A Weekend in Bristol from a Scottish Perspective – Chairman’s Blog No. 4

Supporting the preservation and operation of paddle steamers Waverley and Kingswear Castle

A Weekend in Bristol from a Scottish Perspective – Chairman’s Blog No. 4

PSPS National AGM 2007

In the Chairman’s Report of the autumn 2007 Edition of Paddle Wheels, our chairman included some very kind words about the age profile of the Scottish Branch Committee and also its ability to combine hard work with socialising. I thought it might be an idea to write a few words about the 2007 AGM in Bristol where some of us managed to combine both the work and socialising elements with a degree of success. The 2008 AGM is to be held aboard The Maid of the Loch at Balloch so hopefully this account will also whet your appetite for this forthcoming, IMPORTANT event.

I make no apologies when I say that the Scottish numbers that attended at the AGM in Bristol was embarrassingly low, only four or five of us. When one considers the number of members who made their way from south of the border to attend the national AGM when it was last held in Glasgow, it makes such a showing by us Scots in Bristol doubly embarrassing. I know that the Scottish AGM had perhaps more in the way of organised activities for visiting members but, as this account will hopefully show, one would have to try hard to not find entertainment on a weekend in Bristol. Hopefully this account will serve to let our members see how important it is that we support the Society on a National level, and that such activity can be enjoyable.

A party of four Scottish Branch members had agreed to make the trip; Gavin Stewart, Shelagh Holt, Aileen Kerr and me. On arriving at Bristol International Airport from Glasgow courtesy of Easy-jet, we made out way into Bristol Town centre and checked into ours respective rooms at the Ibis hotel. Unfortunately I had to then get back to the airport as I had someone else’s luggage! Ripped lime-green tee shirt and jeans, studded belt and caterpillar boots are fine if that’s your thing, but perhaps unsuitable for the AGM! Once all that had been sorted, we settled down for a bite to eat in the bar in the hotel. The Ibis is ideally suited for a nautically themed Bristol week end, being in the heart of the redeveloping Floating Harbour area. Just across from the hotel, our ship Balmoral could be made out in the night with just a couple of lights on, reflected in the still waters of the harbour. Our walk to this venue for the AGM would be a short one. Eager to sample some of the Bristol nightlife we made our way into the town centre and settled into the Bunch of Grapes bar where we enjoyed a couple drinks and live music. I was eager to reacquaint myself with a modest sampling of the wide variety of Ciders available in this corner of the country that just cannot be found in Scotland. Some were more palatable to my relatively uneducated Scottish taste than others. All seemed to be fairly potent. Caution and moderation were definitely orders of the day.

Saturday morning dawned fairly dull and grey, but undaunted, after a hearty breakfast, we made our way from the hotel to the town centre once more, this time with the benefit of daylight. I spent much of the morning telling anyone in our party who was prepared to listen, just how much regeneration had taken place since I last spent anytime in Bristol in 1988 when I spent the season on Balmoral as Motorman. In fact the regeneration, if such is the right word, in both Bristol and the good ship Balmoral, is most impressive in both instances. After a wander around the shops we stopped at one of the seemingly countless coffee shops before heading back to the Hotel to get changed for the AGM. En-route we bumped into none other that PSPS’s most famous Scottish ex-pat, Douglas McGowan. An impromptu exchange of pleasantries, Paddle Steamer memorabilia and raffle tickets ensued! We soon bid our temporary farewells, promising to meet in The Shakespeare after getting changed, before heading en-masse to Balmoral. On such an overcast and chilly day it was indeed pleasant to find Balmoral well lit and heated despite being well into the winter season. We filed past the entrance to the dining saloon, laid out with culinary delights that were to follow the business of the AGM.

At 2 o’clock prompt the 2007 Annual general meeting got underway in The Britannia Lounge of MV Balmoral (above). I am not going to recount the actual business of the meeting as; apart from it probably being reported elsewhere such as Paddle Wheels, YOU SHOULD HAVE COME IF YOU WANTED TO KNOW WHAT WENT ON!

On completing the formal business of the day we retired to the dining saloon where I was delighted to find Ollie was one of the team serving up teas coffees and a cracking selection of home baking. I well remember Ollie from his days as Motorman, when he and Willie Ross (with the assistance of a couple of engineers!) made up one of Balmoral’s most formidable ever engineering departments!

After a short presentation by a representative of Fred Olsen and the accompanying Prize Draw, we were free to leave the vessel… or so we thought. Iain MacMillan intercepted us to carry out gathering of empirical data from the ship’s toilet system. In other words he wanted to know how much water was used in an average flush. Having removed strategic chunks of pipe Gavin and I were each invited to complete a standard flush which was then measured. I should emphasise that all we did was flush the toilet! The results were, one gallon for me and six litres for Gavin, if you must know. No doubt the benefits of this particular piece of voluntary work will become apparent by next season.

Our evening meal was in an Indian restaurant close to our hotel where we were kept up to date by phone and text message on the Scotland v Italy football score as there was nowhere this far south televising the great event. Needless to say, by Full-Time a reasonable degree of sorrow-drowning was required. Dave Elms, another Balmoral work-party stalwart had joined us for the meal. He must have felt as though he was at a funeral wake rather than a nutter’s night out.

The next morning, after meeting in the hotel lobby we set off for our much anticipated trip to see SS Great Britain. What a treat we had in store for us. When I was working on Balmoral at the end of 1988, Engineers MacMillan and Muir had set off to look round the Great Britain, leaving me to strip out scavenge valves. On their return it seemed that I had had the more interesting day as the few bits of the Great Britain that had been restored had not been that impressive. Well, things have changed by 2007(see below).

Our first part of the tour was to the bottom of the drydock. Anyone who has had the misfortune to spend any time at the bottom of a drydock will know them to be usually cold, draughty, damp fairly unpleasant places. Not so at SS Great Britain where the dock has been completely roofed over around the ship’s water line. This glass and steel structure, with a few inches of water on it gives the slightly unnerving perspective of looking up at the ship from underwater. Equipped with heating and dehumidifying equipment, the drydock environment is, uniquely, a most comfortable environment.

Close inspection of the hull reveals a few thin-to-the-point-of-being-a-hole areas, prompting that strange compulsion from some of our group to rap the hull with their knuckles, as though to test the soundness of the plating. Go on, admit it, we’ve all done that at some point! Numerous information boards stationed around the hull explain items of interest such as the part of the hull that was buckled and patched in the area where the ship had broken its back during its derelict years in the Falkland Islands. The information boards also informed us that Brunel had in fact originally designed the Great Britain to be a paddler!

Our next part of the tour was round the exhibition centre. The highlight for me was the full scale working replica of the mechanism for disconnecting and removing the ship’s screw to eliminate its drag whilst the ship was under sail. Impressive in any event but all the more so when this operation could be carried out whilst at sea, without the need for anyone to “go over the side” at that. If only Waverley’s wheels could be similarly retracted for maintenance work, or when engaging a secret gas turbine under the galley for that extra burst of speed!

On then to the ship itself where we were treated to faithful recreations of the ship’s different classes of accommodation; from steerage, which according to some of our party, bore more than a passing resemblance to Waverley’s infamous, pre-rebuild “Eight-Berth”, to the sumptuous first class dining saloon with it’s marble pillars. Many of the areas have dummy passengers and crew, to add considerably to the realism. Some areas also had authentic smells which also added to the realism!

There is limited access to the upper levels of the engine room, a truly dark and gloomy place where it would appear that four engineers had to co-ordinate their efforts on the control levers located in each corner of the engine room, one for each cylinder, by means of four interconnected voice pipes. This was obviously not designed with Waverley levels of engine movements per minute in mind.

The only part of the vessel not as yet refurbished is the forward fifty or so feet below prom deck level, with no decks in place and access by some open grate walkways. Although barren this open area of the ship gives a good impression of the scale of the hull as well as what appears to be some of the earlier mast foot locations, Great Britain having sailed with several mast arrangements, from Clipper to Windjammer.

For the final evening of our trip to Bristol we returned to The Bunch of Grapes where again there was some excellent live music and, armed with the wisdom gained on the Friday night, I avoided some of the more destructive Ciders.

So there you have it. A trip to the National AGM is what you choose to make of it, and a city like Bristol is just asking to be visited by those of a nautical leaning. It even almost has a paddle steamer. If only Brunel had stuck to his guns, who knows how the PSPS fleet might look in the 21st century!

So my message to our membership is, if at all possible, GET INVOLVED in such events as the National AGM, even if it is not on your doorstep. You might, just might find that you enjoy yourself!

The National AGM 2008 is on ps Maid of The Loch at Balloch Pier, Loch Lomond on Saturday 22nd November.

In addition to the usual Society business there will be opportunities to view the steam engine which drives the winch on Balloch Slipway (above) in operation, a meal in Maid of The Loch’s Queens Room followed by a presentation by the Scottish Branch.

See you there? Go on….you know you want to!!!

[signature name=”Stuart Mears”]