped water within our wake, sound gently amongst the calls of the gliding gulls as they dive briefly; disturbing the whiting schools that glisten with the twinkle of a thousand waved crests. I must have relaxed a bit too much, as my seductive seating partner spoke softly: ‘It’s lovely on here isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it is,’ I replied, revelling in my own dystopia, “It’s very relaxing.”

‘It is. I love coming home on the ferry, it’s so peaceful.’

I daren’t ask where she had been. It was mid-morning and she was wearing the brightest of reds. I just smiled a response as the ferry swung around; manoeuvring itself alongside the pontoon that sat under the shadow of Portsmouth’s piece of Dubai.

The exit of the stairwell was already blocked by the other passengers waiting to disembark. As we swung sideways, I gripped the cold metallic banisters with both hands as everyone skipped forward a step at the impending nudge of the docking hull. I managed to join the slow shuffle towards the bottlenecked gates; before stepping out onto a pontoon that was straight out of the nineteen seventies. I didn’t have time to panic at the onslaught of the oncoming inclination that had returned to haunt me; another forced momentum saw us bundled up the crumbling causeway, past the derelict ticket office and onto the concrete promenade of the Hard.

As the crowds dispersed, I was slapped with the eye watering drift of fried onion; emanating from a small greased-spoon shack that sat snugly by the top of the jetty. Alongside me, the shrill screech of mechanical metallic contact brought me a rude awakening from the tranquillity of a few moments earlier, as trains pulled in and out of the busy Portsmouth Harbour station. Trails of taxis rattled along the kerbsides that led to another diesel infused bus terminal; all lined with the unfortunates of life enquiring after any change I may have had. The Dubaian mirage had left me now, as under the towering masts of the historic warships that patriotically stand here, I felt a saddening at the destruction that the modern world had brought to this maritime setting. Thank heavens for those black suited varieties for saving the world!

With a glance over my shoulder, I look back with contemporary nostalgia at the journey that I had just undertaken. The quiet town of Gosport seemed far more appealing from this side of the water; at least for my spare change, I would have been given some form of entertainment from the special brew crew rummaging in the fountain. Colourful blooms seemed redundant here, shadowed by the greys of structural decline with the crumbling facades of prehistoric plasterwork, but then this is a city after all; and my experience in similar monstrosities were no different to this. The haunting reminisce from my childhood didn’t seem so frightening now, compared to what I was facing.

An automatic knee-jerk took me back towards the direction of the jetty, smiling at the conquered demons as I made my way down the crooked inversion. With my return ticket, empathising with Charlie after he had found one of the Willy Wonka varieties, I joined the cattle drive which led to the next awaiting ferry. A sign over my head reads: It’s shorter by water, the company’s slogan; but as I board the vessel again, I couldn’t help but wish that this urban escaping jaunt would last just a little longer.

Photography by Paul Hermans via Wikimedia Commons.

(Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (].