River of memories
On a recent visit to the North East of England, we were drawn, as if by magnet, to Tynemouth and the entrance to one of Britain’s most historic rivers.
Gazing over the harbour entrance is a magnificent memorial to the Newcastle-born Admiral Collingwood, a British Naval hero who served with distinction in a number of battles including Trafalgar. It is a substantial monument, with four cannons from his ship the Royal Sovereign flanking the steps up to his statue, and a wonderful reminder of the awe-inspiring power and influence Britain once wielded through the Royal Navy.
The River Tyne has seen countless fine ships built in its famous shipyards, and I couldn’t help but think back to some of my own personal memories. It was here as a young third mate in the 1960s that I had stood by the building of the MV Peisander for Alfred Holt & Co (Blue Funnel Line). One of the Priam class, she was built at the Vickers Armstrong shipyard.
These were fine ships and a real departure from the usual Blue Funnel design: she had cranes (Stothart & Pitt) rather than derricks, STELKON heavy lift equipment, air conditioning and a swimming pool right aft. I got to know every nook and cranny of her and during my spell there, I stayed along the coast at Whitley Bay. Sadly, the advent of containerisation would soon sweep these ships away before their planned lives had fully elapsed.
Later in my career, when with the ferry company Sealink, I again returned to the north East in 1974 to stand by the MV Ulidia at the famous Smith’s Dock. Having started life as the MV Stena Carrier, a freighter for Stena Line, she was being converted for both freight and passenger use on the route between Stranraer (Scotland) and Larne (Northern Ireland) following a spell of operating over in Canada.
Memories of the journeys MV Peisander and MV Ulidia then took from these Tyneside yards almost merge together with hellish experiences of the route around the Pentland Firth in the north of Scotland. In the case of the Peisander, we were taking her round to Glasgow to complete her fitting out after a dispute with the shipyard regarding late delivery. It would be fair to say we had a challenging passage through the Pentland Firth. Years later, with the Ulidia on passage to Stranraer, the weather was again extreme, and unfortunately we developed engine problems.
On the Stranraer-Larne route at that time, we had another Tyne-built ship, the MV Antrim Princess, a ground breaking vessel as it was the first of the Sealink fleet to be fitted with a bow door allowing it to operate as a drive-through ferry. It had been built by Hawthorn Leslie & Co at Hebburn-on- Tyne in 1967. This was a shipyard rich in history which had built HMS Kelly, in Lord Mountbatten’s command during World War Two. The Antrim Princess was part of the final chapter of Hawthorn Leslie’s story; the next 15 years would see merger, nationalisation and ultimately closure in 1982.
My favourite vessel in those Sealink days was the Clyde-built TSS Caledonian Princess, but it also ended up with its own role in the history of the Tyne, being moored in the centre of Newcastle and used as a floating nightclub (as the Tuxedo Princess) in the 1980s and 90s.
My visit to the Tyne certainly brought back many memories of its great shipyards and the ships that were built, and I have subsequently been reading Lost shipyards of the Tyne by Ron French and Ken Smith. This book both reinforces the sadness that one feels at the passing of the shipbuilding industry, while celebrating the rich heritage of the Tyneside yards and the proud role they once played in Britain’s maritime history.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR