Friday, November 21st, 2008
From a still anchorage under the high cliffs off nearby Dale, the Picton Castle steamed up the estuary towards her old and original homeport of Milford Haven in Wales. Interesting and anomalous sights framed us on either side of the fjord that Nelson once called one of the best natural harbours anywhere. On one hand the hills, cliffs and meadows were beautiful, pristine and the very picture of cultivated natural countryside, even a bit on the wild side; green and windswept, rocky promontories, cows grazing. On the other hand this river is one of the largest oil, petroleum and, soon, natural gas terminals in the British Isles with all the steel industrial pier-heads, big silver pipes snaking across the hills, high stacked refineries in the distance burning off gas and super-tankers that go along with such.
Once past a huge tanker turning around to get to sea with the help of two large tug boats (and with plenty of communication on the radio with Vessel Traffic Control and the tanker’s pilot to ensure a comfortable passing) we pulled into the Milford Haven wet-dock basin by slipping through the narrow open lock open at high water for what is called free-flow. Through the lock, pirouetted around and alongside, we were soon moored in the small basin for the duration of our visit. Under feline protest, Chibley was incarcerated as they do not allow foreign beasts such as her to wander freely about here. She hates this.
Our visit to Milford Haven and arrival had been well-heralded as the pilgrimage it was. Newspapers and signs in shop windows proclaimed “Picton Castle returns to Milford Haven”. Here we have the Picton Castle‘s original home port (she also fished out of nearby Swansea back in the day). Here we have the early Norman castle for which the ship was named. And here we have veterans, ghosts and spirits of the hard fishing life that this vessel once lived. At one time she was noted as a modern state of the art steam trawler, “fitted with electric lights” no less.
We wanted and hoped to share this proud survivor of a bygone day in her new and noble role of teaching the ways of a ship to a new generation with those that knew something of her heritage. We could not have come to a better place. Over the next few days we had visits with former fishing crew and gents who sailed in similar fishing vessels. The Mayor of Milford Haven and retired ships engineer Commander RNR J.W.J.Roberts RD and his wife and senior aids honoured us with a reception at City Hall where we presented him with a flag from Lunenburg. Our crew put on jackets and ties and nice dresses to meet the Mayor. Dressing nicely is more painful for some than others. We had school groups aboard the ship and were open to the public for three afternoons, the crew doing a tremendous job of telling about their ship and getting a good chance to meet local folks. The managers and staff of the excellent museum of the port came by as well. We had the staff of Picton Castle aboard after which we were all invited to visit the castle and the end object of our pilgrimage.
Milford Haven is not an ancient Welsh city. Milford Haven was largely founded in 1790 as a planned “proprietal” town with Nantucket whalers and their families (and their ships) recruited to set up a community based on whaling and the income so derived. Proprietal town means that one guy, a lord or something, owned the whole place. As a planned town of the 18th century, it is laid out in grid pattern just like Lunenburg, another planned colonial town -except this was sort of an American colony in the British Isles at the instigation of the English – all very confusing. At any rate, the town is laid out in squares regardless of hills or contours, also just like Lunenburg. As petroleum is not really much other than a substitute for whale oil, one can say with all the oil based industry and employment here that since two hundred plus years ago little has changed. Fishing is pretty well done here, though, as it is a lot of places, also like Lunenburg. No oil and natural gas coming into Lunenburg anyway.
Our visit to Picton Castle began when the director of Picton Castle and his staff came to the ship and presented us a big beautiful bouquet of cut wild flowers from the castle grounds. The next day we got hold of a small bus and took half the crew at a time up to Picton Castle where we got an excellent guided tour. Nothing at the castle is behind glass or ropes or nailed down, all is accessible and immediate. We were told that the English Royal family stays here when in the neighbourhood, Prince Charles once arriving by helicopter, sending gravel from the driveway everywhere. There was a wing chair for us to try in a lovely sitting room next to a fire place in which good Queen Elizabeth II has napped.
Their website will say more and more accurately, but this castle was built in 1300 as a medieval keep by the Phillips family. The name Picton comes from the fact it was on Picton land if I got the story straight. It was basically a classic square stone castle with tall round towers in each corner and later additions attached here and there. It very much feels like real castle. The main hall is a high room probably about 70′ x 40′ and was completely done up and over in the 1750’s (every 3 to 4 centuries a little remodelling is not out of the question) as a fine finished room which entertained Admiral Nelson and his mistress (and her husband who had a lot to do with the development of Milford Haven) withbeautiful marble floors, fine ornate plaster, paintings and detailing. Back in 1300 or so it would have actually looked a whole lot different and this hall would have been the main living, sleeping, cooking, back-scratching, lice chasing everything-room with heavy wide plank oak floors and dogs and cats and everybody from boss guy to servant lass associated with the place hanging out, full of smoke and fleas. The current ornate fire-place would have been a massive vaulted thing for cooking haunches of venison and radiating as much heat as possible, the high ceiling perhaps to dissipate the smoke that didn’t make it up the flue. No comments on what form the plagues took hereabouts. Elsewhere it took a third or more of Britain. We were told that this castle, although very castle-like, was not situated or constructed for defence even though it is a pretty early Norman castle. The descendents of the family that built the place have only recently moved into a smaller house on the grounds instead of living in a castle – can’t blame them.
The castle is surrounded by woods and soft hills. There is a maze garden and a botanical garden with medicinal herbs from all over the world. There is even a banana palm tree growing with vigour in the garden which shows how temperate it is in south west Wales. The crew were all treated to tea and we gave the castle the last print we had onboard of the painting of the ship by renowned marine artist Bill Gilkerson. There is no actual connection between the ship and the castle apart from the name but that is enough for us. The Phillips family had interests in two trawlers with Picton in the name but not this one. The next wave of Picton Castle crew visiting Picton Castle dressed up in tweeds, ties and long dresses and made a genteel picnic on the grounds after their tours.
We found the last fisherman’s pub here in Milford Haven – the fishermen are getting older and there are fewer of them but none the less, a fisherman’s den it was. The Heart of Oak. Not much to it, a small bar at one end, stools, chairs, table. At the other end a pool table and some benches around the walls. Suitably dark and appropriately close to the quays, rough exposed hand hewn beams overhead on the low ceiling – the whole affair maybe 60 by 20 feet in size – the place was a mariners home from the sea where our crew were well looked after. Evidence of the nature of the regular clientele was everywhere. Framed pictures of steam trawlers just like Picton Castle, dragged up bits of ships such as sea-worn dead-eyes, very ancient and made to take broad hemp rigging, worm-eaten blocks, stone canon-balls and the like cluttered the window sills and any nook and cranny available to accept such human tokens of the deep. None of these were shiny nautical antiques from the marine pub decorator catalogue or bought with money at an antique shop. These artefacts were dredged up off the ocean floor wherever trawlers like the Picton Castle cast their gear and paid for with the dangerous and cruelly hard work of the fishermen who went to sea to feed us and make a living. There aren’t too many ways for a dead-eye to get to the bottom of the sea. Usually a ship has to sink to place her dead-eyes and blocks down there. They also had a number of dredged up fossilised mammoth teeth which we were told are not that uncommon. The denizens of the Heart took our crew in and made them feel at home, sharing the pool table and filling the juke box with pence and pounds to keep the music churning until it was time to head home or closing time which in both cases was about 11:00pm. The Heart of Oak was presented a colour image of this ship under sail to go up next to her sisters steaming along in black and white. The venerable seaport Milford Haven seemed to have gotten a kick out of having their old ship back again and we had a good time too.