London has Piccadilly Circus; Glasgow has St. George’s Square and Bristol has The Centre! Not the most innovative name for a focal point I’m sure you would agree, but before you start thinking that it’s just an easy way to name Bristol’s city centre, the name is actually an abbreviation of the Tramway Centre that used to operate from St. Augustine’s Parade, and it’s not the centre of the city anyway.
This wasn’t such a bad idea on reflection because the ferries that run from Aker Brygge don’t come here in the winter – but buses do, and so I trudged through the snow for a second successive morning to the National Theatre where I caught the No.30 to Bygdøy.
Bygdøy is popular with both locals and visitors alike, especially in the summer as it has beaches, walking and cycling trails and several museums. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be lying on a beach today and I’d had enough of walking through the snow yesterday at Holmenkollen, so there are no prizes for guessing what I was coming here for.
It wouldn’t be sensible to try and visit every one of these museums in one day, even in the summer, but there were three that I particularly wanted to see, and they were all to do with Norway’s passion for maritime adventures and expeditions.
The River Scheldt, on which the port lies is not so well known as the Rhine or the Meuse perhaps, but that’s probably more to do with how far it travels in comparison, rather than anything else. From its source near Gouy in Northern France, it runs for 350 kilometres (220 miles) and enters the North Sea near Vissingen (Flushing) in The Netherlands. On its journey, it runs through Belgium and crosses over the Dutch border near Antwerp. The strategic importance of both the river and the city of Antwerp has had a profound effect on the fortunes of, not just the city itself, but also the Low Countries in general.
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.
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.
From North Shields railway station, it’s a fairly uninspiring, but easy, 10-minute walk down to the quayside, but I always think it’s best to get the worst bit over with first don’t you? From the front of the station turn right into Nile Street and then then left into Railway Terrace. At the end, turn right into Bedford Street and follow this road across Saville Street down to the bottom of the hill. You’re now down by the riverside and will need to turn left into Liddell Street and head towards the Fish Quay. You’ll know you’re going the right way if you come to the Prince of Wales Tavern with the ‘Wooden Dolly’ outside.
The current Wooden Dolly is the latest in a long line of replica figureheads that have replaced the original one that stood here at the entrance to the Customs House Quay in the 18th century. It belonged to the Alexander and Margaret, a collier brig that was attacked by a privateer off the North-East coast in 1781 and held to ransom. Why sailors thought that cutting pieces off of it would bring them good luck at sea after that ordeal I can’t quite fathom, but that’s what they did.
Not all the reincarnations have been faithful to the original, and at least one of them was even a carving of a ‘Fishwife’, which was an acknowledgement of the important role that women used to play in the fishing industry. The current one is a replica of the one that stood here in the late 19th century. I have a fascination for figureheads normally with their elaborate carving and interesting history, but quite honestly, if sailors wanted to take chunks out of this latest one, it might upset some people, but I’m not sure it would upset me too much.
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.
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.
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.
The construction of Cumberland Basin and the New Cut meant that an island was formed between where the river was diverted and 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.
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.
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.
Times have changed of course, and these days you won’t need to worry about bumping into press-gangs, one-legged sailors, or having a Black Spot thrust into the palm of your hand, so grab your treasure map and follow me around the riverside streets of old Bristol where I’ll attempt to sort out fact from fiction about the places and characters that gave Bristol its seafaring reputation.
My post, From Brycgstowe to Bristol, explains why a river crossing was made at the point where the River Frome joined the Avon near Bristol Bridge, and if you stand on the bridge and look downstream, you’ll see Redcliffe Back on the left hand side of the river and Welsh Back on the right. These ‘Backs’ were at the heart of Bristol’s early maritime trade until the Frome was diverted, and they were literally the backs of merchants’ houses where goods could be loaded directly onto the ships.
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.
There’s a difference between a harbour and a bay for instance, and I think it’s fair to say that Sydney Harbour is the most likely candidate for being the largest. The other contenders will have to fight it out because it’s not clear cut. Falmouth however, does qualify as being a natural harbour because it’s really a tidal drowned river valley, or ria, to give it the proper name – and it is deep.
Several rivers merge to provide fresh water for the harbour and they all end up in Carrick Roads, the main body of water in Falmouth Harbour. Its unusual name comes from the Karrek Ruen (Black Rock) which is a potential hazard at the mouth of the estuary between St. Anthony Head and Pendennis Point.
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.
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 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.