A pinch of salt

It is 1997. My son Jeremy, aged seven, and I put on loose cotton shirts and trousers, tie them with a sash, jam hats on our heads and fall in on deck with the rest of our motley shipmates. Are we fit to sail with Sir Francis Drake? Can we stand months without fresh food, cooped up below decks when weather is bad, without toilets or washing, plagued by lice so that we tar our shaven heads, relying only on the tender mercies of a rough barber-surgeon to amputate our limbs if we get wounded, liable to be flogged for disobedience or blown up by wrongly-loaded cannon? Strangely enough, it seems that we can, for every man-Jack of us is keen to sign up then and there, even though the master is known to be a martinet and the beds, it is rumoured, are not luxurious.

It is 1577. Sir Francis Drake is about to set sail on his round-the world-voyage. On his flagship, the Golden Hinde, 83 men are ready for one of the world's greatest adventures, with a one-in-three chance of yielding them either #163;1 million or death. Scurvy, dysentery and wound-infections are enemies every bit as dangerous as the Spaniards; life aboard a scrum of hard, difficult work and long periods of seasick monotony. Food is salty and bland, no one knows where exactly they are going, the seas are treacherous and unpredictable and after months at sea the best of friends could easily turn into mortal enemies.

Yet the historical Drake persisted, along with a large portion of his crew. They returned, not only with fortunes of plundered Spanish gold but also with the glory of having completed the circumnavigation of the globe, claimed California for the Queen, and trounced the Spanish plutocracy. They had also lost three ships.

To great acclaim, Drake berthed in London and his ship was opened to the public. Over the next 100 years it slowly rotted away. Now the Golden Hinde, largest and most lavishly fitted of Drake's fleet, lies once more at a London dock. Since its launch in 1973 the reconstructed Hinde has also circumnavigated the globe and completed more than 140,000 miles at sea. Its complex rigging and crows' nest, its brightly painted poop and decks, its gleaming cannons and sturdy fittings float improbably next to a busy pub in the heart of redeveloping Docklands. Or perhaps not so improbably. For Docklands, with the Clink Museum, Southwark Cathedral and Shakespeare's Globe all practically next door, is as much Elizabethan as modern, and Drake's men were surely no strangers to tavern life. Though men were keen to sail with Drake, and he needed no press-ganged recruits, they might have been a little surprised at some of the scenes recently seen on board, and at the enthusiasm of some young visitors.

Since February the Golden Hinde has been hosting overnight Living History sessions for primary school children. For 18 hours children and their accompanyi ng adults (either parents or teachers) can sample a somewhat comfier version of life at sea in the 1570s in a unique dramatisation. As Jeremy put it, "I couldn't have imagined it would be like that". In its mixture of lived experience, workshop and quasi-genuine environment, the Golden Hinde pulls out all the stops. Right from the beginning of the stay,when grog (watered apple juice) is brought round and basic rules, such as always going the right way round the ship and backwards down the companionways, are established, the illusion is tight. Despite noticing the modern surroundings, confinement to the vessel very soon creates the feeling of a close little world, where whether or not there will be half-rations for the crew becomes overwhelmingly important very quickly (even though the rations - a potato, bean and barley stew - are uniformly voted disgusting). Establishing drills and procedures, like reeling in the anchor with "nips" (knots) while the musician (there were 15 musicians on Drake's five ships) beats the drum or efficiently obeying the "all hands on deck" command, establishes too the kind of group mind which a sailing community must share.

For the children, the best part is the workshops or skill learning session. Loading and "firing" a cannon is the "most interesting" said Jeremy, and Jack and Shazad (both aged six). Emma and Ellen, both aged eight, agreed. For an adult, this might be surprising, since the loading mostly involves a lot of dipping in and out of the barrel with a series of long sticks, but the children's imagination was hard at work and the Spaniards were hard on the horizon, with treasure to plunder. During the evening they also learn how to tie and untie the lines which pulled the big yardarm, do some basic navigation and coil ropes (surprisingly hard and unyielding for little hands). For older children (our group was mostly under nine) the byplay between characters, a kind of simmering mutiny fomented by the quartermaster and gunners and culminating in a theft of the Royal Letter of Mark, authorising Drake to sail the seven seas under the English flag, might hold more intrigue. Certainly, it was the oldest four among us who were keenest that poor old Sailor Jack should have his hand cut off as prescribed by law. The rest of us favoured the ultimate punishment: drenching in a bucket of strategically thrown dock water.

So far, so Living History normal. It was when we came to stay overnight that the unique aspects kicked in. We had just come from camping in Devon and I don't mind sleeping on blankets on the wooden gun deck, but I can imagine people who might. You can go off ship to wash and do your teeth, thank goodness, even though it is inauthentic. The crew stay on board all night and can deal with any eventuality.

But it is character-testing and several children objected to the scratchiness of the blankets (how weedy we are, compared with the tough old, rough old sailors), while several adults, myself included, found the close proximity to strange families unsettling. It made me think what it must be like to be a refugee and also, when irritated by an unknown child's recurring nightmares, realise how over several months at sea tempers might become murderously short. You would be unstoppably intimate with the other 82 crew members. The solitude of the master in the cabin was an incalculable luxury.

Inevitably, we had all just sunk into a deep sleep when we were awoken to our breakfast of bread and cheese (very tasty). By now, we did have the feeling of old hands, so assembling on deck, raising the anchor once more and convening to decide the fate of poor old Sailor Jack felt like second nature. A very lively demonstration of the work of the barber surgeon, bloody bandages and all, thoroughly delighted the company, especially the revelation that wounded men lying in the filthy water on the gun deck usually developed gangrene. "Is that very bad?" asked Jeremy. Yup, son, sure is.

Emma was a little anxious when the surgeon got out the saws and cleavers for his trade and her mum had to reassure her that they weren't really going to do it. No problem with suspension of disbelief there. Her mother, despite rubbing her aching back - along with the rest of the adults - was delighted. "It's really made us think about the difference between then and now, how lucky we are."

Even luckier, staggering off the gangplank to allow the first lot of daytime visitors on, to be able to head off for a cup of modern coffee. If you can afford it, an unmissable event for older primary school children.

The Golden Hinde is berthed at St Mary Overie Dock, Cathedral Street, London, close to London Bridge. #163;30 per person per night (for schools,one free adult per seven children), or daytime tours at #163;2 per schoolchild. Free teachers' pack with booking. Contact Patrick Owen, tel: 0171 403 0123

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