Monday, October 07, 2013

Abandoned Ship

The sight of a decaying ship compels the viewer to contemplate and speculate on its history. The same, I suppose, goes for derelict buildings, ancient coins, works of art and even so-called ‘senior citizens’. A ship is different, though: its decay and demise tend to be far more staged and drawn-out, allowing the world more time to ponder its past. Perhaps being the great-grandson of a Master Mariner (Figure 67.1) stirs me to think in this way.

Figure 67.1: My seafaring ancestor, MM William Sandeman of Dundee, Scotland

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A mere three miles from where I was born, and just half a mile from where my father grew up, one famous old vessel spent its final, incongruous days. The SS Great Eastern, an iron steam ship designed by the world-renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), was, at the time, easily the largest ship ever constructed. Weighing almost 19,000 tonnes, she was employed primarily as a passenger steamer between Britain and North America, and laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

Forty years after her 1858 launch, the Great Eastern was berthed at Rock Ferry, England, on the west bank on the River Mersey (Figure 67.2), and broken up with a huge wrecking ball. The public demolition process took eighteen months, such were the robustness and integrity of the metal structure. To this day, it is possible to walk along the shore and discover fragments of the ship’s keel and hull partially submerged in the silt.

Figure 67.2: Brunel’s ‘Great Babe’, the SS Great Eastern, moored at Rock Ferry in the 1880s

Copyright expired. Photograph: Allan C. Green (1878-1954). Source: State Library of Victoria

Of course, the late 1880s were a little before my time. There is, however, for the benefit of any current shipwreck enthusiasts, another vessel – albeit only a quarter of the size of the Great Eastern – beached on the coast of North Wales. The TSS Duke of Lancaster, a passenger ship (Figure 67.3) formerly owned by the State-owned British Railways, operated from 1956 until 1979. Ever since, she has remained landlocked on the Welsh bank of the River Dee (Figure 67.4) and can be seen from miles out beyond the estuary. Immediately after permanent docking, she served as a highly original ‘Fun Ship’ tourist attraction. However, commercial success was fleeting. The perennial short-sightedness and stupidity of local politicians – never reluctant to pick fights using other people’s money – saw to that. The ship’s abandonment and subsequent dereliction became inevitable.

Figure 67.3: The TSS Duke of Lancaster, while operational in the 1970s

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Figure 67.4: The Duke, today, as seen from above

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I took my family to see the forlorn Duke in the summer. (Access is tricky. The best option is to park at the nearby Abakhan, a very popular fabric store, although it would be correct and courteous to pay it a visit and buy something first. From the rear of the car park, walk along the adjacent path, under the railway bridge, keeping left until the ship comes into view.)

My kids were not overly impressed. The youngest was even a little spooked. In fact, I doubt I have ever witnessed a scene more desolate. Grey clouds seemed to descend just as I took out my camera. Everything was cordoned off with razor wire, suspended above unkempt shrubs, and the sounds from the busy fabric store were too distant to be audible. It was ghostly, as if by design.

The ship’s exposed body has recently been covered with bold, brightly-coloured graffiti, some of them quite grotesque (Figures 67.5, 67.6, 67.7 & 67.8). Much of this artwork has been completed by a Latvian artist who goes by the name of ‘Kiwie’. Disregarding his more sinister creations, the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ and lifelike portrait of the ship’s first captain are admirable.

Figure 67.5: Going nowhere, thirty-four years and counting

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Figure 67.6: The captain looks not dissimilar to my great-grandfather (Figure 67.1)

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Figure 67.7: The ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ are visible in the centre of the picture

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Figure 67.8: ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned.’
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

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Despite the evident rust and ruin, the vessel is reputed to be in relatively sound condition. Ever the dreamer, I wonder: what will remain of her in ten, fifty, one hundred years’ time? I cannot say, but I am certain that she will remain at that same spot until every last rivet has corroded to dust.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery