Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

England: Monkey business in seaside town

Hartlepool has a magnificent marine heritage, writes Dana Johannsen.

Women in Georgian costume with the HMS Trincomalee. Photo / Chris Armstrong
Women in Georgian costume with the HMS Trincomalee. Photo / Chris Armstrong

A monkey seems a strange symbol for one of the North of England's most proudly maritime towns, for centuries a coastal port, fishing centre and shipbuilding hub, and right now host of the annual international Tall Ships Race.

But as you wander round the charming seafront of Hartlepool, admiring the majestic sailing ships gathered from round the world for this event, monkey memorabilia is everywhere ... monkey mugs, key-rings or, for the budding young investor, monkey-shaped money boxes.

So what's the monkey connection?

My question was met with a long pause before Claire, one of the guides at the Maritime Museum, sheepishly recounted the tale of the Hartlepool monkey.

It's not a nice story but, inevitably in this place built on the sea, a maritime connection is there.

During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked off the Hartlepool coast.

At that time, Britain feared a French invasion and much public concern was felt about the possibility of infiltrators and spies.

The local fishermen, fearing an attack, kept a close watch on the French vessel as it struggled against the storm, and, after it sank, turned their attention to the wreckage washed ashore.

Among the flotsam was one wet and sorrowful looking survivor, the ship's pet monkey, dressed to amuse in a military-style uniform.

The fishermen apparently questioned the monkey and, unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like, concluded it was a French spy. A trial was held on the beach and the unfortunate creature was to die by hanging, with a fishing boat's mast providing a convenient gallows.

The monkey-hanging legend is the most famous story connected with Hartlepool - one locals haven't always had a sense of humour about - but Claire kindly tucked a little stuffed monkey into a gift pack for me. In light of what happened in the legend, I couldn't bear to part with it.

These days, many of the industries the town was built on have declined but the sea continues to bring prosperity, tourists and, this week, about 100 tall ships from around the world - and, it is hoped, one million visitors. The ships arrived in Hartlepool at the weekend after sailing from Kristiansand in Norway in the second and final leg of this year's tall-ships race and the fleet of spectacular vessels has redefined the skyline at Hartlepool's famous Victoria Dock.

In days, they will bid a grand farewell in an impressive parade of sail but the town is hoping the legacy of the festival will remain long after the glamorous old girls disappear over the horizon.

Certainly, people with an interest in maritime history have much to enjoy as a result of a co-ordinated plan to regenerate the town and attract visitors by playing up its maritime past.

Transforming the former docklands area into a marina about 10 years ago was the crucial first step and it has proved a huge success. Today, hardly a spare berth is to be had and, on a sunny day, a constant flow of visitors admires the boats as they pass through the lock gates.

Another key project was the development of the award-winning Hartlepool Maritime Experience, a museum recreation of an 18th-century seaport, with shops of the period including chandlery, gunsmith, swordsmith and naval tailor.

A favourite with visiting children is the paddle steamship, PSS Wingfield Castle, built by local shipbuilder William Gray in 1934 as a passenger and vehicle ferry at Hull. These days, it's a venue for pirate parties and good spot for an inexpensive cuppa with a view.

But Britain's oldest fighting ship, HMS Trincomalee, holds centre stage. It was brought to Hartlepool in the early 90s for restoration over a 10-year period.

Built in India in 1817, the Trinc, as she is affectionately referred to, has had a long and varied life.

The old ship had two commissions as a naval frigate before becoming a training vessel for youngsters to learn basic nautical skills.

By 1986, it was thought the Trincomalee's best days were behind her.

The ship fell victim to changes in nautical training and a drop in the number of schoolchildren requiring the seagoing skills she offered. It was planned to scuttle her in the harbour.

Thankfully, as the second-oldest ship afloat (only the USS Constitution is older), it was decided that restoration was a more fitting fate for the priceless relic from the age of sail. And the Trinc does steal the show at the maritime experience.

With masts towering majestically over the scene and cannon at the ready, her true scale is best appreciated in an onboard tour. From the opulence of the captain's living quarters to the cramped and treacherous conditions more junior crew members endured, you get a sense of what it was like to live on the sea more than 150 years ago.

But, as I explored the ship, a visiting school group found the musty, lived-in smell offensive. One young girl exclaimed on entering the lower decks: "Oh, it stinks, it absolutely stinks."

Children. They can be cruel. Give the poor old girl a break. She's nearly 200.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates has daily flights from Auckland and connects direct to Newcastle from Dubai.

Further information: You can find out about the Hartlepool Maritime Experience at hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.com and there's information on the Tall Ships Race at hartlepooltallships2010.com.

North-east England: For details of accommodation and attractions in north-east England see visitnortheastengland.com.

Dana Johannsen travelled to Hartlepool courtesy of One North East and Emirates.

- NZ Herald

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