I went to Harwich this afternoon to visit the Mayflower Project. This is a scheme to build a full size replica of the Pilgrim Fathers' ship and sail it across the Atlantic in 2020 to coincide with the four hundredth anniversary of the original voyage, following which it will be moored in Harwich as a tourist attraction. That's the plan, anyway. Nobody knows exactly what the original Mayflower looked like, but they have agreed a set of plans for a vessel that will look pretty authentically seventeenth century above the waterline, while having modern concessions like an engine in case of emergencies and for use in harbours, and navigation lights. At a hundred and forty foot long it would be a bit bigger than a Thames barge.
At the moment there is not an awful lot of ship to see on the ground. They have laid the keel, and erected the bottom section of the stern post and one set of ribs. It is slightly difficult to imagine that there will be a finished and certified ocean going vessel in less than four years' time. But the manager who showed us around was incredibly enthusiastic and energetic, and it could happen.
The project is based in the former rail marshalling yard. They have got the roof back on the old railway shed, which did have trees growing through it. This now houses a workshop and an upper floor giving them a loft for making full sized patterns. They have already managed to put quite a few local youngsters through level one to three NVQs in engineering and carpentry related subjects, including some hard to teach ones who weren't succeeding at school and the odd young offender. The previously derelict station building nearby has been renovated and used as training rooms, and there is a grand plan to turn the rest of the former marshalling yard into a car park so that they can accommodate more than a dozen tourist cars. There is a modest visitor centre at the front housed in a cabin recycled from the Harwich Festival of the Sea a couple of years ago, and a much smarter purpose built visitor centre about to open behind the shed overlooking the yard where the keel is laid, so visitors will be able to look at the work going on even if they can't poke around the yard. There is an enormous pile of oak trunks from the Tregothnan Estate, brought up from Cornwall one by one when there was cheap space available in an empty returning lorry. There is celebrity endorsement in the form of Richard Branson and Stephen Fry.
The manager has a vision of all Harwich's small museums and attractions coming together under one tourist banner, with the railway branded The Mayflower Line. Abellio Greater Anglia are on board for the idea, if they retain the franchise. Local teenagers have been painting brightly coloured panels illustrating Harwich's maritime and railway history, to decorate the line by the station. The dream is that the replica Mayflower will be the first in a line of wooden ships, bringing wooden boat building back to Harwich and offering engineering apprenticeships in the town. Next up is a Viking longboat, if everything works out.
I hope it does. I like Harwich. I fear the sound of Felixstowe docks across the harbour working 24-7 would be oppressive if one lived there, but on a sunny afternoon it is a nice place to visit. The old town has become smarter in recent years, and the waterfront has a jaunty air on a bright summer's afternoon, with the Halfpenny Pier and a former light vessel moored alongside. The Pier Hotel where we had tea after the Mayflower visit has just been refurbished, and featured recently in The Independent as their Cool Place of the Day. It has a spoof of the shipping forecast running in the loo which is almost worth the visit by itself, but the cream teas are good as well. The Systems Administrator and I have been saying we should go to Harwich sometime to pay a return visit to the Redoubt and tour round the little museums and rather good second hand bookshop. If we do I must drag the SA along to the Mayflower project.
Addendum I checked my Wittr app while I was there to check that my piece of battenberg cake had moved and was not stuck in the middle of the lettuce farm, and saw that I was now apparently bobbing around in the middle of the harbour. The app guide did say that it fuzzed your location.