Thursday, 2 April 2009
To Chatham yesterday, to attend the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, including a 25 gun salute and a lunch in the Commissioner's House. The three big field guns rocked the town; 24 single shots and then the three together for the last. I think the gun captain's quivering closing salute might have been directed at Admiral Sir Ian Garnett and Margaret Beckett, but hell, I took it anyway.
In 1981, when I was a pre-pubertal strategic planner for the County Council, the Royal Navy announced it was going to pull out of Chatham Dockyard. I accidentally talked myself into doing an appraisal of the Georgian part of the yard - a historic and architectural gem. The timescale was just two weeks, and I worked into the nights - often in the local pub as the Social Secretary (then my girlfriend), fetched me pints from the bar. I met the deadline and in a very short space of time my report wound up on the desk of the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine. The report argued the case for gifting the historic dockyard to an independent trust or public authority as a living maritime museum.
The Government accepted this, and when the Navy finally pulled out in March 1984, the newly established Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, with a board of eminent trustees and what would prove a woefully inadequate endowment of £8 million, inherited the lot.
My employers offered the nascent Trust initial staffing and administrative support. The staffing support turned out to be me, and so the day after he returned from honeymoon a very nervous Brother Tobias found himself seconded as acting General Manager of a redundant dockyard - the same dockyard to which his father, at the outbreak of war, had reported for training as an engineer officer half a century earlier.
Our HQ was the Old Pay Office, where Charles Dickens' father had once worked. The two tall, Georgian windows of my office looked out past the flag mast of the Captain of the Dockyard's House along the elegant eighteenth century Officers' Terrace. To the left was the No. 2 dock where HMS Victory was built, and the vast structures of the covered slips.
Chairman of the newly formed Trust and my boss was the recently retired Commandant General of the Royal Marines, Lieutenant-General Sir Steuart Pringle. Also part of the team was Deb, a loyally protective former Wren; Ken, a draughtsman from the dockyard drawing office who became our visitor guide; and Joy, a lady cleaner who had been a dockyard employee. With her help I also secured the services of Ron as general handyman (there were uncharted and arcane services running around the yard, including AC and DC electrical supplies at different voltages, steam, sewerage, potable and non-potable water and gas; Ron's knowledge of these proved invaluable).
Between us, we had to look after 84 acres which included over 40 scheduled Ancient Monuments dating from 1697 onwards, dry docks, caissons, cranes, covered slips, pontoons, piers, a steam pumping station, a helicopter pad, mast ponds, stables; a church; a laundry; a working railway complete with a small shunting engine; and a variety of commercial tenants.
For a green local government officer used to the protective carapace of a multi-layered bureaucracy, it was a scary time. For the first time in my life I found myself empowered to take decisions on the hoof, without consultation. At any moment I might be negotiating rents, chasing round the yard after thieves, lying on a sinking pontoon in a three piece suit attaching markers, chugging around the yard driving a Lister diesel tug, or attending a Board meeting. The telephone seldom stopped ringing and it usually brought crises; Trinity House complaining that the lights on Thunderbolt Pier weren't working; a high tide threatening to float the caissons which sealed the dry docks (in 1954 one of these broke free, causing the submarine Talent to burst out into the river, killing several men); failure of a steam boiler bringing production to a halt; someone working on services in some underground chamber overcome by methane; the press demanding interviews...
In my few spare moments and armed with a set of master keys, I made it my business to explore every building, room, loft, tunnel and cavity, from Brunel's sawmill to the Dockyard Church; the Yarn and Tarring Houses; the Anchor Wharf Stores (the largest ever built by the Navy); the quarter mile long double Ropery; the Lead and Paint Mill; the Mast House and Mould Loft (where the lines of HMS Victory's timbers can still be seen marked on the floor); the Sail and Colour Loft; the Joiners' Shop, the Wheelwrights' Shop; the Galvanising Shop; the Smitheries where tools and forges rested amongst heaps of rusting cannons and ferns growing in the half-light; and the silent, secret, World War II and Cold War bunkers many feet underground, which housed eerily abandoned telephone exchanges and command centres. This had been a self-contained enclave capable of building, equipping and provisioning warships without external support. Day after day I trespassed amongst the ghosts and echoes of four centuries of maritime history.
The SS recalls me walking tense and silent around the garden each evening, clutching a glass of gin while I reviewed the events of the day and sorted out the priorities for the next. Aside from someone getting killed, my nightmare was waking to the news that the nation's last surviving timber-framed covered slip, like a vast, upturned ship, had burnt down - as its former neighbour had been. Every weekend I would return with a bunch of sweet-smelling roses for her, thoughtfully cut from the Admiral's Garden or the Officers' Terrace by our secretary and our cleaner.
A crisply courteous, near military culture quickly established itself (addressing the Chairman as 'Sir' came naturally from our respective naval or boarding school backgrounds). One day we were given a demonstration run in a paddle-steamer that wanted to operate from the yard. As I hovered as usual by the General's shoulder (no doubt irritatingly, but he was much too nice to say so), my hands clasped behind me like an obsequious aide-de-camp, the First Officer asked my background. When I told him I was on loan from the local council he raised his eyebrows and said, "Good Lord. I thought you were a naval officer'. I felt I had arrived.
After six fraught months I handed over to my permanent successor, a recently retired naval commander. A week later the Queen paid a formal visit to the Dockyard. Watching in the crowd as he was introduced to her, it crossed my mind that it might have been me standing there. But I wouldn't have known what to say. And after all, it will always be my dockyard.
Posted by Brother Tobias at 12:27