Monthly Archives: June 2011

Steampunk Days Out-Chatham Historic Dockyard

In this the second “Steampunk Day Out” we go to the location billed as your BIG DAY OUT: The Historic Dockyard at Chatham. Chatham is an interesting city from a Steampunk point of view. Not only is the Historic Dockyard available but also the Royal Engineers Museum and Fort Amherst (more on the first in another post) can provide interesting ways to spend several hours.
I came to Chatham on Brit Rail from London. The ride was quick and easy, with no transfers. It took less than an hour of effortless comfort to get there. The train station is located a good long walk from the Dockyard. The route takes you past the city center and a very large shopping center. The city center offers a number of shops including the ever useful 99 Pence store (I stopped and got snacks). The walk also passes Fort Amherst, which looked very interesting and at which I hoped to stop when returning to the train station. That plan was put to rest by the extent of the Dockyard’s exhibits and attractions.
Again we’ll start with the basic details. Adult admission is 15.50, which entitles unlimited visits for an entire year. This price includes the entire site and all ships (except the Paddle Steamer, see more on that below) and galleries. There are a few special events during the year that require a separate admission. See the dockyard’s website for additional information on these events. The museum has a huge FREE car park.
Even though I spent all day there I did not see everything on the site. There are three historic vessels and seven galleries, as well as a shop and a nice café. In addition the existence of the World Ship Society bookstore came as a dangerous surprise to my credit card. It was a good thing I had brought an empty rucksack with me.
Of the three ships I boarded two but was only able to really examine HMS Gannet, a partially restored Victorian gunboat. HMS Cavalier, a WW2 destroyer was overrun with a school group which made getting around difficult, and caused me to curtail my visit. I wisely boarded Gannet early before the school groups arrived. She had an interesting life as an active Royal Navy vessel and then served on as a boys’ school for many years. She is being restored to her 1887 condition, when she sailed the Red Sea putting down the slave trade in those waters. She was originally built between 1877 and 1879 as one of the Osprey class screw and sail powered composite gunboats. She was originally armed with 7 inch Armstrong breechloaders and 64 pdr RMLs. The Armstrongs were replaced with 5 inch breechloaders. There are both 5 inch and 64 pdr guns on the ship now. The 64 pdrs are replicas. The barrels look good but the carriage sides seem far too light weight. They give a good impression of what that type of gun looked like. In addition a pair of nice replica 1 inch Nordenfeldt guns are on the ship’s fo’c’s’le.
The docents are very knowledgeable. Their discussion of the role of a Victorian Gunboat and her Captain as representatives of the Imperial government was described in depth. The need for a large Captain’s cabin, in which he could impress local rulers or negotiate regional understandings was brought out. Although much of the vessel has not been restored Gannet is one of a kind, the last of her kind. Standing on her decks allows a person a good idea of the type of vessel that served the British Empire so well for so long. Gannet and her sisters put the “Gunboat” in Gunboat diplomacy.
As I said HMS Cavalier is a WW2 destroyer. She was built in 1944 and served until 1972. Although not period to Steampunk she is still a lovely warship. One set of weapons aboard her that at least look like something the Victorians might have dreamed up are her Squid Anti Submarine Warfare weapons. Designed to fire salvoes of large depth bombs at underwater targets these three tubed weapons may look crude but were state of the art when first mounted.
I did not have time or inclination to explore the submarine HMS Ocelot.
I did look through most of the galleries at the dockyard. The first I saw was the Victorian Ropery. This was an excellent living history display, perhaps history is the wrong word, since the ropery still makes rope on a commercial scale for use. The interpreter was playing the role of one of the female employees who made rope in the late Victorian. After she summarily dealt with a number of disruptive children she proved extremely interesting and knowledgeable. The tour of the building starts on the lower level and the initial lecture and demonstrations give no hint of the space waiting above. The rope walk itself is immense, both wide and hugely long. Numerous ropes were in various stages of production. The Victorian era technology is still in full use and produces both traditional fiber rope as well as more modern materials for commercial sale. It is amazing to think that this system, many hundreds of years old in this building which is, itself well over 100 years old, is still an ideal method for the production of something so useful as rope is great (especially for the Luddite in me)
Right next to the ropery is the World Ship Society bookstore. Luckily for me they don’t send books from the shop via the post. The WSS publishes a large number of interesting titles on both merchant and naval vessels. They also have a very large selection of used books as well. I spent about 45 minutes in the shop and picked up a half dozen useful volumes. I highly recommend dropping in to the shop, even though the dockyard itself has so much to offer.
From the ropery I made contact with the staff of the dockyard. They were extremely friendly and accommodating. With their permission I was able to re-board Gannet to take some close-up pictures of here machineguns which were in an off limits area on the fo’c’s’le. It is always a pleasure to meet with museum staffers that love what they do and where they work. The staff at the Dockyard has a clear appreciation for their mission and the resources under their care.
One of the most wonderful parts of the dockyard is the collection of ships from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. These models are an amazing cross section of the best of the model-maker’s art. As a wargamer I can only drool in envy at the mere thought of putting such amazing models on the game table. Of course a 1/48 scale model of a 1890 battleship would require a HUGE table just for that model. The amazing detail on the builder’s models is simply stunning. Since these models were used as sales tools amongst other things they are exact replicas down to the most minute fittings. The boat storage is complete and correct. Even the coppering punts are there. The gun mounts are highly detailed, searchlights, range finders, navigational instruments are all presents. The brightwork is highly polished and the wooden decks look like the crews have just finished with them. One of the most interesting models was a smaller one of the ship built specifically to bring an obelisk back from Egypt. I found the model and the story of the ship to be interesting (and it is certainly Victorian). By coincidence I found a book on Cleopatra’s Needles and how they came to Paris, New York and London. When a museum exhibit has the power to interest a viewer to seek additional information that exhibit has done its job to the fullest extent!
There is a museum dedicated to the Royal Dockyard and the ships it built there. The history dates from the Armada to the Falklands War. The exhibits are excellent and of the same quality as the rest of the site.
Further along there is a child play area that has a number of small dockyard locomotives. The emphasis here was on the play area, but the locomotives were in great shape, and some were in the midst of repair work. This gave a good opportunity to see some of the normally hidden inner workings of these devices.
The Dockyard bills its covered dock as The Big Space and this is another part of the site that lives up to the hype. A wooden roof over a space large enough to build a Napoleonic era three deck ship of the line would be impressive all by itself. Take that space and fill it with steam engines, lifeboats, a train, the large exhibits from the Royal Engineers Museum and a host of other very very cool items and you really have something! The space might look familiar to folks, since it was used in Sherlock Holmes for the fight scene with the giant French guy that results in the loss of a battleship. The construction of the roof alone is worth a very detailed examination. Beware of the pigeons though, they are legion.
There is an additional vessel associated with the Dockyard the Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle She is a working steam paddle steamer and for an additional fee you can travel down the Medway. She was not steaming the day I was there.
There are a couple of other museums on site, including The Kent Police Museum and the The Royal Navy Auxiliary Service Museum.
To top things off I had a very nice fish and chips at the Wheelwright’s Restaurant. I liked the heavy wooden tables and the rest of the décor. I generally find that museums in the UK take on-site catering to an entirely different place than do ones in the USA.( I still have very bad feelings about having no choice but a McDonalds at the otherwise stunning Udvar Hazy aviation museum). This was no exception. The meal added to the experience rather than being a place to get the kids a burger so they won’t complain.
I whimped out and took a bus back to the train station and headed back into London. It required all day to even cover the parts of the dockyard I did see. I completely skipped the submarine and the Wooden Walls exhibits and spent a bare minimum amount of time on HMS Cavalier and still was there basically on site from open to close.
This is another site I can fully endorse for anyone interested in Steampunk or Maritime history. Plan for a full day


Steampunk Days Out-BLISTS HILL

This is the first of a new series of posts. In these I hope to showcase a number of locations that offer people interested in Steampunk or Victorian Science Fiction a great way to spend a day.

I’ll start with one of the most fascinating places in the world for VSF fans to visit; Blists Hill Victorian Town. Blists Hill’s physical location is near Ironbridge Gorge, in the World Heritage Site. Their web site is

Ironbridge has ten museums scattered up and down the Severn river valley, ( all within a few miles of each other (I will describe most of the other museums in due course). Ironbridge is a few miles south of Telford. Telford is on the main rail lines and bus service runs into the Ironbridge gorge. Telford also has a car rental agency. We stayed at the truly wonderful Coalbrookdale Villa, which is situated fairly centrally. It is a short walk from the Museum of Iron and Engenuity, and from the Bridge itself. The bedroom was very nice, the breakfast (with locally made jams and jellies, including our introduction to gooseberries) was far more than just serviceable. The availability of a car park is always a bonus, as was the lovely view and water garden behind the home. Watching the sheep crop grass while enjoying a high quality “Full English” each morning added to the joy of the visit

Let us get the mundane details out of the way first. It costs 14.95 pounds for an adult ticket. Unless this is the only site you intend upon visiting I suggest purchase of the all access “Passport” ticket, which for 22.50 gives adult admission to all ten area museums for a one year period. There is a fairly large pay and display parking lot adjacent to the entrance. Additionally on weekends and bank holidays a shuttle bus connects all the sites in the area, which means parking is even less of an issue.

Now with the basics out of the way what is Blists Hill and why would you want to visit it?

Rather than a static museum, Blists Hill is a living history site. For several decades careful management has allowed an increasing number of period industrial and commercial buildings to be relocated and preserved on the site. These include working examples of an iron foundry, a blacksmith’s shop, a carriage maker, plumbers, candy makers and many more. Additionally there is an inclined way which represents the much more extensive derelict line on the far end of the site. Sprinkled throughout the site are numerous living historians, from bicycle mounted police officers to craftsmen and women and shop keepers. The smell of coal smoke pervades the site and period adverts cover the walls. The sounds of steam engines mix with the noise of the visitors to present a very period feel across the entire restored town. The various food shops add their aromas as well. It is very easy to mentally move back 100 plus years, to immerse yourself in the period.

From a Hive, Queen and Country standpoint one of the most interesting was the assessor’s office. The living historian at that location had many fascinating facts about the history of surveying. One of the stunning pieces of information this gentleman presented was that the surveying instrument on display was the exact item that was used to survey the Ironbridge itself, at the close of the 18th century. The idea that these instruments were already so advanced by 1779 was a surprise to me. The device looked nearly identical to the ones I used in the 1980s as an archaeologist, except the device from the 1770s was far more lovely, being as were most things from that period an object of beauty that transcended mere functionality. With the need for accurate surveying on Venus this was a great place to fill in my knowledge of period land surveying. The gentleman was a volunteer, as are most of the living historians, and very knowledgeable. He was obviously passionate about his role and the site overall. It was a pleasure to learn from this gentleman and the time I spent there was well worth it.

I was able to interact with several of the other living historians as well. While I learned about the mine winding engine from its operator, the local constable stopped by. Outside of his strange interest in moose the police officer was very interesting as well.

The period shops are also well worth visiting. One of the most amazing is the chemist’s shop. The casework is lovely. The joinery present are some wonderful examples of period woodwork.

Speaking of period woodworking the gentleman that makes rocking horses and carousel animals was not only talented but also very informative about his trade. I did not know that British merry-go-rounds rotated in the opposite direction from those in the United States. A small thing, but a detail I had never heard before.

Another craftsman that was worth visiting was in the Brick and Tile works. Here was a gentleman producing replacements for tiles stolen from a historical site. This facility is one of the only, if not the sole one, capable of producing replacements for some of the unique period tiles if they are damaged or stolen.

The museum shop is very nice and offers not only the common items found in most museums but also a wide selection of the fruits of the industrial revolution, as made by the workers at Blists Hill. The foundry makes many wonderful cast iron items (which sadly use up a huge proportion of a baggage weight limit while flying). Products from the blacksmith’s shop are also available.

Although the fish and chips particularly smelled inviting we just got a light snack near the Victorian faire ground. Previous we had eaten at the pub. Food was uniformly good on both visits.

We spent the better part of a day each time we have visited. I recommend getting there right at opening. Move rapidly into the town and get ahead of the other guests. This will allow photography without the intrusion of the other visitors and their modern dress. Since I generally don’t like crowds this is one way to avoid them. One of the good things about the museum is that there are parts that probably see far fewer visitors than the core area. The path that follows the upper canal and ends at the ruins of the incline was lovely in the early morning and we were quite alone.

If you find yourself near Telford in the Severn Valley Ironbridge Gorge in general and Blists Hill in particular are must see attractions. Plan on at least two days for the area; taking most of one for Blists Hill Victorian Town.