Sunday, 25 August 2019

WOODEN WALLS

Wandering round Caernarfon's Victoria Dock area with a friend last week I noticed a five ton anchor from HMS Conway displayed on the quayside.  It seemed huge in comparison to the little yachts moored in the marina. And that was only one of the anchors - there were two.  The second is displayed on the other side of the Menai Strait.

A helpful interpretation board gave us more information.  The ship was launched in Plymouth in 1839.  Its original name was HMS Nile and it was a 92-gun three-masted sailing ship.  It was converted to steam power in 1854 and its name was changed in 1875 when it became a training ship.  It lasted until the 1950s - it was one of the last 'wooden walls' to survive ('wooden walls' was the name given to the navy's fighting ships made of oak).

Seeing the photograph of the ship I was reminded how important (and how dangerous at times) these big sailing vessels were - for centuries.    I remember seeing models of these kind of ships in churches in Bergen and Gibralter - votive offerings to give thanks for safety and to pray for future voyages (an adaptation of pre-Christian ideas).

One of Neal MacGregor's examples in his fascinating BBC Radio 4 series, Shakespeare's restless world, was the model ship displayed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (see my blog post of 2 December 2016, 'Over the Border').  Originally made to be displayed in a church (possibly in Leith) its purpose was to give thanks for the safe return of King James (VI in Scotland, I in England) and his new wife, Princess Anne of Denmark, in 1590.  Ferocious storms, which James blamed on Scottish witches ('cailleachs') had almost destroyed the ship and its occupants.  The design of the three-masted warship would have not been very different in principle from HMS Conway.

Votive offering

(for the safe return to Scotland of King James VI and Anne, Princess of Denmark, in 1590)

Here is the ship
that defied the cailleachs
who would have drowned the king,
the hull red as his life blood.
Here is the ship
hung in a church

                            which is a stone ship,
its vaulting nave
an upturned boat,
its rafters a slate-clad keel
and life a voyage ending
in heaven's safe haven.

This ship floats in its airy element, the keel
foreshortened, the rigging a black-threaded web.
Sea gods flourish their tridents, mermaids
clasp the curves of their fishy tails.
A proud lion pants on the painted prow.
Ranks of canon brindle

                                      like wooden pegs
on which to hang a quarrel -
make no mistake, this is a warship -
but what use are canon
against the witches of the sea?

Here is a ghost ship
berthed now
in the museum's dry dock -
a gift to the God whose holy ghost
becalmed the ark on Ararat -
how easily broken, how safe in its glass case.

© Mary Robinson 2019

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2 comments:

  1. I enjoy visits to Caernarfon's Victoria Dock too, I've seen the anchor you mentioned and I really enjoyed your poem. It conjures up the ship then and now. I also visited to Leith harbour in Edinburgh many years ago because my mum was born and lived there in her early years.

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  2. Thanks, Karen. Such a wealth of maritime history in our old docks and harbours. I'm glad you enjoyed the poem.

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