In full sail

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Katrina Tweedie finds her sea legs on a floating museum on the Clyde

For a teacher, a wet and windy day on a boat may not seem an ideal venue for a class visit. But the stormier the better at the Tall Ship in Glasgow, to convey to youngsters that the now static vessel was once a vast ship rolling through the sea.

More than 1,200 pupils visited the "Glenlee", moored on the Clyde, in the first six months of this year, and while the heavens don't open every time, staff at the floating museum strive to give pupils a realistic taste of life on board one of the world's few remaining grand ships.

Built on the Clyde in 1896, the "Glenlee" was typical of the period, cheap to run, with simple rigging, and fantastically dangerous. These were the ships that Joseph Conrad wrote about in Twixt Land and Sea and Within the Tides.

For children visiting today it is a unique opportunity to understand another era, in a ship that has adapted in a changing world of technology, surviving two world wars, several hurricanes, and in her later years, the scrapyard.

The "Glenlee" circumnavigated the world four times as a cargo ship before she was sold to the Spanish navy in 1922, and turned into a training ship with her crew expanding from 24 to 300.

After almost a century of service, the abandoned hulk was bought by the Clyde Maritime Trust and restored to her former glory as a fully-rigged 19th-century ship.

Two tours are available - general or Victorian-themed - and up to three classes visit every week. A restored pump house on the waterside hosts a visitor centre, shop and cafe, and is where groups watch an evocative three-minute black and white video clip taken with a wind-up camera from a mast in treacherous seas.

"Our biggest challenge is trying to convey the idea of the ship moving around on water and being quite a scary place to be," says Jenny Mercer, the museum officer. "Being on a moving ship is completely out of the normal experience for most children, so we really try to get the idea across that the ship would come alive when she left port."

The video was introduced to put this across and is a short diversion for young visitors who are itching to get on board. "We decided not to have workshops because the kids have come to see the ship and it is better they get to spend as much time on board as possible," adds Jenny.

The 18 full-time staff and 25 volunteers, who are mostly retired from the shipyards, make visits as hands-on as possible to make up for the fact that the ship doesn't sail. "Our advantage over other museums is the environment. The contrast between the open main deck and the cargo hold is quite striking for kids."

Children love ringing the bell, turning the wheel, exploring the deck-house, maps and navigation equipment or going below deck which retains the musty century-old smells of cargo such as coal and grain, although thankfully not the guano used for fertiliser. Guides are careful to balance the tours, which normally last an hour and a quarter, with quieter times.

Classes of up to 50 can be catered for, but have to be split into groups, and charges apply to cover staffing costs, although for two months of the year entry is free. Smaller groups are better, says Jenny: "They can walk round, and it's more like a conversation than a classroom situation."

The ship is an all-weather venue, with classes simply spending more time below deck when it rains or in the 'tween-deck aft that can accommodate up to 40 children for lunch.

As a late Victorian ship, the "Glenlee" is popular with classes covering that era but the schools covering pirates, explorers and transport can tie a trip into the curriculum. The staff are happy to speak to schools to find out what they have been covering in class and if there are specific topics they can link to.

Says Jenny: "We don't want kids going away from here thinking this is a pirate ship so we need to get the balance right."

For information or to book a visit, tel: 0141 222 2513; www.thetallship.com

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