Normal – A Moveable Feast?

Another week and another set of announcements for the ‘new normal’. Last Friday it was the beginning of compulsory face coverings in shops, then earlier this week it was the abrupt announcement of 14 days quarantine on returning to UK from Spain and then this morning I heard the seven-day self-isolation for suspected Covid is to be increased to 10 days.

Many people find change difficult, but if you take a moment and glance across the last century for example, you see it is normal for humans to live with a constantly changing world. It is the pace of change, when it is fast and furious, that unnerves us. And, global crises, such as world wars or infectious pandemics or even the invention of the Internet bring with them discernible change. Of course, most change is slower and continuous, we probably don’t notice it, but it is nevertheless happening.

Last week a couple of the old Thames barges turned up and tied up on the Ipswich Waterfront. They were from Maldon, just down the coast in Essex, and they have been the first and only old barge visitors to dock at Ipswich since the lockdown. They are a beautiful example of how we adapt and change and then accept a new normal.

A hundred years ago there were many of them sailing up and down the coast moving the grain grown in East Anglia, the country’s bread basket, down to London. They were an everyday sight for the folk of Ipswich. Nowadays, only a few are still seaworthy, some have been converted to fixed ‘dwellings’, but many have or are rotting away abandoned in the marsh creeks of Essex and Suffolk.

Pin Mill is a picturesque village on the River Orwell and it is also a boat graveyard. A variety of wooden-hulled vessels are slowly disintegrating on the riverbank including several old barges.

Adaptation is a key mechanism of evolution and survival, and so it has been for the Thames barges. They have adapted from transporting grain to hosting curious visitors and have gained a new lease of life as tourist attractions. Yes, the Coronavirus crisis has brought many changes, but taking people on trips down the river, outside on deck, is still possible although with fewer people on board – it’s the new normal.

Old Thames Barge ‘Will’ with, in the background, the Salthouse Harbour Hotel and Neptune Square apartments built on the site of the old dock warehouses.

Where were the ships?

Bedecked-with-flags-one-JollyRogerLast weekend the Ipswich Maritime Festival took place. This year’s theme was ‘Pirates’, but to my big disappointment no tall ships turned up at the Ipswich Waterfront. I had been hoping for a visiting replica brigantine, or failing that, a nifty, suitably bedecked, sloop. According to nautical history both brigantines and sloops were favoured by 18th century pirates. Despite the restrictions (no hoisted sails within the dock area), a brigantine moored up along the quayside with a Jolly Roger fluttering in the breeze would have greatly added to the ‘pirate’ themed festival.

Of course the old Thames barges, Victor and Thalatta, that are based in Ipswich were present and they were joined, visiting from Harwich, by the Thames barge Kitty with her eye-catching green hull.

hames Barge Kitty
Thames Barge Kitty returning to Ipswich Waterfront at dusk during the Ipswich Maritime Festival 2018.

Along the quayside there were a variety of attractions amongst whom were representatives of the King’s 18th-century navy, sailors and marines, as well as a fine living statue of Admiral Lord Nelson himself! My goodness did the children jump when he came to life to greet them!

Nelson-actor-statue
Statue of Admiral Lord Nelson or not!

And, what is this   .   .   .   .

Escorting-Jack

I think some of our younger visitors were quite overwhelmed and just a little intimidated when coming face to face with the star of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’  Jack Sparrow. I wonder at what age, if ever, we outgrow the thrill of seeing up close a celebrity favourite even if they are only a look-a-like! I have no idea what the kids thought of the giant octopus hanging out (literally) at the Old Customs House. I was less than impressed and thought it simply looked large and bizarre.Visiting-octupusAnother oddity, and new to me, were the daytime fireworks. I think these might have been more effective in a different setting where the coloured smoke could have added some mystery to an old castle or a still dark lake. As it was the mundane background of boatyards and a muddle of yacht masts were all too prosaic.

However, the best event of the festival this year was definitely the Saturday evening fireworks – my photographs are better than last year’s, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Maybe next year I will remember to bring my tripod!

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Spotted amongst the Dunkirk Little Ships

Thistle-dockedIf you have been to see or are going to see the latest Christopher Nolan film ‘Dunkirk’ then you will have seen or be seeing ‘Xylonite’, an old Thames Barge. The film ‘Dunkirk’ is a dramatisation of the evacuation of over 330,00 Allied troops from the sandy beaches of Dunkerque in northern France. These shocking events took place between 27th May and 4th June in the summer of 1940 during World War Two.

Xylonite-shot-still-film-Dunkirk
Thames Sailing Barge Xylonite. Still from Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’.

Please excuse my ignorance, but I didn’t have any prior knowledge about the role played by any Thames barges during the Dunkirk evacuation, but as I watched the film I spotted a type of boat I thought I recognised. And, yes, I did. It was one of the old Thames barges. Currently (as I write) several very similar sister barges are moored at the Ipswich Waterfront one of which is ‘Thistle’ (top photo) recently arrived joining ‘Victor’ (featured in a previous post), ‘Thalatta’ and ‘Centaur’.

In real life, in 1940, thirty Thames barges took part in the evacuation, but only a handful of these vessels have survived into the 21st century. ‘Greta’, ‘Ena’ and ‘Pudge’ are still sailing and ‘Tollesbury’ is currently being restored whilst ‘Beatrice Maud’ is used as a houseboat.

Pudge-and-Repertor

Last month several other barges visited the Ipswich port and moored at the Neptune Quay amongst the visitors was the beautiful old, Dunkirk survivor ‘Pudge’ .

This historic sailing craft has quite a story to tell  and the quote below (taken from her website) relates her WW 2 exploits.

Her working life as a cargo carrier was interrupted in spectacular fashion by the Second World War when she was requisitioned in May 1940 whilst in Tilbury, drafted to Dover and thence to Dunkirk to aid the evacuation. Three barges including Pudge were taken in tow by a tug and crossed the Channel under cover of darkness. As they reached the beaches at Dunkirk an explosion lifted Pudge out of the water and, in the words of her skipper, “she came down the right way up”. She took onboard survivors and set off for England, picking up a tow from a tug on the way, to arrive safely back at  Ramsgate.  Pudge is one of only four of the Dunkirk Spritsail  Barges that survive. Pudge is a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and is entitled to fly the flag of St. George.

Pudge-sailing
Pudge in full sail. Photo from Barge Trust http://www.bargetrust.org/dunkirk

And, what of the film star ‘Xylonite’, well, she has recently been put up for sale and is yours for a cool £425,000 fully restored!

Xylonite-interiors

Postscript
Just a thought, but I wondered why none of the original Dunkirk barges ‘Pudge’ , ‘Greta’ or ‘Ena’ were chosen for the film. Perhaps it is because they all have black hulls and it is easier to see and film the khaki uniformed soldiers against the pale bluey grey hull of ‘Xylonite’. And, maybe an aesthetic choice too as naturally the whole film has its own restricted palette of muted blues, greys and sandy colours into which ‘Xylonite’ neatly fits.

Working waterfront – Sunday snapshot

CruisersAt first glance visitors to Ipswich Waterfront see a marina packed full of yachts and motor boats all bobbing up and down on their moorings.

 

However, it’s not long before you realise there is much more to the area than weekend sailors and their cruisers. There are three boat trip vessels based at the marina, one of which is Victor, a magnificent old Thames barge.

Tourists can board Victor for river trips down the River Orwell towards Harwich, Felixstowe and the North Sea.

Docked-SuntisDuring the week there is also working traffic. Ships, such as this cargo ship, Suntis, shown here delivering a cargo of timber, arrive from ports across the North Sea. Boatyards dotted along the quays are busy even during the summer months moving sail boats and cruisers lifting them in and out of the water for regular maintenance.

Ipswich-working-dock-marinaThese big old, Thames barges have been sailing up and down the River Orwell transporting cargoes to and from Ipswich docks for over 100 years and the other weekend another four joined Victor mooring up at the Neptune Marina.

Four-Thames-bargesAlthough the boatyards are closed on Sundays, it can still be busy at weekends as various motor powered RIBs and other inflatable craft buzz around the dock area in between the tacking dinghies.

Tacking

So that is a Sunday snapshot of Ipswich, one of England’s oldest towns, reinventing itself for the 21st century.

busy-Sunday-sailing