Who pays the ferryman? That would be me, many years ago

October 1st, 2019 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

‘Oh the Woolston Ferry, it doesn’t travel very fast. It was never built for comfort, it was built to last’. Which it did, for 141 years, and Lowry painted it, but then they built the Itchen Bridge and that was that. Gutta Percha and the Balladeers marked its passing with a song they hoped would rival Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry and the Pacemakers, which never quite happened though I must say it’s nice to get a personal thank-you note when you send off for the CD.

Like several of Mick Channon’s horses, Woolston Ferry had a Southampton connection. There are only eight days between us and November 1948 also produced Prince Charles, so it was a vintage month in a vintage year  –  with the obvious exception, needless to say. I’ve known Mick since he played wide on the left as a callow 17-year-old and I’ve never known anyone who could shrug off occasional disappointments and serious physical setbacks the way he does, with tomorrow far more important than today.

I’ve never thought of him as a sentimentalist, though now and then the horses make me wonder. There was Woolston Ferry, of course, and Milton Road, Archers Road and Koeman, followed by Wightman and Single and Littleton Hall. Bill Wightman trained for Mick in the early days and also sent out the original Single  –  owned not by the footballer but a group of cricket-mad enthusiasts  –  to score eleven times, five of those successes coming in 1987, when Pat Eddery, on board every time, all but worried Steve Cauthen out of the jockeys’ title.

I suppose you could argue that Littleton is more Winchester than Southampton, but it’s close. Mick went there in the very early days when a career in racing seemed possible, though the Littleton stable was made famous (infamous?) by the late Les Hall, who landed many a touch from his base on the Hampshire downs. Littleton Lad and Littleton Lass won in their turn for him but when he lost his licence it was over a filly called Littleton Queen, who was possibly given an ‘easy’ once too often, not that Les had the chance to place her to advantage if that was indeed the plan.

She went to Ken Cundell and achieved precisely nothing, Hall remarking (with the licence safely back in the drawer) ‘Not worth a light and never has been’, which seemed a little harsh on the lightly-raced filly. Maybe Ken, a decent cove as well as a very fine trainer, did his colleague a favour but that’s just the romantic in me speaking.

It’s funny how things come round again. Mick has a filly called Quirky Gertie, originally owned by him  but passed on to the Endless Folly Partnership. Endless Folly is an observation a little too close to the truth for some of us but I do remember a horse of that name which was trained, I think, by David Oughton and went in at 33/1 sometime around 1965 or ’66. It was a Saturday and I even remember turning the page in the Southampton Echo for the Monday entries  –  entries, mark you, not declarations in those days  –  which took up an entire page. Compare and contrast, as the old exam papers used to say. (Incidentally, if you want to know how far back the ‘Bollin’  –  named after the Yorkshire river  –  dynasty goes, my dad, gone 49 years next week, never missed Bollin Charlie, owned and bred, like all the others, by Sir Neil and Lady Westbrook.)

I spent a lot of time on the Woolston Ferry and quite a bit in Woolston itself, which enjoyed a much longer spell in the limelight than Andy Warhol’s prescribed 15 minutes, especially during the 1940s, when the old Supermarine factory turned out Spitfires in double-quick time, turning the course of World War II in the process. There is a memorial to designer R J Mitchell but otherwise Woolston makes little of its past, while the White Star pub/restaurant in Oxford Street on the other side of the water makes little or no mention of the Titanic, even though 549 crewmen from Southampton perished in 1912.

Parts of nearby Netley have been gentrified and there is nothing left of the Royal Victoria Hospital, where R D Laing conducted some of his radical psychiatric experiments in the 1960s. During the war, workers marched from Woolston to Netley to protest that German POWs were being treated better than seriously injured British servicemen. In those days the railway line ran right up to the hospital gates and two German prisoners managed to board the train one day and were only picked up again at Waterloo.

Both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were treated at the Royal Victoria after serving in the 1914-18 war and both were sent back after treatment.

“I watched the woods on the Isle of Wight, hazily receding in the heat. And when the Isle of Wight was out of sight  –  well, there was nothing to be done about it,” Sassoon wrote in 1917, thinking that he would surely die at the Somme. Mercifully he was wrong but his fellow war poet Owen failed to survive a return visit, having been blown up and fallen down a well the first time. They couldn’t always keep tabs on him at Netley and at one stage he wandered as far as the blameless Winchester Downs, mistaking them for the trenches. The famous poem Awake was born of this sad misjudgement.

That he was still sent back beggars belief but it was a different, brutal world. He was killed during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice in November, 1918.

Tracking his exact movements in the Winchester area is impossible, though it’s known that, during one of his more coherent spells, he visited a cousin somewhere close to Hazely Down. I like to think  Littleton entered his consciousness at some point, a fanciful notion which occurs every time the Saturday traffic slows and stops at the bottom end of the A34. It might be advisable to find a different route, I suppose, but the sad truth is that all roads lead to the past.


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