Thursday, 25 June 2020


I spent my youngest days (up to 1963, when I was eleven) growing up in Barry in south Wales, attending junior school on Barry Island. Mum's friend Betty lived on the Island, and I seemed to have spent a lot of time there. Barry Harbour wasn't far away from where she lived, and one of the occasional thrills was to hear the big bang, siren, horn, hooter or whatever (I can't quite recall what it was) that was summoning the lifeboat crew for a rescue. Then little legs would run pell-mell up the hill and down to the Harbour, to watch the lifeboat being cast off and launched. It ran down a steep slipway into the water, making a tremendous splash. I must have seen it happen several times over the years. Sadly, never since; I've only witnessed training drills here and there around the coast, generally only with Inshore Rescue boats pushed into the sea by tractors. But I remain ever-eager to be there when a real launch is happening, and I retain a deep affection (and, in adult life, admiration) for the RNLI, its crews, and its lifeboats.

The RNLI have lifeboat stations all around the coast, for the waters around the British Isles are fraught with dangers for boats big and small. Some of these lifeboat stations are at spectacularly beautiful coastal locations. Here's one of my favourites: Porthstinian, westward of St David's in Pembrokeshire. Here it was in April 2010, looking out on the sound that separates the mainland from Ramsey Island offshore, with high craggy cliffs all about:

Isn't it picturesque? But what a big physical effort was needed from each crew member. Arriving breathless at the clifftop, each had to run down a steep flight of stone steps to the beach, then climb a steep staircase to get into the lifeboat house. They must have been wheezing as they donned their waterproofs, wellies and other equipment. The following pix (taken on a return visit in September 2019) will show what was involved.

There were some narrow rail tracks for winching supplies and other things down to the beach, or up from it, but surely not people. 

Evidently in September 2019 those rails hadn't been used for a while!

I'm guessing that the old building down on the little beach, with the red doors, was in fact the original lifeboat house in the days when they used oars. You can see what I mean about 'exhausting steps'. Fagged out from a strenuous rescue in desperate weather, the crew would have had to clamber up to the clifftop again afterwards. The rescued people too, injured or not.

Clearly this was unsatisfactory. The RNLI has a rolling programme of updating its lifeboats and equipment, and the tendency is for lifeboats to get larger and more powerful, needing modern, spacious accommodation. So when I returned here in September 2019, at sunset, it wasn't completely surprising to find that a new lifeboat house had been built nearby. I didn't see it at first. Initially, I saw only the lifeboat house I'd seen back in 2010, just as it was...

...but a few steps further on brought this into view.

Later on in my visit, I was able to get shots of the two lifeboat houses together:

Well! A swish new (and much larger) lifeboat station! Complete with its own lift - the assembled crew could glide down together! No more clumping down endless stone steps in sea boots!

There still were steps, but easy ones you might laugh at and tackle with glee, just for fun. I imagined that the new lifeboat house had every up-to-date amenity for the crew, including no doubt a chill-out lounge, sushi counter and cocktail bar. I jest, of course! Lifeboat houses have to be very functional places. Even so, the crew's comfort has to be considered. 

The lifeboats themselves are most impressive. I had the chance of looking around one in April 2019, up at Wick, in Caithness, in Scotland. I was walking off a somewhat boozy meal at Wick's French restaurant (ah, that French connection; the Auld Alliance yet again). I have to say that it was a pleasant surprise to find a proper French restaurant in one of Britain's most northerly towns. But then, why not? Every place has its quota of people who like sophisticated lunching and dining. I was looking for a nice lunch, and didn't hesitate. The establishment was called Bord de L'eau, which might be a vague play on 'Bordeaux', but anyway meant 'by the water', and indeed the restaurant overlooked Wick's inner harbour, and some tables had a good view of it.

I had halibut for my main, and delicious crêpes for dessert:

I also had a large carafe of white wine, more than enough for two people. I ended up with so much because I couldn't quite make out what the local girl taking my order (who was Scottish, not French) was saying. My fault, not hers. Well, I wasn't going to waste the wine, and managed to drink it all; but you can see that, less than one hour into my lunch, things were getting nonchalant, if not actually tipsy:

Coffee to finish with, naturally.

It was a great meal. Although I must mention two things. First, there was sophisticated conversation throughout, from a chap called Rupert who was holding forth in a most interesting manner. Here he is, at the top edge of this shot my yummy dessert, arm over the back of his seat:

He owned some holiday cottages near Wick, and when I spoke to him later, he gave me this card as a keepsake:

Caithness is the Cornwall of northern Scotland, and no doubt holiday accommodation is at a premium. But of course Rupert won't have been doing any business so far this year. I hope this hasn't meant enjoying fewer meals at Bord de L'eau. 

The other thing was that after I'd finished my dessert, and was sipping my coffee, the chef-patron suddenly appeared, going from table to table to enquire whether all had been as it should be. I happened to be the first table, and since this was an entirely unexpected thing, I was caught off-guard. I know I nodded enthusiastically. I hope - the wine talking, not me - that I didn't blurt out anything odd or silly, such as 'Mais oui vraiment, mon cher!' I might have. Tsk.

Anyway, having eaten well, and drunk rather more than I intended, I decided that I'd best walk it off. It was a bright and dry afternoon, so a leisurely stroll around the southern half of Wick, starting with the Harbour, then out over the cliffs, then back through characterful old Pultneytown to the town centre, would be just right. Here are two maps.

The Harbour is what Wick is all about. Marine servicing, leisure, fishing. The fishing is serious. As I walked along the quay, a fishing person was sorting his catch of live crabs. They were crawling all over each other. He let me take a shot or two. They were locally caught, but destined mainly for Spanish restaurants.

Now that's what I call a crab. Not the titchy anaemic kind of thing you usually catch if you dangle a line off a pier or quayside.

A bit further along, I came to Wick's lifeboat station. The lifeboat is permanently afloat (as it is in places like Weymouth in Dorset) and doesn't need a slipway. It looked like a powerful vessel, very fit for the stormy waters and strong currents hereabouts. 

A man greeted me, called Graham. I think he guessed that I was an early-season tourist, and he offered to show me over the lifeboat. Wow! A personal, one-to-one tour! My lucky day.

We started with the main cabin. Graham was used to showing parties of schoolchildren over the boat. He didn't seem to mind my taking a shot or two. By the way, I was by now perfectly all right. You'd never guess that I'd quaffed so much wine. Graham was nevertheless a bit camera-shy. Or was I in fact still saying strange things?

Next we went below, to where the rescued persons would be stashed, strapped in against the violent motion of the boat in a high sea. With safety helmets. In the corner, a sink: for washing cuts and other wounds, I should think, rather than for making coffee.

Then into the engine room. The most spic-and-span engine room I've ever seen.

Finally, up to the bridge, where one got the best view of the surrounding sea. Most of the instruments at the skipper's seat in the main cabin were duplicated here.

I greatly enjoyed that tour. I've looked over lifeboats before, but never on a one-to-one basis like this. But I have had the chance to talk with crew members before, and and this was the case when I first visited the Selsey lifeboat in Sussex. That's where we are now going. I went back there just the other day.

I'd last been to Selsey - at least, to where the lifeboat station is - in February 2012. I'd taken these black-and-white studies then, with the little Leica:

It was high time I had another go, with the same camera. It was a very bright sunny day, so conditions would be different - stronger shadows, for one thing. Another kind of approach, then.

This time I parked in a different spot, and walked toward the lifeboat station from the east instead of the west. It was a hot day, but I was armed with a large salted caramel ice cream.

However, walking forward, I couldn't see that pier-like structure with the lifeboat house at the end. Where was it? Then it dawned on me that it had been completely dismantled, and a big building erected instead. All in the last eight years.

No fresh take on my 2012 shots then! Never mind. I went up to the open bit in the middle, to see what I could. The public couldn't go inside, but there was the Selsey lifeboat in all its splendour.

It was sitting in a massive cradle with rubber tracks. I couldn't see, but I guessed that at the far end was a tractor to push it onto the shingle beach, over any low-tide sand, and into the sea. Walking round to the rear window revealed the back end of the tractor. 

But I couldn't see enough to confirm precisely how the lifeboat was handled. Later, back home, I was able to take a virtual tour of the Selsey Lifeboat station. And here are three screenprints, which show the launching and recovery system now in use at this location. 

In fact I'd come across this kind of long sled-like tracked cradle before, in June 2017, at Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast:

So, this was the cradle in action, albeit during an exhibition launch for Yorkshire holidaymakers to watch. Judging by the similar identification numbers (13-15 at Scarborough and 13-20 at Selsey), I'd say that these two lifeboats were of the same class.

Well, that's enough for now. The next lifeboat I'll see this year will probably be down at Lyme Regis or somewhere in Cornwall or North Devon, in September. My caravanning destinations in the second half of July are both inland, to keep away from the crowded coast and the extra risk of virus infection. I will also be well away from cooling sea breezes. I hope I won't end up frying in a heatwave.