An Outing to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham.
by Arthur Cox
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(The pictures are all at the end)
The date was 16th October 2013 and the occasion was an outing organised by my daughter Isobel – as a late birthday gift to me. Isobel arrived at our house at 9.40am and we left at 10.0am and we went by roads we had not used before (A130 and A13, which have undergone a lot of changes since we last used them) and arrived at the Dockyard about one hour later. A good journey apart from some drizzle. The Dockyard has a huge car parking area and there was no trouble about parking.
I will mention at this point that Isobel had just given me an early Christmas gift – a walking stick with a fold-out seat at the top. At home, before we left, I tried this out and realised that I needed some more practice on making a proper tripod with my two legs and the one stick. I decided that for this trip I would use it as a simple walking aid.
Anyway, we went to the reception building and there found that they had a problem with their computerised booking and ticketing system. However, there was not too much of a wait and we got our tickets – valid for one whole year so return visits could be made without paying again.
My first objective was the famous Ropery. For this we received extra tickets (no extra charge!) for a certain set time and that gave us ten minutes to walk to the far end of this huge 80 acre site and arrive at the Ropery. I found my new stick a great help with this walk. We were met by a man dressed and with the appearance of somebody from the mid 1800s. Inside there were a group of people waiting and our guide introduced himself as Mr Steve. He said he was the Ropery Foreman and if we had anything to ask him he expected to be addressed formally as Mr Steve. He was the boss and was clearly in the mid 1800s and we had to assume that we were also of that same period. He was full of jokey and sarcastic references and first showed us about the different sorts and sizes of rope and their names and uses, from hawsers to giant anchor cables. He introduced a great many common sayings and expressions that originated in the Navy. I think some of the group thought he was joking and punning but they were certainly proper naval terms mostly from the days of sailing ships. Next we moved into a room where machinery (mainly wooden) was set up ready for the making of a simple rope from hemp fibres on big bobbins. Four people from the visitors were selected (“volunteers”) to help with the machinery and after a very good demonstration we finished up with a length of finished rope. The four helpers were given a short length each as a souvenir. The rest of us could obtain a labelled souvenir piece by giving a small donation. The Ropery history was talked about at great length and we were told how more machinery was gradually introduced and then women workers started being employed at a lower wage as the mechanisation required fewer skills. Next, we moved into the main “rope walk” area of a quarter mile length – here rope is still made. I say “walk” but here the workers had bicycles to get up and down the long building. Isobel and I decided not to walk down the whole length and then have to walk back again and we went outside and on to see other things. We had been in the Ropery for well over an hour and found it all very interesting and entertaining. An excellent guide.
We went next to look at various ships in dry docks; one of these ships was HMS Cavalier which we didn’t visit this time. And then to get some lunch. We had sandwiches and coffee and I had a chance for a sit down. We went to see a submarine and got free tickets for a visit a little later on. We wandered around in a huge building that was full of RNLI boats from various times.
So, back to the submarine “Ocelot”. We joined a group of visitors from the Netherlands who were issued with the details printed in Dutch much to their delight though they mostly understood the English commentary. A young man was our guide and he first pointed out features of the vessel that could be seen from the dockside. He warned us that it was very cramped inside and there were small awkward hatchways to be negotiated. If we dropped anything (such as a camera) it would be lost forever in the depths of the ship.
We entered down a very steep ladder and found ourselves in the forward torpedo area. There was a torpedo in its rest and we were told about the way they were dispatched. Overhead was an emergency escape hatch and we learnt about the two ways of escaping from a submerged vessel and neither method seemed to be very appealing nor safe.
I was astonished at how small and cramped it was and with a huge number of instruments, cables, pipes, valves simply everywhere. Every space was covered with bits of equipment. The floor was a metal grating and I realised that my walking stick was a hazard because it went through the holes. We were told that most of the hull which was huge when seen from outside, was in fact the ballast compartments to be filled with water to descend and with compressed air to ascend.
We gradually made our way to the stern and saw the large diesel engines with their snorkel type exhaust and air intake arrangement so that the engines could be run while under the water. These engines drove generators which charged up huge batteries which propelled the vessel and provided all the other power needed. The use of batteries meant that the submarine could operate very quietly and detection much more difficult.
At intervals there were doors and I found I had to turn sideways to get though because they were so narrow. And then there were the circular hatchways. Here one held on to an overhead handle and swung both feet simultaneously upwards and through the opening and then grabbed another handle the other side to pull oneself right though and so into the next room. Isobel was a little worried about me but I managed to get through without any problems once I realised that both feet had to go together and not one at a time.
We saw the sleeping and living arrangements of bunks, the officers’ cabins which were hardly big enough to get into. The toilets and washing places – all extremely small. There are two toilets for the crew and one for the officers. With a total of 69 men on board that seems a very small number of facilities.
We got to the periscope areas and were able to see through a periscope at the dockyard outside. Even using the smaller periscope we were amazed at the view. There was not a space that was not covered with equipment and I wondered about how long it would take to design and construct such a boat. I asked the guide and was told about two years for the construction part and then more time for the thorough testing. That was not including all the design work.
We saw the navigation department and maps and learnt that only the captain and a select few senior officers would know where the boat was in the oceans. All records of the voyages were highly classified even now.
At the far stern end there were more bunks which replaced some earlier torpedo tubes. The boast was that at that stage, every single one of the 69 crew had his own personal bunk.
We left by climbing up a steep set of steps. I think that the two top steps were a little different in size because I caught the front of my leg on each one.
I found this visit very exciting and was quite proud that I had managed to get everywhere without any physical difficulties. The other visitors were all very friendly and I managed to understand some of their personal comments in Dutch.
I think I would like to visit this boat again.
Next we went aboard the Gannet – and iron built sailing ship. Later it was renamed as the Mercury and became a training establishment. There was a strong smell of paint and we found that the former engine room compartments were being given a coating of white paint. As we left this ship, a guide suggested that we cross the large gravel area and visit a new display called the The Hearts of Oak. He kindly suggested also that we could keep out of the rain by going through the lifeboat sheds.
We found the new display which was in one of the huge buildings and after a short wait we went around a series of illuminated shows (done using projectors) which told the story of building the wooden sailing ships of the past. Much information was given about the number of oak trees needed, a good display of how the ship designs were transformed into full sized chalk drawing on the floor and then moulds built that were then used to make the full size beams, etc. Some very clever use of the projector here. It was rather dark in some places and the floors were rather uneven. There were two sets of stairs to get up and down and the lift was being repaired at the time. In the Mould Loft we were informed that we were in the very place where Nelson’s flag ship HMS Victory had been made.
We also saw a picture on the wall of HMS Boscawen, which was the very ship that my grandfather William Cox had joined as a boy on 9 August 1876.
By this time it was almost 3.0pm and after a toilet visit we left for home – a good journey that took just over one hour.
All the staff were very friendly and helpful. Where there were guides, there was no suggestions or hints that they be personally tipped.
There is a museum that we had no time to visit and many other interesting buildings.
There is a large shed with a collection of military vehicles, a brewery (and bottles of special beers available in the restaurant).
The site cover 80 acres and there is far too much to see properly in a single visit.
There are wheelchairs available on site but these are of not much use for visiting a submarine! – But I read that there is a “virtual tour” display showing disabled visitors around this particular vessel.
I thank Isobel for her time and driving me there and back. I congratulate her on keeping a fairly straight face and not being indignant when asked if she wanted a “concessionary” ticket for herself as well as for me.
I thank daughter Nicola for spending her day with my wife Sylvia and taking her mum out for a lunch. A great pity that Sylvia was not able to join me on this trip.
Here is a link to the official website:
Some pictures to follow. Except for the first one, my thanks to Isobel for these.
This picture is taken from the dockyard web pages – the interior roof construction of one of the extremely large buildings. A mixture of wood and metal beams.
To be visited on another visit.
The rope walk. note the bicycles used by the staff to get about here
Another view looking down the quarter mile long rope walk
A piece of the rope we saw being made. Three strands and called a hawser
One of the locomotives that can be seen in the Railway Shed
Inside the locomotive shed
Time And Relative Dimension In Space commonly called a TARDIS
About to depart for other worlds
(before the days of the 999 service)
The “O” Class submarine in dry dock
The Ocelot – showing the two raised hydroplanes
In the engine room with two large diesel engines
Memo: This trip had been planned for 2012 but circumstances at home made it impossible and so it was postponed until 2013.
Diary 10th Sep 2012. Isobel phoned and talked to us both. She said that she would like to to take me out for a day (a birthday gift) and suggested the Chatham Dockyards – a place I have never visited but seen a lot about on TV shows. She will work something out about a suitable date.
Sunday 21st October 2012. Agreed with Isobel to postpone a trip to Chatham Dockyards until the next year – perhaps in the spring.
To read about a second visit to the dockyard click HERE
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