Thursday, May 10, 2012

Day 32 - Historic Dockyard Chatham and on to Tunbridge Wells

Friday 27th April 2012

We have nominated a breakfast time of 8 am. We have both had a pretty good night’s sleep and boy didn’t we need it. Morning conversation is dominated by expressions of wonder at the immaculate presentation and hospitality at Redcot House. We are met as we arrive down to breakfast by Mike who assures us our hot meals ordered last night will be ready in about 10 minutes. Meanwhile there is the most tempting breakfast buffet yet.  There are two little glasses of thick berry smoothie richly inviting in blackberry tones; two glasses of what can only be described as fruit art. I HAVE to have one of each of these they look irresistible.  They don’t disappoint.  There are also two options for juice, homemade muesli and other cereals in individual jars. Everything is immaculate. I suspect that word is going to appear quite a lot in my descriptions of Redcot House.
We can’t stop gushing about how spotless and beautiful the breakfast room is, how pleasant the outlook, how thorough the attention to detail. Look! They have even applied camouflage to the wheelie bin tucked over to the side of the front garden.  I rather suspect that is English lavender in the garden.  How appropriate.  Mike delivers a couple of little home made croissants and two thin slices of soda bread.  Love.  Love is what Redcot House oozes from every pore. You simply could not do a B&B this well unless you either have OCD or you LOVE what you do. Love to excel. Love to get the inevitable praise from visitors. Love to see your visitors have a great time.
In due course our hot meals arrive. Hubby has ordered the Kentish breakfast which includes locally made pork and sage sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, chef’s potato, bacon, baked beans.  He tucks in enthusiastically. Ah how we’ve missed English breakfasts….not that there’s been anything wrong with th breakfast buffets we’ve had on the continent.. but well, done this well in a gorgeous English B&B…. it’s just very very hard to compete.
I opted for the breakfast tortilla which includes Spanish omelet which is molded… is that a heart shape(?) and there is a lovingly arranged little group of roast cherry tomatoes and an optional slice of bacon. Normally the Spanish omelet would include mushrooms but on the ordering sheet they ask if you have any requests about how your breakfast should be prepared. I nominated to skip the mushies.. I really don’t like mushies you see.  Generally the omelet is made ahead and I said that’s fine and really I wasn’t bothered at all, but then Mike 2 insisted - insisted on making me one fresh.
On our table we have a little dish of finely cubed butter; a couple of little pots of jam with cute little sticks telling what each variety actually is; a couple of little dishes of sauce with cute antique spoons to serve it with, salt and pepper of course and in case you’re forgetting just what it is you ordered there’s a little copy of the breakfast menu in a little frame.  We’re in heaven sitting here by the window being waited on hand and foot. I congratulate myself in the selection of Redcot House for our first night back in England.  Well done Snodge. Well done! … and thankyou Tripadvisor.  You hear a lot of controversy about whether Tripadvisor’s ratings for properties are valid. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have chosen our accommodation with help from TA throughout the trip and we’ve not had a dud place yet. Indeed all have been excellent.  Redcot House has to take the prize out of all of them so far. But then I think that at every new B&B we stayed at in England don’t I? As I sit and type this while hubby showers (The bathroom has a heated towel rack, an extra level of heating, a shaving mirror and power points for the job, shampoo, conditioner, body wash and skin conditioner.. it’s immaculate in there)… I hear the gulls cry over the harbour and more latterly some children in the street.  I fantasize about a longer stay here. I’m loving being back in England.
We are late getting away and worse still we haven’t managed to persuade the tomtom to work. Though I have to say Hubby’s efforts have been a bit half hearted. I think he expects that she’ll just come good spontaneously.  English maps are the next best thing to impossible to follow. I’m used to using maps where every road is marked. English maps just seem to give you the major roads or this one we’ve acquired to give us detailed coverage of townships has a ludicrously vague regional map included.  We wander about taking this road and that. We think we’re on the right track and then roads indicated on our map appear not to be open.. perhaps not even finished being constructed.  Are we in the right place? Are we in the place we think we are? We have turned getting lost into an art form. We head towards Margate, we head towards Broadstairs.  The map looks less complicated up that way, surely the right road is easier to find up there.  Time is slipping past.  Stress levels are increasing.  Eventually we find our way to the correct road and begin to make steady progress to our destination.  We pass signs beckoning us to the historic seaside town of Whitstable. I’d have taken that if the tomtom wasn’t on strike. :o(
We transition to the M2 relieved that the navigation should be a bit simpler for a while.  I have heard… make that read it said, with some chagrin on TripAdvisor that England now has good signage though people still think it’s the war and signage has been removed.  I laugh.. (or is that a pained grimace with convulsions) and think that the signage is of only minimal assistance when you have hemisphere disorientation and no clue where the frig you are.  I’m beginning to appreciate the English reports that a short time driving is more than enough and leaves you frazzled. .. perhaps it’s the maps. If it keeps up like this the next week is going to be hell on earth.
As we near our destination I spend a little time perusing the little book of Kent township maps and figure we’d better take the Gillingham exit.  We indulge in only a comparatively small amount of crazy tail chasing before we find our way to the Historic Dockyard and park the car, carefully avoiding puddles of standing water and with only a mild “discussion” about which is the best parking space.  Oh Tomtom. We’re sorry we ignored you yesterday. Please come back to work. Just have a cup of tea and a bex and a good lie down and perhaps when we’re done here you will be feeling better. Please God look after dearest Tomtom.
It’s a beautiful clear morning. Passing cloud, but certainly an improvement from what we were suffering in France over the last several days. It is altogether very pleasant weather to be at the dockyard.  We wander into the ticket office come gift shop and are greeted by someone who’s interested to know whether we’d like to book a time for the tour of the historic ropery and what is the purpose for our visit today.  It’s a question that doesn’t really pay off as I ask if they have any tours similar to the ropery for sawyers.  We wait while consultations are held between colleagues.  Ah… no sorry nothing about sawyers.  :o)
We are distracted leaving the area by a quick browse of the shop.  I note a couple of interesting potential souvenirs and after a moment’s hesitation while we figure out how the doors work, yeah seriously ;o) we’re out into a huge graveled area around which are clustered a number of attractions and signposts pointing you to these and others that are out of sight.
Rolling stock at Chatham. There's lots more at the dockyard to explore than we were able to in one day.
Immediately next door is an attraction called “The Wooden Walls of England”. In this exhibit you follow an apprentice shipwright around the docks as HMS Valiant is being constructed.  It is here that I expect to find the information most relevant to my 3rd great grandfather who was a sawyer at Chatham..and I presume that this means he probably worked at the dockyard.  We head in and find we’ve just missed the start of the scheduled tour. We’ll need to come back here after the Ropery tour. I make a note of the tour schedule and we head off to amuse ourselves until 1:30.
Examining the map, we see that a new exhibition about the history of the dockyard is located right by the ropery.  Perhaps that will give us a clue about how things worked back in the first half of the 19th Century. This therefore slips into a high priority place on the mental list.
Before heading up to the appropriate end of the dockyard, we decide to just do a bit of a reccie into the No 1 Smithery where we find an exhibition of model ships. The exhibition explains what models were used for and takes us through the visit of George III and the use of models to help nurture and feed the King’s interest and commitment in the Navy. The models are interspersed with some portraits of key players mentioned in the panels. Also in this building we have the opportunity to see the pipe bending area and the anchor forging area, but we decide we will need to defer those for now.
HMS Cavalier
As we emerge from the No 1 Smithery, Hubby has spotted something exciting over in the Three Historic Warships area. The historic ships have the added interest of being in the docks.  HMS Gannet is a steam and sail vessel from the 1880s, she’s in water.  Across the way is HMS Cavalier, a WWII destroyer, but there in the middle between the two is HMS Ocelot, the cold war submarine, in dry dock. 
WWII Memorial to the Destroyers
Hubby stands a little taller. His eyes find an extra twinkle and his pace picks up as he beckons across so we can get our tickets to see the sub.  From the side by which we approach we head down some stairs and around the body of the submarine sitting on big chocs of wood and held in position by long planks.  The dock itself is made of stone.  In our travels we have seen some impressive stonework, huge palaces, somber memorials, atmospheric cobbles in quaint villages, but here in Chatham is stonework as important as any in the land.  The Chatham Dockyard is the working man’s history of empire, the history of Naval domination over several centuries.  We pause to consider the enormity of what we’re seeing.
Memorial plaque at the dock where Nelson's famous ship Victory was built. There seems to be some level of  dissatisfaction at Chatham that the Victory is on display in Southampton and not where she was built.
The Ocelot looms above us as we follow the stairs down and under the hull to begin the climb up the other side to the ticket office.  I am swept along in a tide of husbandly enthusiasm as we put together a program of tours for the day with the help of the lady on ticket duty.  As there’s a limited number of people on each tour of the Ocelot it’s a good idea to have a plan to work to. It is increasingly clear that we will be exploring the dockyard for the rest of the day. Lunch will be taking a back seat and will have to slip into a spare half hour, if that, between tours.  We are handed a timed ticket for our place on the tour of the Ocelot and this is carefully stowed away.
Now we’re off to the overview exhibition and our other booked tours. In our wanderings around the dockyard we find an unusual building. It's balconies are attached at quite bizarre angles. It appears to have been sinking.. but there's a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that the odd construction has some sort of purpose.. I just have no idea what that might be and there is no signage about it that we can see.
Arriving at the history of the dockyard exhibition, again we are met by a friendly greeter who, in this case, delays us to nicely explain the simple layout of the exhibition. :o)  The exhibition is contrived mainly from panels of high level information confirming that Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway was a crucial construction and maintenance site for the Royal Navy for some 400 years.  Again we find here that a prominent element of the information is about the visit to the dockyard of George III which resulted in the King making a significant investment in the Dockyard. This historic investment produced many of the buildings that you see today.  There is not a lot of information provided about the workers unfortunately. Just that there were lots of them.  Nothing about where they lived for example, or how they were selected or paid etc. The lack of detail is a bit disappointing at the time, though some of this information is provided in the more specific context of other tours.  We do know that the workers gave a warm welcome to the King. :o)
As we move along the displays there is a section devoted to the docks in the world wars. There were bombing raids on the docks, but they did little damage to the docks themselves, most damage being suffered by the surrounding area. Finally in the 1980s came the Thatcher government decision to close the dockyard.  Reasons for the closure are provided by a copy of a newspaper article. Hubby reads this quite thoroughly and tells me that the reasons seem quite persuasive.  Nearby on a continuously playing loop is some television footage of a statement from an obviously upper crust Naval Officer who says that the Navy was sad to end its association with Chatham after so long.  Construction of this exhibition has not yet been completed and we are easily finished what is in place in the half hour we had available.  Back out into sunlight we walk the short distance to the Ropery for our scheduled tour. We join the rest of the assembled group inside to wait for the start.
There is a picnic ground and play area for the ankle biters
In due course our guide arrives and introduces herself.  She’s been tasked by the boss to show us the ropes ( …groan)... There’s a good sized group and we are led through the process of rope making, initially hearing about how it was done before the industrial revolution.  The back breaking labour involved is emphasized. Then we move on to the marvelous innovations achieved in the industrial revolution  and how they resulted in massive increases in efficiency, but of course, less need for workers.  The tour is presented as though we were in 1875.  Our guide is one of the female workers in the factory and has a wry sense of humour and what seems to us to be an appropriately working class accent. 
Around the room various rope artifacts are displayed and these are explained in turn.  We marvel at rope recovered from HMS Invincible which was wrecked in the solent in 1758.  The tar dipped rope was made here in the ropery and survived over 200 years in the water! They look to be in remarkable condition.
We observe the raw material imported from Russia, and hear about the process of hatchelling to comb and straighten the fibres. Whale oil was used to soften the fibres and make them supple and workable.  Hatchellers worked hard and long. It was backbreaking work.  Compare this to the mechanical hatcheller which could complete the hatchelling in a fraction of the time, impressive statistics are offered as evidence.  The ropery was mechanized during the industrial revolution.  In some areas, where previously the back breaking nature of the work excluded women, now women could be employed to “mind” the machines for a small fraction of the price of employing a man.  Pay was so low, that many women had to use their initiative to come up with additional sources of income.  Mostly these were predictable. Nicking what rope they could, offering “entertainment” to sailors in the town. They were obliged to keep themselves by whatever means was available. Severe poverty offers no opportunity for maintaining the moral high ground. At one point when efforts were made to improve conditions (clearly without adequate consultation) they regularized the working hours across the seasons, but had to change back when the women complained because it cut off their ability to moonlight in additional employment.
The rope walk was built long enough to make anchor ropes for the royal navy.  If you want to walk the length of it allow another 40 minutes down and back!
As we exhaust the opportunities in one space and have an understanding of the basic rope making process, our guide directs us to another area where three of the group have a chance to work together to make a length of rope. As is usual, volunteers are called for and when none are forthcoming, a couple of kids are “volunteered” along with their dad.  The resulting rope is tested to check that it’s of sufficient quality, they can tell who made the rope because a coloured strand is included to identify the ropery so you better make sure that you do it properly.
In use since 1810
Next it’s into the ropewalk.  In the rope walk there is still a commercial concern that makes rope in the historic building, using the historic equipment.  One of the key pieces of equipment dates from 1810 and is still in use. The ropery is the longest brick building ever constructed in Europe.  Our guide explains that it will take 20 minutes to walk down to the other end of the walk and then you have to walk back because there is no exit down there.  The length of the ropery was determined by the standard length of an anchor rope and the length of material it took to make the standard rope.  In about 1906 the building was electrified and windows were installed. Previously the workers relied on natural light and there was limited protection from the elements, so before starting work they would have to sweep the ropery floor clear of leaves and debris that had blown into the building overnight. The whole tour is very well done and very interesting.  Definitely a must do while at the Historic Dockyard.
Women and men working at the dockyards were prevented from fraternisation by having different shift  times and entrances. This is the entrance the women used.
From the ropery we make a brisk approach to the Wheelwright’s café.  Hubby opts for a huge plate of fish and chips with peas, I stick with the quiche of the day.. hold the sides please. Apple juice and coke. Everything wolfed down.  The last thing we want to do is miss the tour of the Ocelot.  I am a little concerned at the slippage we’ve experienced today. Arrived two hours later than planned we’ll have to skip some of the other things we would have done today which will in turn lead to slippage tomorrow. Hubby offers to skip the sub. No deal. I saw how excited he was about it earlier. No chance pretending to be blasé about it now! We just have to go with it and see how it all turns out.
We join the assembled group and in due course an appropriately business like lady comes over and introduces herself as our guide.  She has an aura of authority about her. Perhaps she has been in the Navy herself at some point. She’s knowledgeable; clear in her delivery. She has a crisp no nonsense approach.  I instinctively know that this lady can deal with whatever she needs to, don’t push her.. not that I plan to!  Whatever her background she’s well chosen for leading this tour.
Cold war submarine, HMS Ocelot in dry dock, she was designed and built at Chatham.
Firstly we stand outside while we are given a run down on the anatomy of the sub.  At the front is the radar in that bulbous area on the bow.  Coming further back, and also at the rear of the sub are plates that are raised and lowered when the sub dives to help provide stability in the water.  Large tanks are located on the sides, these are filled with sea water to dive or with compressed air, which drives out the sea water, to surface.  On the top of the sub is the keel.  This has the same purpose as in other vessels, but as the sub needs to be able to sit on the bottom of the ocean the keel is on the top.  There are various periscopes.  The attack periscope. The observation periscope. A third was for communications, and if memory serves the fourth was a snorkel.  Our anatomy lesson complete we head onto the sub itself, mind your heads as you enter. The spaces oblige us to enter and move around in single file, to small areas where we can assemble to hear the information about where we are and what we’ll see as we walk to the next stopping point. 
Our first assembly point is near the torpedo bay. The way we have entered is where they would load the torpedos onto the sub.  With a full load, only the centre strip you see here would have been empty. Here and also at the other end of the sub is the life support and evacuation system.  You assemble everyone together, you don one of the survival suits, attach yourself to the oxygen supply seal the hatch to the other areas of the sub and fill the space with water. Then you open the escape hatch and out you go one by one. Captain goes last in a process that can take up to 4 hours for a full crew.  The full crew always stays together.
The operations area in HMS Ocelot. 
We move through into the crew sleeping area. 22 crew share this little space. All bunks are 6 ft long but headroom varies. Each person gets a storage space 12 inches square, so there’s just one change of clothes and a few small personal items allowed on board. Games are popular.  Petty officers have slightly more privacy and the captain has a small cabin. We check out the tiny, confined spaces in which everyone lives.  The captain has… drum roll please… a small wash basin!  Ah the perks of seniority. Privacy is the biggest perk rather than the space.  You would certainly get to know each other well as submariners went to sea for 12 weeks at a time.
Ocelot is a diesel electric submarine, she has huge engines, but these are not connected to the propulsion, they power the electric motors and they then propel the sub silently.  The batteries are recharged at night. The sub has to sit about 12 feet under the surface with the snorkel up to recharge the batteries. This process will take between 4 and 8 hrs and is a time when the sub is very vulnerable as it can be detected visually and by sound.  We can’t be told what the Ocelot did on operations as they are still classified as top secret, but we learn about life on board and how the sub works, what some of the dials and knobs do and of course we get to peer out the attack periscope; marvel about the tiny spaces crew lived in. It feels like no time at all before we are climbing back up.  This has been one of the top two experiences of the trip for hubby. He’s loved it.  I’m beginning to sense a theme to the things hubby really enjoys. Perhaps one of Bill’s Cold War tours should get penciled into our long range planning.
Deeds not words - HMS Gannet
We have half hour until the next wooden walls of England tour.  This is taken up with a quick look at a model sub from the James Bond film The World is Not Enough followed by a thorough exploration of HMS Gannet. Information panels are provided that cover the vessels life which included different uses and different names reflecting those changes.  After she was retired from active duty she became the drill ship HMS President and later still she was converted for duty as TS (Training ship) Mercury where an interesting woman named Beatrice Fry ruled the roost for some 40 years leaving many colourful memories in the minds of boys resident on the ship during that period.
Time now for the tour of the Wooden Walls of England.  This is pretty much a self guided tour except that you are supervised and there is a young woman in period dress who seems to be responsible for operating the controls in a couple of places.  Essentially there are a lot of elaborate mock ups of the various elements of the process of building a wooden warship and recordings of re-enactments and commentary from characters in the story. All the characters are based on real people and the construction of a real RN ship.  It is perhaps a little old fashioned in terms of the technology employed but it is well done and the content is interesting.  For our own purposes we enjoy seeing the saw pit and hearing information about how the sawyers were remunerated.
Top Sawyer in the Wooden Walls of England
It’s now getting fairly late in the afternoon and we are weary. There is still a lot here at the dockyards we haven’t seen. Once again I miss an opportunity to visit a museum about the lifeboats, I was sorry to have missed the Henry Bloggs Museum in Norfolk too, but there are limits to one’s stamina.  As I wait for Hubby I take the opportunity to have a quick look at some of the nearby exhibits, one of which includes a lot of marine timbers that where recycled as flooring in one of the buildings and which now are providing an invaluable source of material for research.
We have enjoyed our day at the Historic Dockyard Chatham, the world’s best preserved dockyard from the age of sail and in its heyday Britain’s premier warship building and repair yard.   Now we need to bite the bullet and see if Tomtom is feeling better, delayed only by a few purchases in the gift shop including a skipping rope made with rope from the historic ropery.
Bad News. Tomtom is still chucking a wobbly.  We need to find our way to Tunbridge Wells on our own.  I will spare you the trauma of a detailed description of our navigational woes, shall we simply say that the conversation in the car was not light hearted and pleasant.  We did however find our way around some streets we would not otherwise have seen and as it turned out the situation lent itself to my having a look at HM Prison Maidstone.  By this time of course, we have, in desperation, pulled into another service station and spent up big on a couple of A4 sized road atlases. One on Kent and another the whole of Britain. Each seems to provide a different level of detail.  To find your way around in the UK it seems you need a veritable library of directories, but there is nothing else for it and we pay up… though I have to say it was not the happiest purchase of my life. .. so… back to Maidstone.
Maidstone Prison is still in operation. The perimeter wall is one of the only original elements remaining from 1838 (my period of interest, the prison is much older than that).  The prison housed a court complex in 1838 and so it was presumably here that my great great grandfather Harry Skinner was convicted of Burglary on 12 March 1838.  On 10 April the Kentish Gazette reported that on Friday 30th March Harry Skinner along with his partner in crime Charles Frederick Gilbert, (who were 21 and 19 respectively at the time) were removed along with a number of other convicted felons from Maidstone to the convict hulk Fortitude at Chatham.  By the end of the year both young men had been shipped out to Sydney on the Earl Grey.  Gilbert seems to have settled down nicely and his descendants are still resident in the Sydney area. Harry Skinner must have played up as he ended up in Moreton Bay, but later had at least gained enough respectability to be granted a publican’s license.  He must have done alright for himself as it cost a fair bit to pay for such a license.  I’ve no idea what a bystander would have thought if they had observed us circling around the prison and pulling over to take photos!  It’s a bit late for an attempt at jail break!  Anyway, Harry was better off in Moreton Bay than in Kent, so his conviction at a reasonably young age was a bit of a lucky break for him as it was for so many.  One of the factors in the discontinuation of transportation was that it had lost its deterrent effect.  Apparently those that could write were sending word to their families at home with advice that they should “earn their ticket” to the new land. 
From Maidstone we make our way to Royal Tunbridge Wells.  You may notice the distinct lack of commentary on the trip along the way. Perhaps it’s the time that has elapsed before recording my impressions, but I think that it is rather that my attention was focused more on trying to navigate. Sigh.  Without too much bother we are successful in finding Swan Cottage in Warwick Street where we promptly settle in.  Many of the B&B’s we’ve stayed in are really more like small private hotels, but Swan Cottage really has a sense of staying in a room in the home of someone.  We are very comfortable and made to feel very welcome, it’s just a noticeably different context.  Dinner is not provided obviously so we don’t waste time heading out to find a bite to eat.  Our host and his visitors enthusiastically make recommendations among the eateries within walking distance.
We first of all take an ever so brief wander through the Pantiles, doing a little half hearted window shopping and not doing the place justice really.  Everything is closed and we don’t have time to spend on returning tomorrow.  It’s not long before we decide to return to the strip of restaurants closer to home among which, having perused the posted menus, we find the Tunbridge Wells Bar and Grill to be the most tempting.  It is very busy and we’re not too optimistic about getting a table on the spur of the moment on a Friday night, but with a promise that we’ll be out in time for the table to be ready for a later booking we head inside and get busy peeling off our coats.
The Tunbridge Wells Bar and Grill is decorated in a very modern style and they take a different approach to the bread course.  Tiny little rolls are brought to us with a dipping sauce.  We’re already very happy with our choice of dinner venue. If you can be bothered really thinking about the bread course the rest should be of similar quality.  We do quite well on the ordering competition. Hubby’s crispy duck spring rolls followed by Char grilled half lobster w garlic butter is well balanced by my own Tomato soup followed by fish and chips with peas and tartare sauce, although I was a little disappointed in the peas.  I was hoping more for the lovely fresh approach to the peas like we had at Dion in London, but not to worry. If we’d been having fish and chips in Australia we wouldn’t have got the peas at all, so that’s no big deal.  We have run out of time so no dessert.  This is also not a problem, with so much over – indulgence there comes a time when you’re body starts to rebel.
It’s a short and very pleasant walk back up the lane to Swan Cottage where we do our best to get an early night, but not before Hubby is reminded that his wife will not be a pleasant travel companion in coming days if he does not apply his IT skills to persuading tomtom to get back on the job!  He fiddles with this and that and logs onto the website and she starts working.  We still don’t know what he did precisely that made the difference, but she’s back on deck.  Relieved? Relieved is not the word. Tomtom is an absolutely essential piece of kit for a driving holiday in England.

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