The Days Out Just Keep Coming: Chatham Dockyard

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The political disarray / turmoil / armageddon following the referendum result I wrote about last time continues unabated this summer.  But here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters we're resuming normal service in an attempt to pretend that the world isn't crashing down around our ears.  So, with my Hampstead Theatre show up and running and proving to be a critical and box office success (phew) and with a new job starting in September (more on that another time), I've got the leisure to put my feet up for a bit and sip G&Ts on the back deck and enjoy the tiny intervals of sunny weather that pop up over the next few weeks.  I've also go the leisure to tell you about an excellent Day Out I had in May when my friend Nes came for a visit.  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember Nes as the the official Lucky Nickel Remote Engine Troubleshooting Hotline - South Africa/Whatsapp Division, and the Officer in Charge of Iron Smelting Explanations, Driving and Diesel Engine Inspection on previous Days Out.

Anyway, Nes was in town for a long weekend.  Originally we'd hoped to take the Lucky Nickel on a great adventure on the Thames, coming out the locks in the west at Brentford and traveling downstream though central London, under a Tower Bridge (!!) and back into the canal system at Limehouse Basin.  Sadly, the logistics of that turned out to be a bit daunting, and the potential for disaster a bit too high, so we decided to rent a car and strike out for another sort of adventure.  Since Nes and I are similarly minded on the subject of Big Greasy Gears and cool engineering in general, I consulted my go-to manual for such things (the “Guide to Britain’s Working Past” by Anthony Burton) - a handbook to basically every large gear in the country) and we decided on a quick jaunt down to Chatham Historic Dockyard.

There’s been a shipyard at Chatham since the mid 16th century, building ships for the Royal Navy until 1984, when it was shut down.  The working dockyard used to encompass more that 400 acres of buildings, slipways, dry docks and workshops.  When it was shut a portion of the structures were turned into a commercial port with other areas becoming residential.  What was left - the 80 acre core of the Georgian era dockyard - was opened as a tourist attraction featuring, among other things, a massive collection of lifeboats, three restored warships of different eras open to the public, and a still working Victorian Ropery.

Because we were visiting on a Monday, the place was gratifyingly deserted, and we started off in a massive building housing the dockyard’s collection of lifeboats.  It’s worth pausing here for a few words about the RNLI - The Royal National Lifeboat Institution - a venerable and much respected group here in the UK whose describe themselves simply as “the charity that saves lives at sea”.  Given that this is quite a small island in quite a large sea (there’s nowhere on the island that’s more than about 70km from tidal waters) it’s no wonder that this group of mainly volunteers is held in such high esteem.  Started in 1824, it operates 237 lifeboat stations around the coast, with more than 400 individual lifeboats.  Most boats are crewed by volunteers (only one in ten of which have any professional maritime experience) who undergo extensive training for 18 months before becoming qualified lifeboat crew members.  The RNLI also provide lifeguards on the UK's beaches.  Remarkably, over its almost 200 year history, the RNLI has saved more than 140,000 lives (That’s not a typo.  One hundred and forty thousand.)  However, this figure has come with the loss of 600 RNLI crew lives.  In 2015 alone, RNLI crews rescued an average of 22 people EVERY DAY.  It’s a remarkable institution staffed by people who are prepared to drop what they’re doing at any moment and put to sea to save the lives of strangers.  You know those little plastic collection buckets you see at checkouts in shops all over?  Here those are often branded for the RNLI.  Drop a pound or two in the next time you see one - donation like these account for 28% of their funding.

Here’s me at the oars of a mock-up lifeboat in the collection. I'm pointing out that the guy in front of me is not pulling his weight.

The lifeboat collection is housed alongside an odd and eclectic bunch of vehicles and machinery, including this steam-powered forging hammer, which was labelled for “light work”.

Naturally, we both thought this was excellent, if a bit on the titchy side.

Mostly, though, we were killing time before we could visit HMS Ocelot, tickets for which are issued for timed tours. The Ocelot is one of those three restored warships I mentioned earlier. HMS Gannet is a Victorian sloop built in 1878 and HMS Cavalier is a WWII-era destroyer - they’re both open to the public and you can wander in and out at your leisure.  But the Ocelot can only be visited on a guided tour with a limited number of people allowed on each tour, because of the tight space involved.  Why is space so tight?  Because the Ocelot is a submarine!

The tour was conducted by a volunteer and took us through the whole boat, which is setup in permanent dry dock.

We started in the forward torpedo bay, which included six torpedo tubes (amusingly, the two aft torpedo tubes were later taken out of service and used by the crew as beer coolers).  The Ocelot was equipped with wire-guided torpedoes - a concept I was not familiar with.  Basically, the torpedo is attached to a very very very long cable that allows the boat to adjust the heading of the torpedo en route by changing the position of the torpedoes fins.  The forward torpedo bay also housed the escape system.  In the event of a shallow escape (up to 100 feet) the compartment would be flooded and breathing air supplied through a series of tubes for each man in line for the escape hatch.  The man at the head of the line would take one last breath and then swim through the hatch, while everyone in the queue behind would move up one space to the next breathing tube.  They also had a limited number of deep escape suits which could be used at depths up to 700 feet.

Breathing tube, and deep water rescue suit

Moving through the submarine, which was crewed by 69 men, you could appreciate the cramped quarters and way every surface was festooned with equipment.  (As the permanent crew of a similarly long, skinny and somewhat cramped floating vessel myself, I could sympathise.)  We travelled through the crew quarters and past the galley, where two cooks provided for all the crew on board, even cooking fresh bread every day.

Crew quarters

The galley

And we visited the control room and got to look through the main periscope, which was remarkably clear and bright.

Nes at the periscope

This was absolutely my favourite bit of the engine control room.  More control panels should include such useful indicators.

We also saw the engine room - powered by diesel.  I was surprised to learn that the diesel engines don’t actually propel the ship.  HMS Ocelot is a diesel electric vessel, meaning the diesel engines are run simply to charge massive battery banks.  The boat is propelled by 3,000HP electric motors powered by those batteries.  On a long deployment - up to about 3 months - the engines would be run three times a day to charge the batteries.  Normal speed would be about 6 knots, but at top speed - 17 knots - the batteries could power the boat for only 45 minutes.

The submarine tour was excellent, and our group was small, so we got to ask lots of questions of the guide, all of which I’ve now forgotten (hey… it was two months ago!).  I’ve got notes about something to do with oxygen generation and CO2 absorption.  And one note that reads, and I quote: "Attack periscope, search persuasive, radar, induction mast gives fresh aircraft”. Make of that one what you will, but bear in mind that autocorrect may play a part.  I also clearly remember something about how a submarines sometimes descend all the way to the seabed to avoid detection but that this is a risky practice because it’s actually possible to get stuck to the bottom of the seabed by suction and even blowing out all the ballast tanks won’t free you.  Which certainly made me grateful that the bottom of the canal is only about 2 feet lower than the bottom of my little boat, meaning that even if it were stuck fast to the bottom I’d still only get wet up to about my knees and the Lucky Nickel’s collection of priceless artworks would be quite safe.

After the submarine, we spent a bit of time poking around on HMS Cavalier, the WWII destroyer, where I had my picture taken with the ship’s bell, which seems to be becoming a tradition.  (And yes, the Lucky Nickel does have a bell, in case you were wondering.)

We also looked at the tall ship HMS Gannet, but again, that was just killing time waiting for what for me was the main event of the day - a guided tour of the Victorian Ropery!  In the age of sail, the navy needed prodigious amounts of rope to fit out the ships built in the dockyard. Each ship required, on average, TWENTY MILES of rope for its rigging, so you can imagine why there have been dedicated rope-making facilities on site since 1618.

The Ropery at Chatham is distinguished by its ropewalk - the long building where the strands of yarn come together to be twisted into rope.  Since the length of the completed rope is determined by the length of the strands that go into it, and because those strands need to be stretched taut during the rope-making process, a ropewalk building is necessarily very very long.  The Ropery at Chatham, built in the early 1700s is 1,135 feet long (close to a quarter of a mile) and when constructed it was the longest brick building in Europe.  Even better - the Chatham Ropery is still in operation, run by a commercial company that still use the traditional equipment and methods to produce rope.  They’ve even recently taken on an apprentice, which is positively excellent.

The current building dates to 1792 and in order to see the whole thing we were once again channeled into a timed guided tour.  However, instead of the system on the submarine where the tour was led by a volunteer who was knowledgeable and interested and happy to answer questions, the Ropewalk tour was conducted in that infuriating and now-vogue manner by a woman dressed in historical clothing and taking on the persona of a ropery worker from the 18th century.  I find this a tiresome and awkward practice, and in this case it was worse than most, since the character this woman was portraying was particularly disgruntled and unlikable.  I suppose this might be considered innovative or interesting but in fact is almost exactly like being given a guided tour by someone disgruntled and unlikable.

Nevertheless, the woman did manage to get the information out, and I was able to lurk in the background well enough that I didn’t have to interact with her directly (though one poor guy in out group was picked out as “husband material” by our guide and subjected to more or less constant poorly-delivered asides).  But back to the rope-making:  naturally, the process starts with raw fibre.  Traditionally this was hemp from Russia, though later manila from Filipino banana trees was used and more recently sisal (from cactus) and coir (from coconut) have come into play. The fibres are first combed out in a process called hatchelling, which was originally done by hand, but later came to be done by machines.  After hatchelling, the fibres are spun into yarn. Here again the process was once a highly skilled trade done by spinners who could produce 1,000 feet of yarn from a single 65lb bundle carried around their waists.  By the late 19th century a single mechanised spinning machine could produce the same amount of yarn as 24 spinners.

Once the yarn is wound onto spools it’s ready to be turned into rope.  Individual threads of yarn are fed through register plates and then onto the hooks of a forming machine.

Here’s the yarn going through register plates

And here’s what the travelling end of the machinery looks like on the big ropewalk.  It’s got wheels because as the yarns are twisted they become shorter, so one end of the apparatus needs to be on wheels and moves forward as the yarn is twisted.

Each hook spins, twisting several yarns together into a strand.  Once the strands are complete, they’re twisted together into rope.  This was all demonstrated to us in the exhibition area outside the main ropewalk, with two of the gentlemen of the tour group pressed into service operating both ends of a small set-up, turning cranks in opposite directions at each end.  First they formed the yarn into strands, then the guide reconfigured the strands on the machine and the guys had another go at the cranks and we watched the three strands come together into rope.  Ropes made for naval service would also include a coloured tracer line.  Because rope was such an important part of naval life, each of the major naval rope makers (at Chatham, Woolwich, Portsmouth and Plymouth) was required to include in their ropes a single yarn of a specific colour so that if the rope failed in service the navy could trace it back to its origin.

The demonstration was actually quite impressive and remarkably quick.  Best of all, after it was finished we were left to our own devices to explore the actual ropewalk itself.

The ropewalk

It’s so long the employees often use bicycles to get from one end to the other.

These wooden horses keep the rope off the ground as it’s being made.  
You can see they’ve been around a while.

Most of the tour group abandoned the ropewalk at the first exit but Nes and I walked the whole quarter mile, and we were rewarded because the far end housed all the supplies for the actual ropemaking company, including racks full of spools of yarn and extra machinery and stuff.  And to counteract the annoying tour guide woman, we also came upon an employee of the dockyard who was every inch the eccentric English enthusiast.  An older gentleman, tall but a bit stooped and dishevelled and somewhat pre-occupied in that the manner of one who would almost certainly not be wearing matching socks but would be able to explain, in excruciating detail, the difference between a three-stranded hawser-laid rope and four-stranded shroud-laid rope.  We listened to him ramble for a bit and then slowly made our way back to the main dockyard area.

Rack of spools of yarn

It was late in the afternoon by this point, and the whole place was almost shut down.  We wandered through a few more exhibits, but quickly decided it was time to move on.  We made a quick attempt to see Upnor Castle, but it was closed too.  Also, Nes had a flight to Johannesburg to catch, so we sped to Heathrow where he hopped out after giving me somewhat vague directions back to the hire car place.  It was around this time that I realised I hadn’t driven at all since last Christmas, and hadn’t driven on the left since about October of 2014, and had only a rough idea of where I was headed and had only Google maps to guide me, which kept insisting on taking me on a faster but much more complicated route than I wanted.  So let’s just say the trip back was fraught and ended with me abandoning any attempt to find a petrol station to fill up, thus incurring a somewhat steep penalty charge. Still, I’d have paid double that just to get it all over with.  And regardless of the day's ignominious end, it was most certainly a Grand Day Out.

Nes, hamming it up at the wheel of HMS Cavalier.

P.S.  As usual, there are more pictures at Flickr.


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