Tall Ships Regatta, Blyth 2016: Northern Soul finds its sea legs
I’m the first to admit that I know very little about ships. A lifelong fear of swimming has meant that apart from a school trip on a ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge – and a channel crossing from Dover as a five-year-old – I’ve not spent a great deal of time on the water.
But I’m as susceptible as anyone to a certain nautical charm, and I don’t just mean that time Alan Bennett read the shipping forecast on Radio 4. I’ve always loved coastal towns along the North Sea, in turns deep, tranquil turquoise in summer and blown white and black by the winter winds. While Britain’s maritime narrative often sits uncomfortably within our post-colonial history, there’s something in the fact that Britain as an island nation means that the sea, our coastlines, and the ships that sail there continue to delight and fascinate.
The arrival of the tall ships in the North East is always an enjoyable occasion. This year it was the turn of the coastal town of Blyth to host the regatta, which it did with characteristic local pride and aplomb, putting on firework shows, staging musical scores and hosting tens of thousands of visitors to the area over a bank holiday weekend that was mostly drenched in sun, but also briefly literally drenched on a very wet Sunday morning which saw the masts of the ships rising up against a thunderous sky.
To mark the occasion, the ferry operator DFDS put on a special cruise along the North East coastline from North Shields to Blyth and back again to watch the Parade of Sail, the starting line of the epic tall ship race from Blyth to Gothenburg, Sweden. I went along to witness this unique experience.
First things first. Princess Seaways, the ferry we were to spend the day on, is massive. Approaching on foot from the car park, it dwarfed the terminal building with its funnels and decks rising high into the air. Gone are the days when North Shields thundered with the noise and smoke and industry of the shipyards (giving a lecture at the North Shields Theatre Royal, Oscar Wilde once stepped out of a carriage in the coastal town like a glamorous alien in furs, an image as pleasing as it is impossibly juxtapositional). The Port of Tyne is still very busy, though, and you frequently see ferries, liners and trawlers gliding up and down the river. On misty evenings the fog horns boom and rattle over the empty streets and shopping precinct, and the lighthouses, now electronic, flash warning to approaching ships in the dark.
After checking in, there was a short wait while the passengers were allowed onto the ferry in stages. Hundreds of people milled about in the waiting lounge, drinking coffee, consulting maps and setting up their cameras. Slowly we shuffled aboard. Blinking blearily as the morning sunlight danced on the industrious old river Tyne, I took my place against the railing on the lower deck and watched the seagulls gliding nonchalantly by. The sun glared down as we started to move out of the port.
There’s a sense of possibility that comes from standing on the deck of a ship, looking out of the mouth of a river to the endless blue of the sea, yawning out against the sky as if it might all go on forever. I may well have been only journeying the few miles (around ten) from North Shields to Blyth but, at that moment, I could have been trading Newcastle for New York, my backpack at my feet my only belongings in the world. With the late August sun now high in the sky, I watched the coastal towns of Tynemouth and Whitley Bay slide past, and I wondered what it must have been like before easyJet and Ryanair made it possible to jump on a plane for less than £100 and find yourself in Antigua a couple of hours later.
Announcements over the tannoy informed us of the day’s schedule as a jaunty nautical tune crackled and popped in the background, straight out of a Graham Greene novel. I wandered indoors and looked at a map of the ship: the shops, the bars, the casino, the cinema, the cabins, decks and lounges. My eye was caught by hulking shapes passing by the window.
Three carrier ships are anchored just off the coast of Tynemouth and have been there, empty, for some weeks now; reportedly their owner has gone bust, leaving the ships abandoned while they await their sale. They made for an eerie sight as we passed them, and my imagination went into overdrive, picturing skeleton crews and ghosts and captains steadfastly refusing to leave their ships.
All romanticising aside, it was time for an issue of a more pressing matter: lunch. With the standard passage on the ship you received a packed lunch, which people ate sunning themselves on the top deck, whilst the ship’s ‘troubadour’ sang Neil Young’s Heart of Gold in the Sky Bar. My ticket, however, included a buffet lunch indoors. Humming the Echo and the Bunnymen tune of the same name under my breath, I headed down to the Seven Seas restaurant, a pleasant, bright room with windows on all sides affording a panorama of glittering blue.
There was an impressive spread of food, including lots of seafood that looked incredibly fresh – I nibbled tentatively on a piece of smoked herring, but remembering suddenly that I’m a vegetarian of four years and don’t eat fish, I guiltily washed it down with a slug of orange juice, and returned to the buffet. Happily, there were plenty of veggie options, and I settled in the end for a weighty slab of vegetarian lasagne and a salad, followed by a delicious mixed berry compote. As I was finishing off my lunch, a commotion around the windows on the right side (or, should I say, the starboard side) announced the arrival of our first ‘tall ship’, drifting majestically by with sails puffed out like a hazy watercolour from a Turner painting.
I grabbed a banana from the fruit stall and rushed up onto the deck, where there were suddenly hundreds of people gathered, cameras poised at the ready. By this point the tall ships were well into their parade, tossed by on the crests of the waves, the water choppy from the engines of the ferry. I struggled to find a spot where my view would be unencumbered. Everywhere I looked was a sea of binoculars and SLRs. I eventually settled near the stern of the ship, with the tall ships passing by and heading into the distance before me.
Reading the leaflet handed to me by a helpful DFDS crew member, I’ll admit to being a little disappointed to learn that most of the ships, resplendent with their bellowing sails and intricate rigging, are not actually as old as they look. The oldest ship in the regatta – ‘Swan’ – dates from 1900, but it looks far older. The majority of the ships appear to have been built in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and have been taking part in the tall ships races every year. The ships hail from across Europe, with vessels from Poland, Russia, Holland and Norway making appearances. The crews on board waved merrily to the hundreds of assembled onlookers, well-practised in being the subject of dozens of clicking camera shutters.
Like a model boat in a glass bottle, ‘Shtandart’ appeared on the horizon. A Russian ship built in 1999, this is an absolutely stunning replica of the 1703 frigate constructed by Peter the Great. A yellow flag rippled above the several sails that caught the sun and the wind and carried the ship out to Scandinavia, but to me it may as well have been a Jolly Roger. This is a ship straight out of a storybook, and surely, I thought, it must be steered by an ancient mariner. As Shtandart elegantly swayed over the waves into the distance, I couldn’t help but be swept along in its graceful grandeur, forgetting, momentarily, that I was on a ferry on a bank holiday Monday by Blyth.
More ships passed, surrounded by a flurry of smaller yachts and lifeboats; the shore of Northumberland was seething with activity, the presence of the tall ships having invigorated these coastal communities, bringing paragliders, helicopters, yachts and speedboats in droves to the water. Scores of people lined the coastline in the distance.
Alas, the DFDS ferry was not bound for the distant shores of Gothenburg, but instead a return to the Port of Tyne. After an announcement (that, unfortunately, was virtually inaudible due to the sudden powering of Princess Seaways engines), the ship swung round and began the return journey to North Shields, taking its prime place among the Parade of Sail. Suddenly tired by the sea air, the sun, and all the sightseeing, I sat down on a locked chest (still caught up in the maritime mood, I imagined it full of treasure) and soaked up the atmosphere.
While this was only a day-long journey, based upon the experience on Princess Seaways I’d highly recommend a trip with DFDS. The service, the food, the ship itself – all were excellent. Of course, the main positive to travelling by boat is the scenery. It must be possible to tire of looking at the sea, but if it is, I have yet to experience it. As Keats once said: “Oh ye! Who have your eyeballs vexed and tired, feast them upon the wideness of the sea”.
Images by Imogen Kate Photography and Lyndsey Skinner
When: August 29, 2016
Where: Port of Tyne, North Shields to Blyth, Northumberland
For more information on DFDS cruises, click here.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.