Reporter turns sailor for the day aboard Hartlepool’s HMS Trincomalee

Katy Wheeler makes the climb.
Katy Wheeler makes the climb.

“Don’t look down” said a chirpy crew member of the mighty HMS Trincomalee.

That’s easier said than done when all that stands between you and the icy water below is a Jacob’s ladder and a safety rope.

I’ve no idea who Jacob is, or why he couldn’t have invented a sturdier ladder or a lift, perhaps. But then where would the fun be in that?

For those with a head for heights you can scale the rope ladder, like sailors of yore, to reach the top of this North East icon and Europe’s oldest afloat ship.

She’s a vibrant vessel with a colourful past. Built in 1816 in Bombay, in response to the Napoleonic Wars which ravaged our seas, she was constructed under the direction of master builder of the Bombay Dockyard, Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia – he liked her so much he modelled the ship’s carved figurehead on himself.

The frigate went on to sail to the furthest corners of the globe, from the Antarctic to the Arctic.

Though the war was over, she had other battles to fight in international waters, 110,000 miles of them to be precise, playing a vital role in anti-slavery in Caribbean waters, as well as fishery protection duties off Canada.

Come the latter half of the nineteenth century, and she slowed down her knots to become a drill ship for the Royal Navy Reserve.

It’s here her journey with Hartlepool and, briefly, the River Wear began, encouraging landlubbers to swap the North East for a life on the open seas.

Her grand teak frame rotting and stripped of her fineries, she would spend the next century being moved around the country for various training.

Then, in 1987, she was given new life in her sails and was moved to Hartlepool for restoration. It was a huge, pain-staking, £10.5million task, involving the replacement of frames, planking, masts and rigging. Yet, the dedicated specialist team managed to retain 60 percent of her original timber.

Today, she’s berthed proudly in Hartlepool’s Historic Quay on the site of a former shipyard.

Almost 200 years since she was constructed, she still impresses and around 50,000 visitors a year, from the region and beyond, walk her plank.

Despite being a native North Easterner, this was my first visit to her decks. And I didn’t expect to see quite so much of her on my debut trip.

As I clung on to the rigging, the wind whipping my hair across my face – now I know why sailors had ponytails – the only thing I could do was to keep climbing.

Back then young seamen would scamper up the rigging with no harness, but they are a lot younger and more agile than me, and life wasn’t as precious as it is now. Thankfully, stringent safety measures are in place today to ensure you make it back to the deck in one, dry piece.

As you ascend further, the rigging narrows and your feet struggle to find their footing, but the view from the top of the fighting mast soon beats any fears into submission.

Stood on the spot where the ship’s Royal Marines would fire their weapons, you can take in a panoramic vista of Hartlepool Marina, the town’s football ground and, on a clear day, even up the coast to Sunderland.

“It’s not something we massively publicise, but we have the insurance for people to climb the rigging, it just needs to be pre-booked,” said general manager David McKnight.

Today the vessel looms large on the Hartlepool horizon and she helped to spark renovation in the town.

“This was a shipyard dock, a dry dock that was used for building merchant ships,” he explained. “The area was ripe for redevelopment and she certainly spawned the development of the Historic Quay and indirectly, the marina.

“She was commissioned during the Napoleonic War but by the time she was launched the world was a more peaceful place. So she defended the Empire with anti-slavery missions, which is why she is in such good condition. If she had seen battle she’d be more damaged and couldn’t have been restored to this level.

“Fortunately, we had a very skilled workforce in this part of the world who were able to restore her back to how she would have been in her second commission in the 1850s.”

David explained her importance to naval history, both home and away.

“She’s the second oldest ship afloat in the world,” he said. “The oldest being the USS Constitution in America. She’s incredibly valuable.”

Of course, you don’t have to scale the heights on a visit to Trincomalee, you can keep your sea legs on the firmer ground of the ship which has been restored with great accuracy, above and below decks.

Here, you can learn the history behind some of the phrases we use everyday that stemmed from nautical parlance. “Learn the ropes”, “cut of your jib”, “wipe the slate clean”, “square meal”, “on the fiddle” – all these idioms and more can be traced back to Trincomalee’s time.

A nearby Fighting Ships exhibition also re-creates the creaks, groans, gun-fire and gore of the Napoleonic War.

More recent history is brought home up the road at the Headland. Here you’ll find the Heugh Battery Museum, Britain’s only WWI battlefield site. On December 16, 1914, when German warships bombarded Hartlepool, the soldiers manning the Heugh Battery returned fire at the three German cruisers in a fierce land and sea battle, making it the only location in the country where our land forces engaged the enemy during WW1.

Here you can also get up close and personal to the third largest collection of artillery in the country and can even handle the deactivated 
weapons.

Much like Trincomalee, it helps us get a real feel for the past with hands on history.

•For details on HMS Trincomalee visit www.hms-trincomalee.co.uk and for Heugh Battery Museum visit www.heughbattery.com.