Sunday, November 30, 2014

SS Nomadic, Belfast

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SS Nomadic today in the Hamilton Graving Dock
Belfast has a long history as a centre of marine commerce and construction. Of all the thousands of boats and ships built here, one name stands out above the others: Titanic. Pretty much everyone knows the story of how it was built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff – along with sister ships Olympic and Britannic – and, after encountering an iceberg, went to a watery grave somewhere in the North Atlantic, around 450 miles east of New York. You’ve seen the movie, listened to endless renditions of that song, and had the opportunity to buy all sorts of Titanic-related merchandise of varying levels of tastelessness. Belfast, of course, has been as good as any in promoting and marketing the city’s links to the ill-fated luxury liner. We now have the fantastic (and incredibly popular) Titanic Belfast experience [Website | Facebook | Review | Video] and the wonderful Titanic exhibit at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum [Website | Facebook | Video]. I’ve been to both on several occasions, and love them dearly … but they’re not without drawbacks. The Belfast Titanic centre is lacking in original artefacts, while those at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum are all behind glass. I never thought that either of these were drawbacks … until I visited an original Titanic artefact you can not only touch, but stand on, sit in, and walk through!

Chapples Minor await the start of our tour
The SS Nomadic was built by Harland and Wolff for the White Star Line. She was to be based in Cherbourg and used as a tender to bring luggage and passengers out to Titanic and Olympic, neither of which could berth in the shallower waters of the port. Her keel was laid down on December 22nd 1910 and she was launched (to relatively little fanfare, I would imagine) on April 25th 1911. The vessel could carry up to 1000 passengers and was divided into first and second class areas – but never the twain shall meet! A small area at the aft end of the lower deck was used for the overspill of passengers from her sister ship, SS Traffic. Nomadic was designed to be part of a seamless, luxurious experience (for those in first class, at any rate) and the ship was kitted out to the same high standards as were found on-board the liners she served. She arrived for duty in Cherbourg in June 1911 and on April 10th she transported 274 passengers out to Titanic, anchored in deeper waters. Among the great and the good she transported that day were Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, his wife Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon, millionairess Margaret ‘the Unsinkable Molly’ Brown, and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim.

SS Nomadic and the Titanic centre
So there you have it! One day in the sun and poor old SS Nomadic was no more! Well, you could be forgiven for expecting that, as that’s where the Belfast and Titanic connections end. However, that’s not where Nomadic’s adventures end and that’s not where the tour ends, either! War broke out in 1914, and from then until 1919 she was employed as a minesweeper and patrol ship. She also worked as a troop ship, ferrying American soldiers at the port of Brest. She eventually went back to tendering duties before being sold off by the merged White Star and Cunard Lines (getting renamed ‘Ingenieur Minard’ in the process). During World War II she was back in service, taking part in the evacuation of Cherbourg and operated as, among other things, a troop carrier and minelayer out of Portsmouth. Post-war, it was back to tendering from Cherbourg for such liners as the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Queen Elizabeth. She lay idle for some time after being decommissioned in 1968, but was eventually bought and converted into a floating restaurant, being moved to the Seine in Paris in 1974. When the restaurant failed, the Nomadic was seized by the French authorities in 2002, who removed large parts of her remaining superstructure. Nomadic eventually ended up in Le Havre and, after the restaurateur’s death in 2005, they sought either a buyer for the vessel or, failing that, to sell her for scrap. Although there was huge interest from individual Titanic and Industrial Heritage groups, along with wide public support, the requisite €250,000 could not be raised, and in early 2006 the Northern Ireland government stepped in with the necessary cash. Soon after, Nomadic returned home to Belfast and the hard work began. The NI Department for Social Development set up the Nomadic Charitable Trust to oversee the conservation and restoration. In this they are supported by The Nomadic Preservation Society who raise funds, conduct research, and publicise the ship as a tourist attraction (long may they thrive!). Along the way several million pounds have been raised and spent bringing the ship back to close to its original glory. Some of the most obvious and historically significant work included the £2m contract awarded to Harland and Wolff in 2011 to restore, repair, and rebuild (where necessary) Nomadic’s steelwork, along with repainting in her original White Star Line livery. Comparing the photographs of the hull that arrived in Belfast in 2006 – significant, but sad – with the accessible, refurbished, and vibrant vessel we have today only underlines the effort and dedication poured into Nomadic by all concerned.

Stern section
So … if you head round to the Hamilton Graving Dock (where, incidentally, Nomadic is believed to have been originally fitted out) what will you get to see? Initial entry is by guided tour only and tickets (very reasonably priced, too) are available from the refurbished pumping house. Once on-board you’ll be taken around the entire ship – stem to stern and first class to third and the crew’s quarters too – by a truly knowledgeable guide. When we visited it was as part of a pretty diverse group – I was there with the Chapples Minor (ages 5 & 7), there were a couple of Japanese tourists keen to take in the sights, and a pair of very well informed maritime engineering enthusiasts. And still our guide managed to make each part of her tour interesting and engaging for all age and interest levels. Once the tour is complete, you are free to wander back across the ship at your lesiure and revisit places at your own pace. And you will want to! While the tour itself is excellent, the ship is kitted out with a nice balance of text-and-photos display boards and the increasingly ubiquitous interactive touch screens. The displays also use a small number of projected holographic-style encounters with Nomadic’s crew and Captain (I’m sure there’s a technical term for the technology, but it eludes me), along with simpler dressed mannequins, sets, and specially recorded ‘noises off’ to help bring the ship to life. All of these elements are skilfully combined to produce a really engaging experience. I would, however, offer one word of warning to the prospective visitor – do not imagine that this is a quick trip, twenty-minutes-and-you’re-done affair! To the best of my recollection, the tour lasted for at least an hour and a half (admittedly, this was partly fuelled by the engineering enthusiasts asking technical questions about engine power etc. and the Chapples Minor asking if they could play with the screens and wooden toys). Even still, we spent another hour retracing our steps to take more photographs (me) and play with the various toys etc. (them … and me too!). However, no amount of persuading and cajoling would get them to try on the dress-up sailor uniforms! If you’ve got the time after all that exertion, or simply need the opportunity to recuperate, you can purchase teas and coffees in the first class lounge and imagine times long past in this beautiful, historic ship.
The rather grand 1st Class toilets
The more utilitarian 2nd Class toilets
I do, however, have one minor criticism of the display. As this may relate more to my own lack of knowledge of early 20th century French seafaring, I am very much open to correction on this point. It’s the crew’s quarters in the bow of the ship. I’m willing to ignore the iron-framed bunk bed that doesn’t appear to be particularly secured to anything. I’m even willing to turn a blind eye to the ‘typical’ French items of a copy of Le Monde (even if it wasn’t first published until 1944) and the accordion lying on the mattresses. What got to me was the two plates set for dinner (with accompanying brass candlesticks) … one appeared to only be having French bread and the other had a plate consisting solely of French onions. Balanced precariously on a bench was a beautiful basket with bottles of interesting looking wine, wrapped up in twisted newsprint. The whole looked like something out of rustic French eatery than what I would imagine was a more industrial and disciplined environment on-board ship.

Internal staircase in 1st Class
Even taking my single slight reservation into account my message to you in simple: if you’re coming to Belfast this is a must-see attraction. I loved it, my kids loved it, and we’d all happily go back again. It is the last surviving White Star Line ship and among the jewels of our European maritime heritage. Where else are you going to find anything even remotely similar? If you have an interest in Titanic, engineering, seafaring, social history, or simply want a good day out, this is a place not to be missed. It’s educational, it’s brilliantly entertaining, it’s heritage you can touch, feel, and be part of – you’ll love it!

Nomadic in her heyday in Cherbourg © P. Delaunoy 
used with permission of NPS
Original linoleum flooring from 1st Class 
1st Class lounge with touch screens and information panels

1st Class lounge
2nd Class lounge
2nd Class lounge
A meeting with the captain
Reproduction chairs & linoleum go well with a partly
original table and benches
Panoramic overview of an excellent play & learn section
Chapple Minor getting excited by the fun on offer
Learning through play at its best!
I particularly enjoyed the 'build your own SS Nomadic' & would loved to
have been able to buy one in the gift shop (hint hint)
The set of ‘Allo ‘Allo Crew’s quarters
The crew have just stepped out, but they have left their accordion, Le Monde, and
sundry things with 'French' in the title behind them
Forward storage space. There is a cunningly disguised loudspeaker somewhere in here. I was poking about the rather lovely oil lamps on the shelf when the chamber was filled with a cacophony of clanking chains and sundry mechanical sounds. I thought I'd broken Nomadic!
Up on deck to take the air.
The gate visible on the right marks where the 1st and 2nd Class passengers were divided
View astern. One ship. French, British, Irish connections. World heritage.
The end of the tour: exit via the gift shop!
As always, I hope the photos give a feel for Nomadic and encourage visitors from near and far to come see this amazing survivor for themselves!

Kings of the World! Chapples Minor survey the SS Nomadic

Resources:
Nomadic Belfast (tickets, events etc.) | Facebook
The SS Nomadic Wikipedia page (the source of much of the technical data used in this post)
National Register of Historic Vessels (well worth a look, even just for the photos of Nomadic during her refurbishment)