Authie et Mi

More than value for money

30th April 2013

It is a well known fact that most people will have travelled to the far side of the earth before finding the time to visit their local museum.

Anton and Debs have been living in the Medway for decades and had yet to visit the Royal Dockyards. Not really my thing, boats, but history is history, and the decision was made that the week I was over for the Parent’s anniversary we would take the time to go down and at least have a look.

The ticket is valid for twelve months and, with what there is to see, repeat visits are something that you would need to do. It has to be remembered that this is a dockyard and not a single building so there is a bit of walking involved getting from one site to the next. And it is not all boats.

We arrived quite early as I was heading back to France mid-afternoon. We were told that the visit to the ropery was about to start if we wanted to begin there. It was a good starting place because it meant walking pretty much the length of the complex. We were met by the Guv’n‘r of the Ropery, replete in bowler hat.

He took us through a little bit of Chatham’s naval history and tied it in with the need for rope. By the time of Elizabeth I, Chatham had become the principal base of the fleet and it was here that her boats were prepared in 1588 for the inevitable attempt to invade by Philip II of Spain who had been co-regent with Queen Mary and considered himself rightful heir to the English throne. The Armada was defeated and much of it was ground up on the coastline of Ulster as it fled.

All of these ships were wooden and powered by the wind. To stop and start them you needed: hemp rope. All made by hand. The ropery was built in 1791 and at 346m is the longest brickbuilt building in Europe. Now, I didn’t want to argue the point but there was something in my mind that the French ropery at Rochefort was slightly longer. It is, 374m, but it isn’t made of brick.

Hemp is a plant of the cannabis family and the process starts with hatchellers combing out the strands in a process very similar to that of carding wool. After that it is spun into a 300m length yarn. A number of yarns are compressed together and then comes the laying process. And for that volunteers were needed. So up Anton and I go. He gets the standing machine and I have the travelling machine. There are three strands of yarn which we tighten by turning our machines in opposite directions. Once he was satisfied the three strands at my end were placed on a single hook and a top introduced between the strands. With three groves in it this top would force the strands together to make a hawser laid rope. The test was that if a section was dropped it would remain straight and if held upright it wouldn’t flop over. We got 5/5 and a piece to take home.

Having made some rope we were allowed into the ropehouse where rope is still made today. An impressive building. As sail turned to steam the need for rope declined and in any case, by the time that the Royal Navy had become the world’s premier sea force the need for a site that guarded the English Channel was no-longer as important. The Empire’s horizons had broadened.

HMS Victory may be docked in Portsmouth but she was commenced in Chatham in 1759 and only ready for sea service in 1778. A vessel such as she would have required about 70 kilometres of rope weighing 71 tonnes.

Our next stop was the museum alongside. Even as the Great War approached the Royal Navy’s sights were still firmly turned on our evil neighbours the French and to that end we created the Cressy class of cruiser as a reminder to them of our military heritage (they may well have scoffed because in the end the French won the war).

In 1914 Cressy and her sister ships were obsolete but kept in commission to be used until they were only fit for scrap. On 22nd September 1914 Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue were all caught in the North Sea by U-Boat U 9. Aboukir was sunk and the other two were soon finished off as they tried to pick up survivors. This instigated a change in protocol at the Admiralty. Capital ships would no-longer stop to pick up survivors. They were too valuable to lose.

Our time on site had played out and we hadn’t really been on a boat. Future visits will allow us to visit the Navy’s last Second World War destroyer: HMS Cavalier and the very last ship to be built at Chatham HM Submarine Ocelot.

My only point of issue with the visit. The beer from the dockyard brewery was grossly over priced. If I had realised the price before handing the bottles to the till I would have almost certainly put them back on the shelf.

Posted : 25 June 2013

Travel, England