14 September 2019
As a reward for all the long walks, or maybe out of guilt for having signed me up for a marathon without my knowledge, Commando arranged a little treat for this afternoon. This came in the form of a cruise, although not the kind most people would imagine when they think of the port of Southampton.
We were not going on one of the giant cruise ships that go in and out of the Docks. We were going on a far more interesting ship, at least to my mind, and we didn’t even need any suitcases or passports. The ship in question was the SS Shieldhall, a preserved steamship, and we would even get a chance to look around her engine and boiler rooms.
The walk from the car park to Dock Gate ten was longer than either of us expected but I’m not averse to a bit of walking. As we approached the gate I stopped to take a photograph of the mass of colourful containers piled up behind the fence. With the song, Little Boxes, going through my head I fished around in my bag for our tickets, prepared to be questioned by the guards. The only other time I’ve been inside the Docks, I was working at Silver Helm and even Arabella had to show a pass to get through. These guards let us by with barely a glance though.
Now, according to Google Maps, we had to turn right at the roundabout and walk along West Bay Road until we reached Imperial Avenue. Before we did I stopped to take a photograph of the Solent Flour Mills building. Built in 1934 for Joseph Rank, the founder of Rank Hovis McDougall, this was the first building on the two hundred acres of reclaimed land that made up the Southern Railway New Docks Estate. It continued to mill flour for the famous Hovis loaves until last year, when it was closed. What will happen to it now is unclear but, as it’s a landmark I have seen from a distance all my life, I wanted to get a picture while I could. Sadly, it wasn’t a very good one as we were too close.
The walk from the dock gate to the Mayflower Cruise Terminal seemed to take forever. The long straight road is featureless, unless you like looking at rows and rows of cars, vans and lorries lined up waiting to be shipped off somewhere. Although the terminal is named after the ship that took the pilgrims to America, this is not where they embarked on their journey. The land we were walking on was all sea back in 1620 and both Mayflower and Speedwell left from the West Quay close to the modern day Mayflower Park.
As it turned out, we did not need to go inside the terminal, which is mainly used by Carnival UK for Cunard and P&O Cruises. Instead, we were directed around the corner and right onto the dock. This seemed unreasonably exciting and I stopped to take several photographs of the dockside cranes, the building and Commando standing in front of the silver dome of the Marchwood power station.
As we followed yet more directions towards the Shieldhall, it became clear why we hadn’t boarded via the terminal building. High above us we could see the airport style gateway. This would, undoubtedly connect to the gigantic Carnival cruise ships via a bridge, also much like an airport. Our little ship had the far more traditional gangway arrangement.
Before we finally showed our tickets and boarded we stood back to get a proper look at the ship. Just two hundred and sixty eight feet long Shieldhall is minuscule when compared to the modern cruise ship monsters. She is, however, the largest working steam ship in Britain and a member of the National Historic Fleet.
Shieldhall had a less than salubrious start in life. She was built on the River Clyde in 1954 by Lobnitz & Co of Renfrew, in the style of a 1920s steamer. Her purpose was to carry treated sewage sludge down the river Clyde for Glasgow Corporation and dump it at sea. In a tradition dating back to World War I, she also carried passengers on pleasure cruises during the summer months. Despite the rather unpleasant cargo, it seems cruising on Shieldhall was popular.
We climbed the gangway with a great deal of anticipation. Commando’s engineering background includes building warships so the construction of this ship was interesting to him. Her hull is, apparently, both riveted and welded because she was built in the period when welding took over from riveting in British shipbuilding. My interest was more to do with her being a steam ship, with machinery very similar to Titanic, although on a much smaller scale.
Despite the longer than anticipated walk, we were some of the first passengers to board. We took advantage and had a good walk around before things got too crowded. On the boat deck, the lifeboats were of particular interest. So much of my research into the crew of Titanic has revolved around lifeboats, davits and falls, it was interesting to see the real thing. For a while I stood, imagining the dark cold night of 15 April 1912, the davits swinging the boats out over the icy water, crewmen sliding down the falls to man the oars. If only there had been more of them back then.
Shieldhall was always a step out of time. Built in the style of a 1920’s steamer, its teak decks, traditional fittings and classic lines are more reminiscent of the nineteenth century than the twentieth. Steam power was already old fashioned in the 1950’s, more or less obsolete, but she has survived as a kind of time capsule, a reminder of simpler days.
While we explored, the ship slowly got more crowded as other passengers arrived. We went below decks for a quick look but decided to leave visiting the engine room until the ship was underway. In one of the narrow corridors we met a group of pirates. At least they looked like pirates, complete with flintlocks and tricorn hats. We exchanged good afternoon’s then walked off wondering if they were passengers like us, some kind of entertainment we didn’t know about, or crew? If they were the former, we were decidedly underdressed.
We emerged into the sunshine again just in time to see someone who looked as if he might be the Captain, or maybe First Officer, walking purposefully towards the gangway. It was almost time for us to set sail, if you can call travelling on a steamship sailing? It was also time to find somewhere to sit, preferably with a good view.
First we took a quick, and not especially successful, selfie. I really hate having my picture taken. Then we bumped into another group of strangely dressed people. These were less pirate, more Victoriana, a style I recognised as steampunk. When I said as much to Commando he gave me a strange look. He had no idea what I was talking about but he was very taken with one man’s hat, a pith helmet decorated with all manner of cogs and wheels. We spoke to them and found out they were part of the Gosport Steampunk Society. Despite my own rather offbeat fashion sense, dressing up isn’t really my thing but I loved their costumes and the amazing attention to detail.
We managed to find some folding chairs just as the ship began to slowly inch away from the dock. There was an initial puff of smoke from the funnel, then the steady chug of white steam. Two swans with a trio of cygnets came alongside and seemed follow us for a while.
The steampunk pirates joined us on deck and we chatted as the ship slowly turned. Now our interest in this most unusual ship was overtaken by our interest in the landmarks we were passing. We stood at the rail revelling in this different view of our beautiful city.
The view of the Solent Flour Mills from the water more than made up for my earlier inability to capture it properly from the land. We saw the rows and rows of vehicles we’d passed earlier and had great fun spotting familiar buildings like the Civic Centre clock tower. Nothing seemed to be quite where we expected and, much like my experience at Compton Lock looking back at the hill in Twyford, the land seemed far flatter than my legs told me it was when I walked it.
Then there were the other ships. Some, like Independence of the Seas, seemed impossibly large and slightly too gaudy for my taste. On a ship that size, we both agreed, we’d spend more time being lost than enjoying ourselves. The galleon like tall ship moored close to the triangular glass atrium of the Grand Harbour Hotel looked more my style or maybe the little speedboat zooming alongside us.
Each time we passed a ship there was an exchange of greetings, toots and whistles, along with puffs of steam from Shieldhall’s funnel. Sitting right beside the funnel was turning out to be quite loud but rather fun all the same.
We passed the ruins of the old pier, picking out the spires of St Michaels and St Mary’s, the Wool House, May and Wade’s Warehouse and even my old office block. Thinking of sailing into or out of Southampton I’d always imagined the medieval walls dominating the view but I was born several hundred years too late for that to be the case. In reality, the ancient is well hidden behind the modern.
The harbour master tooted us as we approached the Ocean Cruise Terminal. Beside the shiny new terminal building Commando spotted the little red Calshot Spit Lightship our boys had so enjoyed seeing on childhood trips to Ocean Village. “I wondered where that had got to,” he said.
Now we were heading to the point where the River Test and the River Itchen converge. We passed more gigantic ships and the giant cylinders of the grain terminal. Then we caught a glimpse of the Itchen Bridge with the Woolston waterside in the foreground and the green hills of home behind. Nestled somewhere in all those trees was our little house.
The tower blocks of International Way looked more like hotels from this vantage point. The gold of the shoreline could easily have been a sandy beach if we didn’t already know it was shingle and shells. The thing that stuck out was how green everything looked. From the water, Weston, Netley and Hamble could have been mistaken for a forest. So many times I hear people moan about our city, grumbling about every building that goes up or comes down and expressing shame at what all the cruise passengers must think as they sail into port. Perhaps they should all take a cruise because, from the water, with the sun out and the waves sparkling, it looked pretty wonderful.