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Tall tales from the rigging

Eleanor Caldwell visits a restored tall ship and meets its enthusiastic "owners".

Not many children can boast that the view from their school includes a 100-year-old tall ship. Primary 7 pupils from Kelvinhaugh primary in Glasgow are proud of their view and extremely curious to see inside the ship.

Gathering in the restored Pumphouse Visitors' Centre, opened last August, the group learn that their historic neighbour, the tall ship Glenlee, launched in 1896, has been restored over the past six years by volunteers and was towed back up the Clyde for the tall ships race at Greenock last July.

Split into two groups, one starts in the Pumphouse, with its short exhibition about the history and restoration of the Glenlee and a chance to study a model of the three-masted barque. Rigger and guide Andy Aire gives names to masts and decks, pointing out with typical Glasgow humour the restored figurehead named after Rab C Nesbitt's wife, Mary Doll.

The call to go on board ship is greeted with cheers. The black squares on the sides of the ship, Andy explains, are pretend gun holes to fool pirates. After ladling warm pitch in a big bucket, he points out volunteer Wullie, who is using it to repoint the deck. All eyes are soon on the masts and there are gasps when a volunteer, former geography teacher and experienced tall ship sailor Liz Allen, climbs part of the way up the 157-foot high rigging.

Moving down to the lower decks, the children are amazed by the size of the ship. Andy gives brisk explanations and fires questions at his group, who are impressive in their recall of the tall ship jargon such as rigging, rattlings, shells and frames. With ropes and ladders to climb, and pulleys for lifting cargo to haul on, there is plenty of hands-on activity. Old sacks, crates and wooden trolleys stand around, once used to transport heavy goods around the ship. There is keen competition to find Jock, the ship's cat, who is snoozing in a basket on the lower deck. His captor is delihted to be awarded a tall ship crew member's certificate for her find.

Posters on the lower decks provide information on tall ship life and Andy has no problem finding volunteers to read aloud the tales of the ritual of a sailor's baptism on crossing the Equator and supersitions of sharks' tails nailed to the bowsprit.

After a quick glance down into the gunwales of the ship, it is back up on deck to "brace the yards". In port and starboard teams with zealous captains, the children seize ropes and under their captains' instructions, "Vast heaving!", "One for the pin!" and "Slack away easy!", steadily turn the massive horizontal foreyard on the mast above their heads. Rigger guide Brian Gray warns the children not to let the rope run through their fingers. This is the highlight of the visit.

Andy and Brian and the volunteers engage the fascinated children with questions such as "How long is a fathom?" (six feet) and "What are the Doldrums?" (ocean regions near the Equator where there are little or no winds).

For the Glasgow youngsters it is an ideal opportunity to put into perspective the importance of their city and the River Clyde as one of the world's foremost centres of 19th-century shipbuilding. Glenlee is one of only five Clyde-built sailing ships that remain afloat in the world, and one of 43 ships recognised by the National Historic Ships Committee.

A new exhibition to be housed in the ship's lower decks is in advanced stages of planning and will give fuller information on the ship's life at sea.

Pupils from Kelvinhaugh are proud to learn that "their ship" has circumnavigated the globe four times. Pupil Mark Booth thought the visit had been "just brilliant". His classmates agreed and decided it was time to bring their mums and dads to see it.

* SV Glenlee, Glasgow Harbour, Clyde Maritime Centre, 100 Stobcross Road, Glasgow G3 8QQ. Tel: 0141 339 0631. Open Monday-Sunday 11am-5pm. School groups pound;2 per pupil, adults free 1:10 children.

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