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Voyaging with Volunteers

This month we have had Volunteers’ Week and it seems appropriate to highlight and acknowledge the role of ordinary (extraordinary) people who labour long and hard to save, salvage, protect and preserve heritage precious to them and their local areas.


The past few weeks I have been working with groups of volunteers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who are doing just this. In one case the heritage was threatened by local authority’s tendency to demolition by neglect, in another by careless and directionless failed private ownership, in the third case, “inevitable progress” and a blindness to the future value of remnants of past technology. In all three cases, volunteers have worked indefatigably to secure the building, the grounds, the ship and the locomotives and rolling stock for the future and then to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the money to be able to share that heritage with other people. The value of the work these people do cannot be over-estimated. Without them, much of the local heritage of the UK would be lost forever.

When I first visited Whitehead, between Carrickfergus and Larne, County Antrim, three or four years ago, the site was a collection of sheds and tracks filled with rolling stock and railway paraphernalia and weed-infested backyard littered with rusting metal.


On my recent visit, the activity in the Whitehead engineering workshops is impressive, the apprentices and volunteers readying the site for its public opening later this year.

Since the 1960s extraordinary restoration work has been carried out in the unheated, uninsulated sheds, and volunteers worked on carriages and locomotives in very primitive conditions. As the local foundries closed down all over Northern Ireland, they set up their own, as heavy engineering workshops modernised or shut, they bought machinery and equipment from clearing auctions. And perhaps most wonderful of all, this voluntary group kept steam trains running on the mainlines throughout Ireland including the Portrush Flyer. Now with funding from HLF and Europe and the Northern Irish Tourist Board and others, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland is about to open a heritage engineering and railway centre where people can see conservation and restoration work in action: heavy machinery dating from the glory days of British engineering in use, locomotives, diesel and steam, running and static, carriages, the older timber ones built like coaches, the cranes, wheel drop, forge and foundry in action, see the locomotives being turned on the newly installed turntable, smell the grease, hear the steam, the hammer, shunting, and of course ride on the trains.


All of this has been achieved by dedicated teams of volunteers who would not let Ireland’s steam and railway heritage disappear and the interpretation on the site will celebrate their extraordinary achievement by featuring them and their stories.

The same commitment was responsible for saving the 1953 paddle steamer Maid of the Loch from the scrapyard when she was left to rot. Sadly many of her fittings and equipment were stripped and stolen, as her owners, a private English-based company, went into receivership. The last paddle steamer builder on the Clyde, equipped with a massive steam engine and boilers to drive her two paddles, she was first built, then dismantled and transported piece by piece overland to Loch Lomond where she was reconstructed and operated on the loch until 1981. Having rescued her from the scrapyard, the volunteers have been opening her to the public on her pier at Balloch, using her for events and functions. Now the volunteers want to get her steaming again around Loch Lomond.

First they needed to get funding to restore the steam-driven Slipway and Winch House in order to slip her to determine the condition of her riveted steel hull. With that project successfully completed, they are in the process of developing their final application to the HLF to make this dream a reality. imageIn glorious sunshine two weeks ago, we held our meeting on deck to discuss and plan the work they need to do (to conserve and restore the ship and the paddle wheels, to fit a new boiler, to engage people, schools, families, students in the project) to ensure a successful outcome.

The third project, the saving and restoration of Moat Brae, a Georgian townhouse on the River Nidd in Dumfries, is another triumph for a group of determined local people. Once a private house, then a nursing home, then derelict and threatened with demolition, part of the original garden had already been sold off for building housing.

But the empty boarded-up shell of the house with what was left of its river-side garden, overgrown and impenetrable, held a special story. Here J.M. Barrie had visited as a child, played and adventured in the garden with the children of the house. Like them, he was a student at Dumfries Academy next door. IMG_7348It was at Moat Brae that he experienced the wonder and freedom that became Neverland and Peter Pan. It was this connection and this story which meant Moat Brae should not be lost. Local people got together and saved the house and what was left of its grounds, raised money to replace the roof and secure the building. Then they set out to get HLF and other funding to realize their ambition of a Centre for Children’s Literature and a place where children and their adults could dream, play and adventure again. With funding secured, they are now ready to make that happen. In the meantime they have been using the building as place for their communities to visit, and the day I was there, displaying amazing students’ work from¬†Dumfries and Galloway College.¬†IMG_7367


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Voyaging in Hull’s Maritime Past 2

There were once huge docks in and around the centre of Hull – The Dock (built between 1775-8) was the largest dock in the country. Renamed Queen’s Dock in 1854, it closed in 1930, and was filled in and grassed over as Queen’s Gardens. Junction Dock (1829) was renamed Prince’s Dock in 1854 and closed to shipping in 1968.  Since 1991 it has housed a futuristic shopping centre. Humber Dock (1807-09) closed in 1967 and with Railway Dock (1846) later became part of Hull’s marina where at least boats can still float and enter and leave from and to the mighty Humber River.

A day’s meetings focussing on City of Culture partnerships, programmes and priorities over, I headed for the former 18th and 19th century docks, retracing my steps through building works, following a maze of orange cones, past the ornate Italianate Maritime Museum and Civic Hall and the classic facade of the Ferens Art Gallery, alongside the former Queen’s Dock, now Gardens.

P1100031The painted facade of the pub was inviting but I wanted to get to the Humber before it was too dark. I found the Prince’s Dock, now the Princes Shopping Centre, a huge silver building apparently floating in the dock. Hull does seem to have an awful lot of shopping centres, despite the huge number of closed and empty traditional street fronting shops. No doubt this is connected!

I spied masts ahead and like a homing pigeon, drawn to boats and water, I crossed a very busy main road and found myself at the marina, the former Dock and still attached to the Humber. The black lightship was moored alongside and barges, yachts and motor boats of all shapes and sizes sat quietly at pontoons inside the mighty walls of the dock. Captured in a glass case, a single beam engine sat quietly contemplating its fate like a stuffed bird under glass, its immense unmoving wheel an exhibit rather than a living breathing engine.

The inevitable maze of cones, dug up streets and fenced off footpaths appeared again as I walked past bars, a few eateries and mostly empty umbrella covered tables towards the river. The entrance to the brown sluggish Humber from the dock was lined in curving mud banks. I walked along the river towards where the Hull flows into the Humber, the huge silver prow of The Deep dominating the east bank.

An elegant verdigris sculpture by an Icelandic sculptor gazed up into the sky from the west bank and empty pontoons reached out into the river. As the Hull rushed into the Humber, the mud-stained rivers mingled created disturbance on the surface and a sense of conflicting movement.

P1100090An A4 sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve attached to the railing caught my attention and I stopped to read it. Entitled The Lincoln Castle docking at Minerva Pier in 1977, it depicted the same docks I could see from the promenade in 1977 with a paddle steamer coming alongside. The text explained that the writer, a newcomer in 1977, had not realized that this was one of her last voyages, the ferry being replaced with the new bridge. Despite a campaign to save her, the beautiful and elegant steamer which used to connect the two shores was dismantled in Grimsby as recently as 2010. So much for maritime heritage. The page ended with a web address and a note to the reader, to leave the image there for others to see or an invitation to take it home and the lines “Our streets, our public spaces, are there to daily celebrate that we are not alone in this world, a place where we talk, we laugh, we enjoy, we cry, we joke with strangers … Let (sic) keep them out of private and corporate control.” I was heartened to see and share this unsolicited fragment of “visitor generated content” as it is known in the museum and gallery world and the small piece of Hull’s lost heritage which I had stumbled upon. Someone cared enough to display this and share it and I appreciated that. I later looked up Pablo Luis Gonzalez and he is a Hull-based photographer http://www.pablo-luis-gonzalez.uk/about/


I turned to follow the West Bank of the Hull River back towards the building sites that dominated the surroundings and again discovered something wonderful – a huge stone and brick-lined dry dock reminiscent of the ones at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour.

But inside the remains of rusting lock gates, a huge new concrete wall shut it off from the waters of the Hull. And upon new pillars rising out of the dirty water lying in the bottom of the dock, an enormous timber stage with rising tiered seating levels was being constructed. Artist’s impressions on a developers’ sign showed the entertainment and performance space surrounded by green planting in the dock and I consoled myself with the thought that at least the dock would still be there and had not been destroyed. A new Digital Quarter was being built all around, a symbol of Hull’s hopes for a more prosperous future.


Skirting more cones, piled paving and rubbish, I walked through a small street of what looked like former interesting shops and galleries back to the marina dock. A restaurant 1842 in a Victorian warehouse caught my eye and the menu appealed and again I had found serendipitously another of Hull’s maritime treasures. A quirky restaurant and wine bar was in the former Ropery built in 1884 to serve Hull’s shipping industry, humming with groups of people enjoying excellent food and good wine. Under its chandeliers and huge black and white industrial photographs, I reflected on the day’s meetings, and the programme of contemporary cutting edge art, performance and cultural spectacles being planned for 2017. Was there room in all this culture, national and international, for Hull’s past, for the shadows and stories of defiance, war, fishing and maritime tragedies, for white telephone boxes and whaling, for activists and merchants, philanthropists and dockers, Hanseatic and Baltic connections, for buried Tudor military installations and lost Victorian splendour? For language and dialect, secret places and community, for local stories, for “Hullness”? I hope so.P1100084