Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Around Gloucester Docks

This handsome square rigger regularly features on tv and film
This truly is a marvellous place to be. This morning the barge Mallana left so we have an even better view of the elegant square riggers moored at T Nielsen's yard. Nielsen's is one of the world's leading companies in traditional ship building and restoration – they'll even quote for a wooden narrowboat according to a sign on their wall if you can afford it.
Their real business is working on traditional sailing ships like the Earl of Pembroke which is sitting in one of the huge dry docks at the moment. Built as recently as the 1940s,  it has starred, suitably altered, in many tv and cinema epics, including as Shackleton's Endurance and Captain Cook's Endeavour.
Unlikely base for T Nielsen, one of the world's top classic boat builders. 
It's just extraordinary how much of these docks have survived. They were still working into the 1960s which probably saved the marvellous warehouses from the demolition man's wrecking ball. Now renovated and spruced up, they may be largely offices inside but outside they still look the part. It's the incidentals that help, too: everywhere you go there are huge mooring rings and bollards, bits of old railway track and the occasional crane.
The excellent Waterways Museum puts it all into context. There's plenty of familiar stuff about the origins of canals and the lives of boatmen – after all this is a museum for the general public not knowledgeable boaters – but the stories are well told; there are good exhibits and waxwork models and a particularly fine display of roses and castles painted ware.
The fascinating and informative Waterways Museum is well worth a visit
The stories and photos of Gloucester Docks are fascinating. Tales and images of a docks so busy that boats had to anchor in mid-basin and even queue down the canal waiting for their turn to load or unload. Of the huge warehouses, mainly holding grain, that would be completely filled and emptied several times a year – all the cargoes literally manhandled, hoisted up through the warehouse floors by hand operated cranes, loaded into barges and narrowboats by manpower. How the place must have echoed with noise and teemed with people.
The Waterways Museum and its huge steam dredger
NB Harry's chef checks out the dredger's galley facilities
Gloucester was a vital interchange between the canals and the sea; a panorama of photographs of all the industries whose raw materials and products went in or out through the docks from around the country – steel, pottery, timber, coal – was remarkable and at the same time slightly depressing. A reminder of just how many of our traditional manufacturing industries have vanished.
Outside we had a look in a narrowboat butty and a steam dredger used in the docks until recently and complete with waxwork crew member to guide our visit.
Dwarfed by the warehouses is the tiny Mariners' Chapel
Simple interior and beautiful stained glass are a delight

Our final port of call on our trip round the docks was to the Mariners' Chapel, a tiny church standing in the shadow of one of the vast warehouses. The simple interior, illuminated by some beautiful stained glass, including a pair of very handsome modern windows, was a delight – even to this cynical non-believer.
Tomorrow it's time to explore the town.

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