A mighty relic restored to its former glory

25th July 2008 at 01:00

"Look down! Look down!" shouted a small boy. "No! Don't look down!" his mother shouted back, putting her hands over her eyes.

The mum and child were part of a family group that had made their way up, by express lift, to the top of the Titan Crane at Queens Quay in Clydebank, just outside Glasgow. Following a amp;#163;3 million restoration, under the Clydebank regeneration programme, the Titan was opened to the public for the first time last year (on its 100th anniversary) and attracted, during the May-October season, more than 6,000 visitors.

The 150ft crane is one of just 13 of its type remaining in the world; the only one open to the public; and of such historic significance that it is now an A-listed structure, protected by law.

Described as an iconic symbol that "connects industrial Clydebank of the 20th century with modern Clydebank of the 21st", the crane was used to fit out such ships as the Queen Mary and the QE2, which were constructed and launched at John Brown's shipyards in Clydebank. The last ship left Queens Quay in 1971, but oil rigs were made there until 1999.

That the giant crane survived to become one of Scotland's most unusual visitor attraction is incredible. It could have been destroyed during the Clydebank blitz of March 1941, but Titan staff say that enemy planes may have missed their intended target due to heavy rain (making them mistake the wide boulevard that runs near the shipyards for the River Clyde). That, at least, is one theory.

Today, the mighty crane is all that is left of John Brown's shipyards but the fact that it has been reinvented as a tourist destination shows what can be done with imagination, courage and amp;#163;3 million.

Curiously, considering its focus on an industry whose glory days are over, a trip to the top of the Titan has the power to make visitors feel not sad about a bygone world, but optimistic about the great things that can be achieved in the future.

The Titan experience begins at the Purser's Office, where you buy your ticket and board the bus for a short drive along the quayside to the crane. Along the way, a guide draws attention to points of interest, such as the remains of the slipway where the Queen Mary and QE2 were launched into the Clyde.

The base of the crane has been decorated with a giant timeline giving the history of John Brown's shipyards, and the edge of the site is marked by massive textile panels printed with old group photographs of some of the thousands of men who once worked here, among them shipwrights, joiners, electricians and "staff", distinguished from cap-wearing colleagues by their bowler hats. (Still a puzzle are the men described in their photograph as "rag timers" who worked on the ill-fated liner Lusitania. No one has been able to explain what the term meant.)

The visitor platform on the crane has been laid with an open-work steel floor and those nervous about seeing the ground 150 feet below are advised to look straight ahead.

Views from the top of the Titan are a delight, taking in glorious trees and farmland that look like a Constable painting: Glasgow to the east, the Kilpatrick Hills and the Clyde, plus its River Cart tributary, which comes into its own when seen from a great height.

Adding to the spectacle are planes coming in to land at Glasgow airport, a bit of river traffic, including a sea plane if you are lucky, and the distinctive cries of the oyster catchers that breed along the riverbank.

The Titan's restored wheelhouse includes an exhibition area featuring an old documentary film about John Brown's shipyards, with an even older, silent film showing on a flatscreen outside. (Back at the Purser's Office, you can watch a remarkable 21st-century animated version of shipbuilding at Queens Quay, produced by students at the Glasgow School of Art.)

Visitors who want to know more can have a chat at the top of the crane with information assistants such as Allan, who worked at the shipyards in the 1960s and '70s, serving his apprenticeship with a one-armed welder from Paisley.

Local schools have been involved in the production of an education pack about the crane. This will be available after the summer when secondary schools plan to go to the top for an art and design project.

A short animation on the crane's history, made by St Stephen's Primary in Clydebank, can be viewed on www.titanclydebank.com.

For more information about the crane, open Fridays-Mondays: T 0141 952 3771


Like the Titan Crane, Clydebank's handsome town hall, a short walk away, also survived the blitz intact. It now houses West Dunbartonshire's local history museum, where a major exhibition on a particular aspect of the area's rich industrial past - with links to the school curriculum - is staged every year.

"Rags to Riches" runs until November 22 and explores the history of textile production, which dominated the Vale of Leven for almost 200 years and employed many thousand people. The last factory closed in 1980.

The exhibition features many of the beautiful printed fabrics produced during those times and shows how designers these days often look to the past for inspiration.

Tools of the trade are on display, including a loom and a yarn winder, as well as examples of the patterned metal cylinders and the wooden blocks used in the fabric printing process.

There is an equal emphasis on social history. A reconstruction of a mill worker's room features a double-decker recessed bed with its sleeping occupants dressed in 19th-century nightclothes.

Reports reveal that many female textile workers were pregnant before they married; that children as young as six were sent to work rather than school but were being beaten less often; and that men at a Balloch dye factory went on strike in 1934 for a penny-an-hour pay increase.

Activities in Clydebank Museum's special children's space include dressing up; a feel-the-fabric quiz; and materials and instructions for making peg dolls and doing stencil designs. School visits will give pupils the opportunity to dress up in period costume for an interactive guided tour followed by a printing workshop. T 0141 562 2400.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today