HMS Cavalier (1944) credit Robert Radford

Exploring Coastal Connections

19th April 2019

Deborah Mulhearn takes a whistlestop tour of the locations that celebrate Britain’s long-standing links with the sea…

A ship, they say, is a microcosm of society, so what better way to explore our shifting sense of national identity than in the multitude of maritime museums around our coastline? For all its disruption and divisiveness, Brexit has refocused attention on Britain as an island nation and one with a fascinating seafaring past. From the tip of Scotland to the rocky coves of Cornwall, a wealth of museums of all shapes and sizes tell the multi-layered stories of Britain’s relationship with the sea.

Some take a nostalgic approach to past greatness when Britain ruled the waves, whereas others have more modern perspectives and prefer to peek, quite literally, below decks. They tell of Britain’s role in the world, of wars and trading, smuggling and slavery, shipbuilding and shipping, fishing communities and docks, pirates and privateers, travel, navigation and discovery and the enduring appeal of the sea.

The National Maritime Museum is not strictly speaking a coastal museum, being far up the Thames estuary at Greenwich, but it has the most important maritime-related collections in the country and a sumptuous setting in Greenwich Park. Even better, it is free to enter, and its popularity was boosted last year with the opening of four new galleries.

Tudor and Stuart Seafarers tells the story of Britain’s emergence as a maritime power and the growth of global trade through a collection of intricate and beautiful ship models of galleons and pinnaces. Polar Worlds has stories of British exploration and endurance but also the impact of human activity on fragile environments. Pacific Encounters follows Captain Cook’s voyages from both the British and the islanders’ perspectives, and the impact of the infamous mutiny on the Bounty. Sea Things is an eclectic range of objects that tell the human stories of the sea and make personal links through objects, such as a pocket watch worn by a Titanic victim and a colourful display of ships’ badges.

Travelling in a clockwise direction to the River Medway on the Kent coast, the Historic Dockyard Chatham has played a key role in Britain’s maritime history for over four hundred years. They don’t build ships at Chatham any more, but the site tells the story of shipbuilding activity from the pinnaces that faced down the Spanish Armada in the 16th century to battleships and submarines that protected our coastline in the 20th century.

At Portsmouth on the south coast, the magnificent Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship that was lost in 1545 and raised in 1982, is housed in a purpose-built building. This is a story of salvage and conservation. What you see is not a fully preserved galleon (you’d need to go to Stockholm to see the breathtaking Vasa for that), but it is expertly brought to life through the sights and sounds of life on a Tudor warship.

The Many Faces of Tudor England is a new exhibition running this year that investigates some of the crew through genealogical research and scientific analysis of a few of the reconstructed skeletons found in the ship. The exhibition prompts pertinent questions about identity, trade and culture at a pivotal point in our relationship with mainland Europe, with some surprising conclusions.

Cornwall, the county with the longest coastline (according to Ordnance Survey), has a superb attraction in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, a deserved winner of the Telegraph Family Friendly Museum award. It’s based in a modern architect-designed quayside building in Falmouth and focuses on the maritime history of the county. It also houses the national small boat collection and has a programme of high quality exhibitions.
At Bristol on the west coast, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ss Great Britain was the largest steamship of its day and the first ocean-going iron steamer, crossing the Atlantic in 1845. Unfortunately she had an ignominious end on the other side of the world before being rescued and towed back to her home port of Bristol to be restored as the stunning visitor attraction she is today.

Wales is bounded on three sides by the sea, and its long and twisting coastline once concealed many small ports and trading harbours. These have now almost totally disappeared but the surprisingly far-reaching stories of their global links are told at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea.

Merseyside Maritime Museum, in the renovated warehouses of Royal Albert Dock Liverpool, is one of the most visited museums in the country and rightly so. Its collections are of national importance and there are innovative displays and exhibitions that bring out more diverse and marginalised stories, for examples those of black sailors and Liverpool’s role in the slave trade, investigated in the International Slavery Museum within the same building.

Whitehaven, on the western edge of the Lake District, was the third largest trading harbour in 18th century Britain and it still has a distinctly Georgian feel. The Beacon Museum, however, is in a four-storey modern building with great views over the Solway Firth. It tells the wider story of the social and economic history of the area as well as the town’s maritime links in this often forgotten corner of Cumbria.

The Scottish Maritime Museum, occupying two sites in Dumbarton and Irvine, has an industrial maritime flavour and recently built up its contemporary art collection to complement its celebration of Scotland’s shipbuilding industry. Across the water at Titanic Belfast, the former Harland & Wolff shipyard has been transformed into an imaginative retelling of all aspects of the doomed liner’s short but endlessly explorable story.

The role of women has often been overlooked in maritime heritage, but The RNLI Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh, Northumberland, bucks that trend with the story of the unassuming lighthouse keeper’s daughter who risked her own life to save others when the steamship Forfarshire was wrecked on the Farne Islands in 1838. Grace became something of a national heroine and the museum is packed with personal belongings as well as commemorative objects that tell the story of how she became what we’d now call a media celebrity.

A little further down the coast, the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby is located in the Georgian house where Cook lived as a young apprentice. Its nooks and crannies and domestic scale give it a particularly intimate atmosphere where you can encounter unexpected objects and exhibits such as Cook’s letters and artists’ sketches from Pacific voyages.

Hull’s maritime history reaches back 2,000 years to the Iron Age, and its treasure trove of a maritime museum is currently part of a wider redevelopment of the historic docks area in the city centre. Star objects include a taxidermied polar bear and whale skeleton, and a world-class collection of scrimshaw, carved by sailors on whaling ships. It also tells the more hidden stories of how war affected the civilian population and the merchant fleet, as well as Hull’s trawling and fishing heritage. And if you like maritime paintings, head across the square to the Ferens Gallery, which has a superb collection.

Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth occupies a former fish-smoking factory and tells the more intimate and domestic story of the seaside town’s herring and shrimping industries. There is also a recreation of one of the quaint ‘row’ houses that add to the sense of this as a social history museum as much as a maritime one. There are the smells and sounds of the sea but also gossipy audio guides that give voice to the anxieties and arduous lives of the women left behind when their men are out at sea.

These are just a few of the nearly 300 maritime and ship museums to be found in the UK, all fascinating in their own way. As well as the large nationals and famous ship museums there are dozens of tiny and often volunteer-run museums around the coast that each contribute to our multi-layered love affair with the sea. All this is done through an abundance of objects, from the iconic (Nelson’s bullet-holed coat from the Battle of Trafalgar) to the seemingly inconsequential (a scrap of fabric, a lock of hair).

If you think maritime museums are solely bastions of nostalgia and national pride for a pre-colonial era, think again. Many of them engage with contemporary concerns of trade, environmentalism and exploitation. Few of us get to experience life on the ocean wave. But a romp around some of our brilliant maritime museums is definitely the next best thing.

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