And so I woke this morning, the eve of the last Bank holiday until Christmas, and said… “Today I feel naval. I shall go to the historic dockyard at Chatham and see a submarine.” And I made it so… as Captain Picard of another type of ship used to say… endlessly on Star Trek. At eight bells…armed with my Samsung Jet phone and a camera that works first time, I made sail for Chatham.
“Chatham Dockyard, located on the River Medway and of which two-thirds is in Gillingham and one third in Chatham, Kent, came into existence at the time when, following the Reformation, relations with the Catholic countries of Europe had worsened, leading to a requirement for additional defences. For 414 years Chatham Dockyard provided over 500 ships for the Royal Navy.” Wikipedia
Among many other vessels built in this Dockyard and which still exist are HMS Victory, launched in 1765 – now preserved at Portsmouth Naval Base
William Camden (1551-1623) described Chatham dockyard as
stored for the finest fleet the sun ever beheld, and ready at a minute’s warning, built lately by our most gracious sovereign Elizabeth at great expense for the security of her subjects and the terror of her enemies, with a fort on the shore for its defence
I am pictured above on the open bridge of HMS Cavalier, in a rather epic rainstorm which gave added atmosphere and a very mild taste of what the Captain and his officers would have experienced in storm lashed seas of the Arctic convoys. (There was no canopy in WW II.)
I went with John Bolch of Family Lore, who lives near the docks… and who’s excellent book “Do your own Divorce” is published today. In fact, we started our trip with a tour around the spy submarine HMS Ocelot. I resisted the temptation to buy a small scale model of HMS Victory, a pirate flag, a White Ensign and endless other gift items in the Museum shop.
A submarine is no place for members of the Fatbastard Club. It is extremely cramped down below and those of a claustrophobic disposition would not enjoy it. I particularly enjoyed lugging my 56 year old old git frame through the tiny circular openings in the bulkeads to get from one section to the other. I did it in the naval manner; grabbing a rail, swinging legs through the circular hole, slide through and grap a rail above the hole on the other side – t’was fun! It was not quite Das Boot in terms of slickness but Hans, my mate - the Kapitan of a U-Boat that still sails the high seas – would have been proud of me. ( He used to visit me occasionally when I lived on a boat in Chelsea last summer.) It was fascinating to see a British submarine from our fairly recent past. Everything was crammed in. The crew of 70 slept in very small cots, only washed hands face and cleaned teeth (water in short supply on a three month voyage) and were reputed to have the best food in the Royal Navy. The Captain’s cabin is very small. Naturally, I enjoyed looking through the attack periscope which gave a chillingly clear picture of a ship moored nearby. The young lad from France enjoyed looking through the periscope as well. His mother looked a bit tense and asked if it was OK. I did not want to mention Sir Winston Churchill ordering the sinking of the French fleet during WWII, assured her that it would be fine, that I’d be having a go after him and may even make the sound of a torpedo being fired. She looked at me, smiled, shook her head as if to say “Mon dieu… Les Anglais” This seemed to settle her.
I found the trip fascinating. The tour guide was excellent and I am pleased that money has been found to preserve these important warships from our past and that they are so accessible to all. The entry fee of £14 for a trip around the dock lasts for a year… and in three hours you will only scratch the surface of what this wonderful dockyard has to offer.
It was time to move to HMS Cavalier - the last surviving destroyer from WWII. HMS Belfast, a battleship, is very much bigger and is based on the Thames in London. This was a very different kettle of fish. It seemed so spacious after the submarine. The Captain’s cabin was luxurious, as was his day cabin and the wardroom even had a fireplace. It is painted in ‘Arctic Blue’ a blue-green-grey mix – no doubt to confuse the Turpitz or Scharnhorst or U-Boat commanders on the Arctic convoys.
I felt like Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea as I stood on the bridge. A storm had risen quickly, as it can in these parts, and rain and wind lashed the open bridge as I gazed out over the two 4.5 inch guns to the bow and imagined myself scanning the seas for U-boats. I felt quite at home. Regular readers will know that I live near water and spend much of my time, at my post, preserving peace for our country by scanning for U-Boats. It is testament to my efforts that there have been no U-boat attacks in London since I started doing this!
I felt like a tourist – on his hols. As I stood on the bridge of HMS Cavalier… I noticed the voice pipe through which the Captain would communicate with those below and thought to myself… that worked…. my Samsung Jet took me endless hours of farting about to get it to work (or, more accurately… to understand how it works) , more hours trying to get it to download pics to my PC (the software did not work) and eventually I fooled it into thinking it was using Bluetooth by hitting it with a hammer. Sorted.
I’m orf to splice the mainbrace, eat a square meal, drink a bit of rum and I may even do a hornpipe or buy a pirate flag on ebay later. As Churchill once observed… the Royal Navy… rum, sodomy and the lash…. I am a bit busy to try the last two options. Have a good Bank holiday.
Sorry… didn’t manage to shoehorn any law in this week… perhaps something for the weekend? .. as barbers used to say after cutting one’s hair.
Best, as ever