TRAVELLING across the Solent is reputed to be one of the most expensive per mile in the world. But 120 years ago there were plans to bypass ferries altogether by building a tunnel linking the Isle of Wight to the New Forest.
The scheme even progressed as far as a parliamentary bill giving permission for a seven-mile connection, with further proposals to divert the railway line at Brockenhurst to link to Keyhaven and create a new train station at Milford.
Labelled an “Islander’s dream”, the proposal ran out of steam when the First World War broke out – but enthusiasm was rekindled later when a widespread postcard drop garnered support.
However, nearly four decades after it was first mooted it was eventually sunk by spiralling costs and transport developments.
The extraordinary story has been laid bare in the third of a series of Bygone Brockenhurst books which chronicle the village’s history, written by resident John Purkess and edited by David Bennett.
Mr Bennett, chair of the Friends Brockenhurst Station, said: “We know this plan died – it was over ambitious – but we have now tunnelled under the English Channel.
“And if you’d said then to people that within half a century there would be craft hovering on a cushion of air playing their part in the link, they’d have been equally incredulous.
“Yet the hovercraft came into being, and indeed many were built on the Island. Brockenhurst and its station would be very different today if the tunnel scheme had gone ahead.
“There would be far more trains, especially freight, and the Isle of Wight would benefit from a link which wasn’t weather dependent.”
The idea for a tunnel surfaced in the 1890s, amid widespread frustration among Islanders at the time it took to get to London and a growing feeling of isolation during foggy or stormy weather.
Seizing upon that, businessman Frank Aman – who owned the Totland Bay Hotel – promoted the possibility of a Solent Tunnel. He considered a link would increase tourism by extending the holiday season on the Island.
By 1905 support for the idea ensured a bill made its way to parliament authorising the creation of a “South Western and Isle of Wight Junction Railway” by constructing a seven-mile tunnel.
It stipulated two-and-a-quarter miles would be under the Solent, from Keyhaven to a point between Yarmouth and Freshwater.
The railway track would leave the Lymington branchline north of Ampress to run west to Pennington and then to Keyhaven, with a spur for a station at Milford.
At the other end of the tunnel was proposed a triangular junction on the Newport, Yarmouth and Freshwater Railway. This would have provided access to Newport and the other island lines.
Electric traction would be used on the tunnel section and the locomotives would have run through to Brockenhurst, long before actual electrification in the 1960s.
Through trains from the Island to Waterloo would have been quicker than crossing by boat from Cowes or Ryde. But the plan met opposition from Lymington residents and then the start of the First World War scuppered its progress.
When the idea was suggested post-war it got even less traction, mostly because by that time the Southern Railway had invested heavily in piers and ferryboats.
Its growing expense was also beginning to put off the local authorities, and Mr Aman knew he needed to revitalise the possibility of his vision.
So in 1925 he organised and conducted among Islanders, which involved dropping a postcard into every household asking it to declare whether it was in favour of pursuing the tunnel.
The majority of those who responded were positive, but the plans hit the buffers when Islanders subsequently decided they were not prepared to raise the capital. It was finally laid to rest by the Isle of Wight Council in 1930.
But the idea did not disappear. Two years later famed railway historian Chapman Dendy Marshall wrote to The Engineer magazine, proposing a three-mile tunnel. While the idea created a lot of curiosity nothing came of it.
Mr Bennett added: “In many ways it’s a shame this plan didn’t go ahead and who knows, it may be revisited one day.”
While that idea might seem far-fetched it has not stopped Islanders frustrated by ferry prices from trying to launch a modern bid.
Since 2014, a group called Pro-Link has promoted the idea of a “Solent Freedom Tunnel” as an alternative to Wightlink and Red Funnel ferry crossings, plus a pedestrian tunnel under the Medina River at Cowes to replace the chain ferry.