‘Neuk’ is a Scottish word for nook or corner, and if you take a look at the map opposite, you’ll see that the East Neuk of Fife is the bit that juts out into the North Sea at the end of the Firth of Forth.
Along this coastline are a string of attractive fishing villages, the most interesting being St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther (including Cellardyke) and Crail.
If you’ve travelled to Fife over the Forth Bridge, then the first of these villages is St. Monans, about an hour’s drive away. There are several theories as to who St. Monan was, but the church that is dedicated to him is often described as Scotland’s nearest church to the sea, which is only around 20 metres away. It’s been here since the 14th century so whether it’s been that close since it was built, I wouldn’t like to say.
I have to confess that I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to see Queen Elizabeth’s former private yacht, but when it was confirmed that the admission fee went towards the upkeep of the boat rather than into the pockets of the Royal family, I decided to travel out to the Ocean Terminal at Leith to take a look at this luxurious floating palace.
Several buses run out to the Ocean Terminal, but you have to negotiate the shopping mall and its escalators to reach the 2nd floor and the entrance to the attraction, but from hereon in it’s plain sailing, so to speak.
I suggest that you allow a couple of hours at least – more if you intend stopping for tea and cake in the Royal Deck Tea Room.
It’s a self-guided tour with the aid of an audio guide which you pick up at the visitor centre before making your way to The Bridge.
This is all very convenient for boarding the ship, but no so convenient if, like me, you would like to take photographs of the vessel itself.
Lying about half-way between the centre of Newcastle and the mouth of the River Tyne, Wallsend is an easy and worthwhile metro ride out of the city.
As soon as you get off the train you know that you’re somewhere a bit different because the station goes by its Roman name of Segedunum, but the English name of Wallsend is perhaps just as appropriate because Segedunum was the fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.
The wall was built during the 120s AD and was originally planned to end at Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne. It was then decided to extend it out here, where the river then became the natural frontier between the Roman world and the Barbarians to the north. The fort was probably built around 127 AD.
When the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD he set about building his famous northern frontier wall between the Cumbrian coast and the North Sea, and at the eastern end he constructed a bridge and fort on the River Tyne known as Pons Aelius, or Hadrian’s Bridge.
The wall was later extended to Segedunum (now called Wallsend), and the fort at Hadrian’s Bridge has become the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
After the Romans left, little is known about Anglo-Saxon Newcastle, which is surprising when you think that the great chronicler of the time, the Venerable Bede, was living only a short distance away on the other side of the river at Jarrow.
What we do know though is that the original Roman bridge was replaced, and that bridge too was replaced after a fire in 1248. Today, the site of all these bridges is occupied by another one – William Armstrong’s practical and wonderfully designed Swing Bridge of 1876. There are now seven bridges that span the river from this part of the city and this is definitely one of my favourites.
Taking a Boat trip down to Greenwich has to be one of the best days out in London, but unless you know exactly what you want to do when you get there, it’s worth dropping into the excellent Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre first before dashing off like a headless chicken.
If you’re anything like me, a day in Greenwich will be nowhere near enough, but for the purposes of expediency, I’m going to start my virtual tour of the town at the Old Royal Naval College, which the visitor centre is part of.
Greenwich has an exceptional maritime history, and next to the visitor centre is the Old Brewery, which used to supply sailors of the Royal Hospital for Seamen with their daily allowance of 4 pints of beer, but which now serves people like you and me, and although I suggested coming to the visitor centre first, I’m also suggesting that you leave the Old Brewery bar to last – otherwise you might not end up going anywhere.
London is undeniably one of the world’s most important financial centres, and although the City of London has traditionally been at the heart of London’s finance industry, Canary Wharf has today joined it as a place to come where fortunes can be made or lost at the press of a button.
It hasn’t always been like this of course. The area referred to as Canary Wharf is located on the Isle of Dogs and includes the former West India Dock, the first dock to be built in London.
Built purely to handle trade with the West Indies, it still has the same basic layout as when it was built in the early 19th century, but the name ‘Canary Wharf’ didn’t come into existence until 1937 when a warehouse was built at North Dock to handle fruit from the Canary Islands.
In 1802 the North (import) Dock was the first part of the West India Dock scheme to be built, followed 4 years later by the Middle (export) Dock. The South Dock was completed much later and was never really intended to be part of the set-up.
Prior to the creation of William Jessop’s Floating Harbour in 1809, the River Avon flowed through where Underfall Yard now stands.
The construction of Cumberland Basin and the New Cut meant that an island was formed between where the river was diverted, to Bathurst Basin at Redcliffe. This island became known as Spike Island.
Jessop’s plan included an ‘Overfall’ Dam to allow excess water in the Floating Harbour to flow over into the New Cut, but by the 1830s the harbour was becoming badly silted up.
Although Jessop had included sluices with his Overfall Dam, the main method of clearing the silt out was to drain the harbour and remove it by hand, which was less than ideal to say the least.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was brought in to make improvements to both Cumberland Basin and the Overfall Dam, and for the Overfall Dam he recommended developing Jessop’s sluices further and using dredger boats to remove the silt.
He devised an Underfall system where three shallow sluices could be used in a way that would control the harbour water level according to the tide and weather conditions, and a fourth ‘deep scouring’ sluice which could be opened at low tide when a powerful undertow (undercurrent) would suck the silt into the New Cut to be carried away by the next tide.
This Underfall system is still in use today, although a more modern system of dredging is used.
I deliberately kept my previous article about Bristol’s FloatingHarbour short and sweet for two reasons: The first one being that I didn’t want people to immediately lose interest in a topic that is important to the city’s heritage, and the second one is because my name isn’t Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
All the same, I’ve decided to include some information about the Cumberland Basin for anybody who would like to know a bit more about how this important part of the system operates.
The Floating Harbour project was awarded to William Jessop, an engineer from Devonport, who started work on the scheme in 1804. It took 5 years to build and was officially opened on the 1st May 1809.
For the Cumberland Basin, his plans included two entrance locks from the river into the holding basin, and a junction lock between the basin and the Floating Harbour. Why it was called Cumberland Basin I’ve no idea, but it was used as a lock when there were a lot of ships sailing in and out of the harbour.
Bristol’s Floating Harbour doesn’t float, so why is it called that? It takes a bit of explaining, but to understand what the Floating Harbour is will help to explain why Bristol’s maritime history was so important to the city for so long.
The port developed approximately 8 miles from the mouth of the River Avon during the 11th century, which at the time would have had the distinct advantage of being in a very sheltered location. Not only that, the River Severn has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, which meant that the fast-flowing tide could bring ships swiftly up the Severn and the Avon to the protection of Bristol’s inland harbour.
For centuries it worked well, but as the ships got bigger things became a bit more complicated. Anyone who has witnessed the ebb and flow of these rivers will know only too well how quickly the tide can go out as well as come in, and the bigger the ships became, the more often they got stuck in the mud – and there’s plenty of that here.
Market Jew Street may be the main street in Penzance, but historic Chapel Street is without doubt my favourite. It leads from the harbour right up to the Greenmarket in the centre of town and has an eclectic mix of architecture and some intriguing maritime history.
Like the rest of Penzance, Chapel Street was almost razed to the ground in 1595 when a Spanish raiding party set fire to the town in retaliation for the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. One of the buildings that did manage to survive was the Turks Head which has supposedly been here since 1233. According to the pub’s website it gets its name from when the Turks invaded the town around the same time, and was the first pub in the country to be called by that name.
Whatever the truth is, it’s definitely one of the oldest buildings in Penzance – and it’s a well-known fact that Penzance was raided by corsairs from the Barbary Coast from the 16th century onwards. In 1625 it was recorded that 60 men, women, and children were taken from a local church, no doubt to be used as slaves, as was normally the case, by these Mediterranean pirates.
Situated in St. Austell Bay, just 2 miles south-east of St. Austell’s town centre, Charlestown boasts a harbour with a fleet of Tall Ships that can easily transport the receptive mind back to times gone by – and to complete the image of pirates and treasure it also has a Shipwreck and Heritage Centre.
West Polmeor, as it was originally called, was just a small fishing village until a harbour was constructed to fulfil the needs of the local mineral mines and clay pits.
A local businessman by the name of Charles Rashleigh was the man responsible for building the harbour, and in 1799 the village was re-named ‘Charles’ Town’ after him.
Dartmouth, without doubt, is one of my favourite Devon towns: A picturesque setting, old buildings, and a fascinating maritime history combine together to make this one of the gems of South Devon.
Lying along the western bank of the River Dart just before it reaches the sea, Dartmouth owes its very existence to the river. Primitive settlements were set up along the muddy banks as far back as Celtic times, but land reclamation over the centuries have seen the town develop into how it looks today.
During that time the deep natural harbour has seen many comings and goings: The 12th cent saw ships leave here for the Crusades, and Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine saw a lucrative wine trade flourish with Bordeaux, but the most influential person in Dartmouth’s history was a local man by the name of John Hawley.
As I mentioned in my introduction, fishing has always been the most important part of Brixham life, and even as far back as the Middle Ages it was the largest fishing port in South-West England, but by the 19th century the port was so influential that it became a victim of its own success.
Up until then, deep sea fishing had largely been done by long lining which, as its name suggests was a technique that used hundreds, if not thousands, of baited hooks. Although trawls had already been invented, a much better system was developed by Brixham boat builders and fishermen that allowed trawls to be towed from beams that not only caught more fish but could also do so in all kinds of weather.
These boats with their tall gaff rig had sails which were treated with a local red ochre dye to make them more durable, and a design that made them both fast and strong. Only a small number of these boats have survived, but six of them have been restored and at least two or three can usually be seen alongside the pontoon next to the Prince William pub on the far side of the harbour.
There were in excess of 200 of these boats that sailed from the harbour to places as far away as the North Sea, where demersal fish such as plaice, haddock, and cod were much more plentiful. To begin with they returned to Brixham with their catch but as time went on they started to put down roots in places like Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and it wasn’t long before these ports became much bigger than Brixham itself.
The Hoe is one of the first places people head for on their first visit to Plymouth – and for good reason. This large open public space has one of the most fantastic views of any city in the country.
The views stretch out across The Breakwater and Plymouth Sound into the English Channel, and from Devon’s South Hams coastline in the east to Cornwall’s Rame Head in the west.
‘Hoe’ is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘High Ground’, and although it isn’t that high above sea level it still affords commanding views, such as those that can be had from the colonnaded Belvedere near West Hoe.
Built on the site of a previous camera obscura, it was completed in 1891 at the end of a decade that saw the Hoe change from farmland to a city park.
Below it is a former bull ring that is now a memorial garden for various veterans’ associations from WW2 onwards.
The area around Sutton Harbour is known locally as The Barbican and is a magnet for both visitors and locals alike.
This is the oldest, and most atmospheric, part of the city and, as you’ve probably already guessed, its name comes from the fortified entrance that once protected the castle on Lambhay Hill.
Both have long since disappeared, but the area is still the historical core of old Plymouth where many maritime adventures started from and returned to, including the Mayflower.
The area was the haunt of Drake, Hawkins, and Raleigh and the layout of the streets hasn’t changed that much since. It’s apparently got the largest concentration of cobbled streets in England and over a hundred listed buildings.
The houses were originally built for wealthy merchants (I prefer to call them privateers), but as time moved on they became slums. The Elizabethan House in New St which is open to the public, housed over fifty people at one time, although a house further up the street housed sixty, and they’re not large houses by any stretch of the imagination.
Eventually of course many of these buildings had to be demolished, and I’d like to be able to tell you that they were replaced with something better, but I’m afraid I can’t.
Many ships carrying settlers and explorers have left Plymouth’s Sutton Harbour over the years, but The Pilgrim Fathers’ journey on the Mayflower in 1620 resonates with the city more than any other.
There’s a Mayflower St, Mayflower College and a Mayflower Centre. Plymouth Argyle, the local football club, has a Mayflower Stand and call themselves The Pilgrims, with Pilgrim Pete as their mascot. So what makes the Pilgrim Fathers and The Mayflower so special to Plymouth?
The story begins when a band of English nonconformists, who rejected the laws of the Church of England, decided to seek religious freedom elsewhere. The first part of their journey took them to Leiden in The Netherlands, but finding it difficult to settle there, they left Delfthavn (Rotterdam) on a boat called ‘The Speedwell’ for America. The Speedwell joined up with more English passengers in Southampton who were on board ‘The Mayflower’.
The Speedwell sprang a leak and both ships put in at Dartmouth to ensure they were ship-shape before attempting to cross the Atlantic. They didn’t get far before The Speedwell sprang another leak, and both ships turned back to Plymouth. It was just The Mayflower therefore that sailed out across the ocean looking for a new life.
Their intentions were to aim for North Virginia but were blown off course and eventually landed at Cape Cod (Massachusetts). They named their new settlement Plymouth, and although only half of them had survived by the time the first winter was over, the rest remained, and today Plymouth is regarded as the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States.
The survivors held a thanksgiving feast the following year which is commemorated by Americans every 4th Thursday in November.
In around 700AD Anglo Saxon mariners settled and created a small fishing community which they called Sutton (South Town).
From these humble beginnings Sutton Harbour has grown into one of the three largest fishing ports in England (the other two being Brixham and Newlyn).
The old fish quay on The Barbican has now relocated to more modern facilities on the eastern side of the harbour, but there’s more to the harbour than fishing.
This is the harbour where Sir Francis Drake organised his fleet to attack the Spanish Armada, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America, and where Sir Francis Chichester landed after completing his epic solo voyage around the world.
To understand Plymouth better it’s worth knowing something about its geography and background.
The city as we know it today is situated between the mouths of two rivers – The Tamar and The Plym, which meet up in Plymouth Sound, a bay protected from the elements of the English Channel by a Breakwater.
The city of Plymouth is actually made up of four separate towns – Plymouth, Stonehouse, Devonport and Plympton.
In medieval times Plymouth was just a small farming and fishing settlement, Stonehouse was of no significance, and Devonport didn’t even exist. Plympton, on the other hand, was one of the four influential stannary towns of Devon involved in the production of tin (the others being Tavistock, Ashburton, and Chagford). Continue reading →
The Roman and medieval city of Exeter grew up on a hill overlooking the River Exe, which means that the river runs below the city rather than through it.
This also means that it requires an inconvenient 15-minute walk downhill from the city centre (unless you follow the nicer walk alongside the City Wall), or an even more inconvenient bus service to get here. That said, get here you must, because it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the city.
In my Brief History of Exeter, I mentioned that a Celtic tribe called the Dumnonii were the first people to settle here, and although there doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence, it seems likely that they were trading at the Quayside before the Romans arrived.
You might have expected the Romans to be trading here themselves, and although they probably did, their main port was at Topsham, some 4 miles downstream.
Even so, by the Middle Ages, trade was flourishing on the Quayside – or at least it was until Countess Isabella de Fortibus built a weir across the river above Topsham to run her mills. To bypass the problem a canal was built from the opposite side of the river down to a point just below Topsham.
Exeter’s influence was restored, and by the mid-18th century trade reached its peak when woollen cloth became the chief export. This cloth was stored in warehouses along with imported olive oil, wine and salt cod.