This month’s newsletter is a departure from our usual format as, when you receive it, I shall in fact be away on the high seas storing up more tales to recount in November.
Hence I decided to write about three historic vessels I have recently visited. It seems logical to start with the oldest of the three, none other than the venerable 'Golden Hinde', which I was able to view with a group of fellow Shipwrights.
I had two very personal reasons for wanting to see 'Golden Hinde' in person. Some of you may remember that our boat builder, Ellie, left us a year ago to spend the winter in sunny South Africa. On her return she bagged a job working on the 'Golden Hinde' in St Mary Overie's Dock adjacent to Borough Market, London.
The dock was a free landing place at which the parishioners of St Saviors parish were entitled to land goods free of toll. These days they would struggle to access Southwark from the Thames given the amount of building in that area.
The 'Golden Hinde' looks totally incongruous from the outside. However once on board the excellent guides draw you in to the world of Drake and the hardships endured by his crew during those long years at sea.
As the story unfolded I realised that my maternal ancestor John Hawkins had been on this very ship with Drake and was instrumental in the build of the original.
Centuries later there I was on the poop deck of the full-scale replica, built in Appledore in the 1970s, with one of the crew who did the crossing to the US in this very replica and was part of the flotilla that you can see in this piece of film showing 'Golden Hinde II' passing in 1974 under the Golden Gate Bridge as part of it circumnavigation following Drake's route in the 20th century.
They were cheered by their American sponsors in stark contrast to Drake and his merry men, who were the scourge of the Spanish.
Apparently the 'Golden Hinde' was built for speed and was able to creep up on the unsuspecting Spanish, who had plundered tons of silver and gold from the indigenous peoples of South America. They had no reason to suspect that an Elizabethan galleon, crewed by a bunch of privateering sailors and greedy investors, would surprise them halfway around the world.
Who knew that among the sailors were five-year-old boys whose job it was to man the canons? As I crouched on the deck, seated next to one of these killing machines, I could feel the timbers shaking and hear the powerful blast as the canons were stoked and pushed into place by little lads scurrying around the decks.
In another part of the ship, there would have been goats, sheep, and hens moving freely until they were due to fuel the stewpot.
Drake and his brother slept in the only private cabin on board, where they also would have kept their precious navigation equipment.
Paying gentlemen and officers had a private plank from which to pee, while the able seamen and others had to negotiate a different plank at the other end of the boat.
Without a lively imagination, it is impossible to appreciate the hardships of life on board. But let's not forget that life ashore was also a daily scrabble for many of these men and children. Their life expectancy back home was short as well. Disease was rife and accommodation was overcrowded. Travel offered excitement, wages and a career.
In 1568 Drake and Sir John Hawkins were attacked by the Spanish in San Juan de Ulùa and made a narrow escape. Swearing vengeance, Drake began his career as a pirate.
Elizabeth I charged him with the task of furthering English interests on the Pacific Coast and the Americas. The mission, which almost certainly included unwritten permission to plunder Spanish ships and settlements, was a closely guarded secret so as not to further inflame tensions between England and Spain.
When Drake eventually returned to the shores of England, having made a stop somewhere in the region of what we now call California to repair damage incurred during the Spanish raids, he did not even know if Elizabeth was still on the throne. She was indeed, and he was handsomely rewarded for his efforts. The treasure with which he returned was largely responsible for the ability of the English fleet to repel the vengeful Spanish Armada.
Returning to the present day, I was able to surprise Ellie at her workbench during the Shipwrights' exclusive workshop visit. She was just putting the final touches to a canon hatch, and she told me that the work is hard and heavy as they try to use only the tools that the shipwrights would have had during the original build.
Annually the preservation of the 'Golden Hinde', replicating its 16th-century form with the expertise of master craftspeople and boatbuilders from around the world, demands at least £150,000.
Operating as an independent museum rather than a registered charity, The Golden Hinde channels all earnings, donations and contributions back into its organisation, ensuring the ship's ability to educate and captivate visitors from London, the UK, and worldwide for the next 50 years.
To visit, you can book tickets online on The Golden Hinde website.
Closer to home and much higher up the Thames in an infinitely more pastoral setting, the Magdalen College Barge, which has for so many years been a fixture on the riverbank outside the Swan at Streatley, has now departed.
The acquisition by a philanthropist from the Whitchurch area means that this 1927 barge should celebrate its centenary in much better shape and will hopefully be part of an educational project initiated by Paul.
Newbury Today reports that the idea is to open the barge for use as a forest school, a yoga and meditation studio, learning and development workshop, and potentially for various play and drama activities in early summer 2024. The project is entirely self-funded, and structural repairs will start immediately, with a fresh coat of paint planned for the spring.
Paul is launching a GoFundMe page for the project, offering vouchers for future barge activities in exchange for donations, and to keep everyone updated on the progress. He hopes to involve the local community, providing them with access to the barge and making them a part of the vessel's history as it is rebuilt.
With these plans in motion the barge embarks on a promising new journey.
It took three narrow boats and several guys to tow the barge with its innovative (at the time) ferro-concrete hull at 70ft overall length with a 15ft beam and weighing more than 40 tons. It was quite a feat to move it off its long-term mooring and around the corner into Goring Lock.
According to Clare Sherriff's book The Oxford College Barges published in 2003, some of the original 1880s parts were repurposed some 40 years later. So it is hardly surprising that the barge has been looking so sad in recent years, with much of the wood completely rotten, broken glazing and a general air of decrepitude.
She writes that the Magdalen barge was built in Chiswick by Messrs Holloway and launched on March the 7th on a flood tide and finally fitted out by Salters in Oxford. In 1979, the then-owner of the Swan at Streatley, Mr Newling Ward (also an HSC client), purchased her with 3 feet of water in the bilges. He asked Champions in Pangbourne to undertake a refit.
Since that time and until just a few years ago, the barge was a very popular and romantic venue for parties and weddings, some of which we were also involved in when transportation was needed for wedding celebrations afloat.
Once Rarebird Hotels and Coppa took over in recent years, there were grand plans to restore the barge as part of the overall Swan refurb. Post-Covid however, costs spiralled, and this was no longer feasible, and the barge became something of an eye sore and a sad reminder of its glorious past.
A big "Thank You" to Jonathan, one of our skippers, who was instrumental in helping the barge and its owners find a new home and a new purpose for this venerable old lady.
Ah yes, old ladies and a regal one at that: 'Britannia', the erstwhile royal yacht was built in 1953 by John Brown and Co. in Clydebank. In those post-war years Britain was still capable of building beautiful ships.
In early August Steve and I headed north from Euston station straight to Edinburgh for some Festival frolics. We had been wanting to visit 'Britannia' ever since we heard about the opportunity to visit the royal yacht after its sad decommissioning in 1997.
As we headed into the visitors centre in Leith, our expectations were muted by the inevitable tasteless access point sited within a shopping mall.
Once inside we were in fact not just pleasantly surprised but frankly blown away. The audio guide is excellent and once again, as with the 'Golden Hinde', the imagination takes you to some surprisingly moving scenarios aided by the plentiful supply of intimate photos both of family and state occasions.
We loved walking around the decks and of course seeing the royal apartments, but in some ways it was even more fascinating to visit the crew quarters, where brightly polished shoes and pressed uniforms lay atop cramped bunks.
One suspects that sailors on board were in fact very happy to be there, and the social life and various parties in the mess quarters suggest that life on board was a breeze compared with what I was to witness a couple of months later on the Golden Hinde.
As you might expect we lingered longer than most on the bridge and in the engine room, which is a gleaming testament to British engineering.
Between 1953 and 1997 when 'Britannia' retired, the engines steamed over 1 million nautical miles. The ship's maximum speed was 22.5 knots thanks to its output of some 12,000 horsepower.
I think we also appreciated just from looking at the engine room and the rather antiquated equipment on the bridge, that the ship had to be decommissioned as it is a far cry from what we now consider to be a suitable working vessel for the 21st century.
I could write a lot more given time, but I would strongly encourage readers to plan a trip to Leith to see for themselves, and if that is not convenient there is a very good website.
The construction of Leith's Rennie's Dock began in 1801 with the aim of ensuring a constant water level for shipping, avoiding the vagaries of tides.
It is now a very attractive area, which offered us welcome respite from the artistic throngs falling off the pavements in central Edinburgh.
As I sign off on this newsletter, I realise that as you are scrolling I shall once again be enjoying Ponant’s hospitality on board one of their wonderful state-of-the-art Explorers as we head south out of Nice on an exciting Mediterranean odyssey.
Au revoir et à la prochaine ...