Monday, 3 May 2010

Our Kent Holiday–Day 8: Historic Dockyard, Chatham

Today we weren't sure what we would do, because my hubby thought there might be a steam rally somewhere, it being Bank Holiday Monday, but there wasn't, so we decided, on the recommendation of our B & B host, to go to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham. I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy it, thinking it would be an exclusively "boys'" day, and after breakfast this a.m. I thought I could feel payback advancing relentlessly and I felt really poorly - but nothing daunted, we set off, and I had a deep sleep in the car and felt a lot better when I woke up.

Contrary to my expectations, the Dockyard was truly amazing. They've got so much stuff to see! To start with, absolutely everywhere is wheelchair accessible - there are ramps, spiral "walkways" ("wheelways"??) and lifts, and as we usually find on our outings, the staff are so friendly and helpful and nothing is too much trouble. I risked going on another land train and all was well - no chance of falling over in this one!

We went in the lifeboat museum. I took a picture of this which particularly attracted my attention:

09 Lifeboat with Horse

This lifeboat was pulled in and out of the water by a horse. There was another on tracks; they apparently used any suitable method to launch the lifeboats from different types of shorelines. We also saw the lifeboat "The Grace Darling" which reminded us of the heroic Victorian lady who saved the lives of the shipwrecked sailors.

Alongside the lifeboat display was another huge area, "The Store" where there was sooo much stuff - huge machines and bits of old boat etc. I thought these huge gear wheels were rather fun with their chevron design:

13 Large Gear Wheels

Above the lifeboats and the Store was another floor which we reached by lift, and it was a vast empty space covered by the roof that had once covered one of the docks. It was very impressive, the more so because there was nothing up there:

34 3 Slip Cover 

We then went onto HMS Gannet which is part of the permanent display - a lovely little sailing ship. This is her figurehead:

40 HMS Gannet Figurehead

and this is her ship's wheel - with a lovely motto above:

45 HMS Gannet Wheel

At this point we went for lunch, and the restaurant was the only disappointing thing about the whole place. We had very indifferent fish and chips selected from a very limited and poor menu; the table was not cleared from the previous people and the place was none too clean. I think it's often the case in such places - they have a super display and enough to do for all ages to make it a whole day out, but they fall down on the eating arrangements. They could have a franchise for several different catering firms supplying a good variety of food suitable for children and adults - and a more "posh" restaurant for those who want a quieter, more leisurely meal. It's a shame really, as they could make more money that way, and everyone would be better pleased if they could actually enjoy their meal.

Afterwards we went on the land train to the other end of the Dockyard and went first into the Museum. At first I didn't think I'd find anything to interest me in there, but I was wrong. It was fascinating - following through this country's maritime history chronologically, with lots of different displays - maps, posters and artwork, model ships, cases full of instruments, diving equipment, cooking, flag-making... you name it. The stewards (retired gentlemen) were so knowledgeable and loved to chat about all the different things. Here are a few of the things that particularly delighted me:

This is the bow of a boat - I just love the way the planks make such a beautiful design on boats which have lovely lines.

21 Boat Bow with Ropes

There was quite a large collection of hand-carved wooden patterns for making castings of ships' badges - they press the pattern into sand to make a mould, and then pour in the molten metal. My grandfather (the one who wired Dover Castle) used to run a large foundry in Scotland, and I have got one of the apprentice pieces - a large bas-relief of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" in bronze, which is so detailed that you can even see the toenails on the figures.
These "master patterns" were all displayed on the wall, and the detail in the carving is amazing. Here is one of them, for HMS Collingwood:

75 Master Pattern for Ship's Badge - Collingwood

Talking of apprentice pieces, we found a display of miniature tools and instruments made by engineering apprentices - tiny micrometers and vernier callipers, clamps, dividers etc. - all tools to be found in my dad's workshop and I know he'd have been delighted with these tiny things - none more than 2 or 3 inches in size. They were exquisite, and fully working.

63 Miniature Tools in Museum

The next thing I wanted to show you had particular relevance to us personally. When we got married, my hubby had a friend in the navy who had been part of the team that made Charles and Diana's wedding cake, and he made our wedding cake. He borrowed the wooden boxes from HMS Cambridge where he was serving, and baked the cakes in the large ovens there. We had a 3-tier square cake, and I was surprised when I first saw it at the reception, that the bottom layer was slightly smaller than the middle layer - it actually looked rather stylish - very unusual. Later, my hubby told me (he was sworn to secrecy until after the wedding) that his friend had made the bottom layer, and had brought it home ready to ice. He went out for a short while, and came back to find his Alsatian dog mauling it in the corner of the room!!! He didn't have time to make another one, so he had to cut it down to remove the chewed bits, so it ended up smaller than it should have been!

We were very surprised and pleased to see the boxes used for Charles and Diana's cake:

87 Boxes for Baking Prince Charles' and Diana's Wedding Cake

and this is a picture of their actual cake:

88 Pic of Charles and Diana's Wedding Cake

After leaving the Museum we went on to the high spot of the day - the Ropery, where since 1600-odd, ropes had been made for the naval ships (31 miles of rope on HMS Victory alone). My hubby has always wanted to see a rope walk - the one in the dockyard at Plymouth (where we used to live) was just an empty building. We had a lovely Irish guide called Brenda, who was so delightful and made it all such fun - she was brilliant with the children in our group. She explained the process from the raw hemp:

108 Brenda Explaining Raw Hemp

right through to the finished rope:

109 Coils of Hemp Rope

They had a big room with wooden mock-ups of the machines used, and she got the children and one or two adults (including my hubby who helped a little boy turn a very big handle) to work the different bits, and they made a length of rope between them! Here's the part where the yarns are threaded up:

115 Threading the Yarns 

and here is a lady using a special tool to keep the winding even, between the 2 twisting machines:

125 Winding in Progress

- you can see my hubby's back view as he helps the little boy turn the winder on the fixed end - the other end moves along on wheels. When they'd finished making a rope, she wrapped sticky tape around it at intervals along its length and then cut it into sections, the tape stopping it unravelling, and then everyone who'd made it was given a section - my hubby is thrilled to have a bit of rope he "made" himself and can't wait to put it in his little boat and show all his boating buddies!

We then went into the rope walk proper:

131 Rope Winding in the Rope Walk 

It is a quarter of a mile long! It was so thrilling, and our guide gave us so much history, and described the awful working conditions, with 12-hour shifts, and if you didn't make enough rope, it was docked from your already pretty meagre wages... When they introduced more machines, they employed women, because they could pay them 1/3 the wages of men!! These women were widows whose husbands had been lost at sea in various wars, and they had to work these long hours, and often another job as well, just to survive. There were no health and safety rules either, and it was hard, dangerous work; the air would have been filled with dust and fibres from the hemp, leading to lung disease.

She also explained that to prevent theft of rope from the Ropery, each shipyard had its own colour-coding; that for Chatham was yellow. A single "rogue's yarn" was twisted into every rope, so if a coil went missing and a worker's cottage was searched and any rope with the tell-tale yellow thread in it was found, the man was summarily dismissed from his job. (I understand something similar was done in WWII with petrol; to prevent it being sold on the black market, petrol for different uses - commercial, military etc. - was colour-coded with added dye.)

When we left I was absolutely exhausted and again slept in the car. I was a bit desperate because we were getting hungry, and nowhere seemed to be open to sell sandwiches - even the motorway service station was closed! I know it's a Bank Holiday but do they think people don't want to eat on Bank Holidays? Eventually we found a garage that was open and managed to get some. Although I'm achy and tired, I feel a lot better now I'm in bed and have eaten and had a good sleep.

Plans for tomorrow? We are meeting with some foggy friends from the Forum and going to a farm with lots of baby lambs and ducklings after a pub lunch, which I am really looking forward to.

We've then got one day left (Wednesday) to decide where to go, and then we go home on Thursday. If I get payback - so be it. It will be worth it!


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