Ahoy there, landlubbers

6th August 2004 at 01:00
From Nelson's 'Victory' to Cold War submarines, Chatham Dockyard has been building the nation's warships. Now reborn as a museum, it provides fascinating glimpses of naval history. David Newnham goes below decks

Getting around inside a submarine is a tricky business. Take those narrow circular openings between the watertight sections. Of course you could crawl through, like a cat in a cat-flap. But it's so undignified, to say nothing of slow. Better to let Mike Williams, the guide, show you how.

Ready? Then grab the steel bar above your head and swing both feet up on to the threshold. Now, still gripping the bar, launch yourself through the opening, taking care not to bang your head as you straighten up on the other side.

Mike does it in one smooth action, then leads the way through the jungle of pipes and cables, deep into this world of 1960s electronics and wood-effect Formica.

It is a journey back in time, to the darkest days of the Cold War, when HM Submarine "Ocelot" and her crew of 68 would lurk for weeks in the opaque depths of the Baltic, listening and waiting. With her silent electric motors and her black glass fibre hull, she was the last word in underwater espionage in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And incredibly, every part of her was made here, at Chatham Dockyard.

The yard, says Mike, surveying the granite dry dock where "Ocelot" now rests, was like a self-contained city, where every hour of night and day was devoted to building and fitting naval craft of all descriptions. And then, one Thursday in June 1981, defence secretary John Nott announced Chatham's imminent closure, and an entire community went into shock.

But a calamity for 8,000 employees and their families proved a unique opportunity for historians. For only when the military left did the prodigious extent of their legacy become apparent.

Here, unbelievably, were four centuries of unbroken maritime history waiting to be explored. Since Elizabethan times, the Royal Navy had been making warships at Chatham, and its slipways gave birth to countless giants from the great days of sail, including Nelson's flagship, "Victory".

Much of the earliest material had been swept away with the coming of steam and steel but, amazingly, a great deal had simply been covered over. Which is why, two decades after being reborn as the Chatham Historic Dockyard, this 80-acre heritage site remains one of the most exciting in Britain.

Take the extraordinary find in the old wheelwrights' shop. When the building was being converted into a restaurant, archaeologists stumbled upon an entire warship of the 1770s, broken into bits and concealed beneath a floor.

"It's been 20 years now, and there are still things to be discovered," says Richard Holdsworth, museum and heritage director. "As you walk around, history is under your feet."

Nowhere is that more true than in the so-called "mould loft". Here, above the Georgian mast house, shipwrights used the vast wooden floor to inscribe life-size representations of a ship's timbers.

The present floor was laid in 1835, and on it are the lines of Chatham's first steamships. But beneath it is an even older floor, on which archaeologists will almost certainly find the lines of the "Victory", cut into the wood.

In Nelson's time, 26 separate trades were involved in building a warship.

As well as several hundred shipwrights, there were plumbers and smiths, riggers and sailmakers. Caulkers hammered hemp from old ropes into the gaps between planks, while "trenail mooters" shaped the oak pegs that held timbers together. And then there were the "scavellmen" - 71 of them in 1758 - who cleaned mud from docks.

Many of these trades were carried on in their own locations around the yard, which is why a tour of Chatham might take in anything from Georgian joiners' shops and Victorian smitheries to sail lofts, paint mills and timber-seasoning sheds.

As techniques advanced and materials improved, so did the yard's infrastructure. And because the building of warships always involved cutting-edge technology, most of the facilities here were ahead of their time. Marc Brunel, Isambard Kingdom's father, built the world's first steam sawmill here in 1812, while in 1820 John Rennie contributed one of the four dry docks.

Dominating the riverside site are the yard's gargantuan covered slipways, constructed to prevent ships rotting before they reached the water. Each of these cathedral-like structures is itself an important landmark in the history of wide-span architecture.

In fact, the yard has no fewer than 47 scheduled ancient monuments - everything from a clocktower to the splendid Commissioner's House of 1704, with its attached Italianate water garden, Edwardian conservatory and 400-year-old mulberry tree.

As well as HM Submarine "Ocelot", you can explore a Second World War destroyer and a Victorian sloop. Museum displays tell the story of the yard from Tudor times to its 11th-hour role in the Falklands conflict and, at every turn, guides bring to life the lives and hard times of the countless men, women and children who have laboured here down the ages.

While conditions have improved immeasurably since the days when a woman losing an arm in a rope spinning machine would also lose a week's pay should she not clock in the following morning, Chatham Historic Dockyard is still a place of work, with many of the old premises now occupied by the likes of furniture makers, designers and architectural modellers.

"This is more than just a museum and tourism site," says Mr Holdsworth.

"About 100 businesses are working here, employing around 1,000 people.

There are also 400-odd people living here, so it's a major regeneration story as well. Above all, it's a wonderful place to be, with lots of happy children running around and letting off steam."

And when the sound of all that escaping steam gets a little too loud for comfort?

"There are some lovely quiet spots if you know where to look," he says. "My favourite is the chain cable shed. It's basically a lean-to, put up in 1831 for storing anchor chain. But it so happens that the roof is supported on a row of 26 gun barrels embedded in the ground."

And the precise location of this peaceful haven? "It's somewhere behind the Double Rope House," says Mr Holdsworth, omitting to mention that this was once the longest brick building in Europe.

EDUCATIONAL VISITS

The site is a cross-curricular one-stop shop, offering a rich and diverse resource for teachers and learners of all ages, with an emphasis on the unexpected. An example is the Living Literacy programme, where key stage 2 children board the destroyer "HMS Cavalier" and work with a poem written on the North Atlantic convoy in 1941. This is followed by a session aboard HM Submarine "Ocelot", where they are encouraged to write a poem from the submariner's point of view. A teacher's guide with details about the yard's attractions and their links to the national curriculum, together with information about resource packs and taught sessions, can be downloaded from the website: www.chdt.org.uk or call the education department on 01634 823811.

Don't miss

* Wooden Walls gallery: The navy's timber-hulled ships were often described as Britain's "wooden walls", and this impressive exhibition recreates the sights, sounds and smells of the dockyard as experienced by William Crockwell, an apprentice carpenter who joined the labour force in 1758.

* The Ropery: A sailing ship's rigging alone required 20 miles of rope, and this was made at Chatham from 1618 onwards. In Victorian times, the work was mechanised, and much of the steam-driven equipment survives intact.

Visitors can see rope being made with machinery built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, or get hands-on experience of earlier manual techniques from the days when a spinner would walk backwards down the length of a 300-metre-long building with a 30kg bundle of hemp around his waist.

* Lifeboat! This permanent display, housed in one of the historic covered slipways, tells the 170-year story of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, using archive film and 15 actual lifeboats.

Getting there

By road:Chatham is an hour's drive from London and a short distance from the M25. The site is signposted from junctions 1, 3 and 4 of the M2.

Opening: 10am-6pm Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm weekends, until October 31. Last entry 4pm. Price: adults pound;10, concs pound;7.50, children (5-15) pound;6.50, family (two adults, two children) pound;26.50, (additional child pound;3.25).

By rail: London Victoria (45 minutes) to Chatham station. Buses and taxis are available.

Facilities: licensed restaurant, tea shop with soft play area, open and undercover picnic areas, ample car parking. Entrance includes all guided tours and attractions. Pay extra for paddle steamer trips on the Medway.

Attractions include Wooden Walls and Ropery tours, Dockyard Museum, three historic warships (two with guide) and Lifeboat! exhibition. See website for special summer events.

Anywhere else like it?

* For details of attractions at Portsmouth, including the Portmouth Historic Dockyard, HMS "Victory" and the "Mary Rose", visit www.flagship.org.uk.

* The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Tel: 020 8312 6565; www.nmm.ac.uk.

* The Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine. Tel: 01294 278283; www.scottishmaritimemuseum.org irvine.htm.

* Clydebuilt, at Braehead, Glasgow. Tel: 0141 8851441; www.scottishmaritimemuseum.org glasgow.htm.

* "SS Great Britain" at the Maritime Heritage Centre, Bristol. Tel: 0117 926 0680; www.ss-great-britain.coml Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool.

Tel: 0151 478 4499; www.liverpoolmuseums.org.ukmaritime

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