musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

Tag: Avalon

Connections: Woodbine Willie

Many years ago there was a programme on local TV called “Connections” and it dealt with how things connect to form a link between one action and a result. It was fascinating watching it and I have often tried to link things like that in my own life. Yesterday I found a perfect example. The connection between a ship and an Anglican priest and poet.

It starts off like this:

In March 1986 I went to see the QE2 in Durban for the first time.

I did not see her again until 1991. At that time there was a small ship called Avalon in Durban harbour. Formerly the RMS St Helena, she was now seeking a new career doing cruises to the Indian Ocean Islands.

We managed to wangle a short trip across Durban Harbour on board her as she vacated the berth where QE2 would be the next day.  

Both QE2 and the former St Helena were Falklands veterans. In 1992 I sailed on the Canberra, also a Falklands veteran, and when we arrived in Cape Town the new RMS St Helena was alongside and I photographed her from the Canberra.

I mentally set a goal to see whether it was possible to get a trip on board the St Helena, and I wrote away for a brochure. As luck would have it there was a voyage to Tristan da Cunha coming up in 1993 and I was fortunate enough to book a cruise on this mini mailship

Many years passed, and the RMS St Helena ploughed her lonely furrow between Cape Town and St Helena while they constructed an airport on the island. Once it was completed the announcement was made of the St Helena’s last voyage in June 2016. Of interest to me was her visit to the Pool of London, where she would berth alongside HMS Belfast. I decided to head down to London and watch her arrive and say my goodbye to her.

Upon arrival in London I went to see the RMS arrive on the 7th of June, and it was quite an emotional moment for me. 

On the 8th I revisited Kensal Green Cemetery, and afterwards headed into London once again to see the ship. I first visited St Pauls Cathedral, before heading towards the Thames. In the maze of streets I somehow ended up in Lombard Street, and saw one of the many churches in London, it was now the home of the London Spirituality Centre, or, as it was formerly known: St Edmund, King and Martyr.

During my visit the person manning the front desk showed me a number of wall memorials in the church, and she was very proud of a memorial to somebody called “Woodbine Willie”.

 

I had to admit that I had never heard of him before, but the nickname stuck in my mind because Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy was way too much for me to remember at once. Apparently he was the Rector of this particular church at one time. He got his nickname for his habit of handing out cigarettes to troops (Woodbines being a favoured brand).

I continued my walk down to the Thames to say my goodbyes to the RMS and the next day I returned to Tewkesbury to post my blog and recover from my short but exhausting London jaunt. 

Yesterday, I visited Worcester Cathedral, and after seeing the cathedral walked through Worcester, and while I was walking I discovered a number of small bronze statues in the area. I did not pay too much attention to them, just read the names and took the pic. At the one statue I did a double take because the one statue was of Woodbine Willie! 

I was even more amazed to discover that there is a memorial to him in Worcester Cathedral, 

as well as an engraved pane on the Window of the Millennium.

“Woodbine Willie takes the light of Christ to the Troops”

On the 13th of March I returned to Worcester to close the chapter a bit more, walking to St John’s Cemetery where I photographed his grave.

As strange as it seems, this sequence really revolves around how things connected to each other, from the QE2 in 1986 to a forgotten and reluctant war hero in 2017. The key to it is really the RMS St Helena, without seeing Avalon the chances are I would not have recognised the name on the statue. Had I taken a different route in London I would not have seen the church, had I not stopped to look at a statute I would not have read that it was Woodbine Willie. Come to think of it, it is all really the fault of the QE2.

 

There is a stained glass window dedicated to him in St Paul’s Church in Worcester, that will be the last step of this journey. 

Connections, they are all around us if we know how to tie them together.

© DRW 2017. Created 21/02/2017, updated 13/03/2017 

Updated: 13/03/2017 — 18:27

Farewell to the RMS

*Update: 08/06/2016*

I have said my goodbyes to the RMS St Helena. 

 

*Update: 06/06/2016*

The  RMS St. Helena was to have finished with engines serving the South Atlantic island on 15 July upon arrival at Cape Town but has now scheduled three more return voyages into September 2016. The newly completely airport has not been certified due to wind sheer problems. One problem is reputed to be winds and another is the short runway. As a result the service of the RMS has been extended as an interim measure and for a limited period until air services begin. This service will be for passengers and freight. The schedule may be viewed at: http://rms-st-helena.com/schedules-fares/ and bookings will be accepted from Monday 6 June 2016. 

—————————————————— 

Round about this time of year I normally post about the RMS Titanic, this post is not about her; it is about another RMS, one of the last still afloat and soon to sail into history and memory.

My story really starts with the former Northland Prince, which is what the original RMS St Helena was called. I really took a shine to her because she was unique; a real ship with a regular route that was doing sea travel the way it it should have been. Unfortunately she was out of my reach, because by the time I cottoned onto the possibility of sailing on her she had limited time left.

The former RMS St Helena

The former RMS St Helena

A replacement had been ordered for her and after an almost disasterous build the new RMS St Helena was launched. Her builders, AP Appledore, were barely able to complete the ship, and she would suffer from engine trouble almost immediately.

The old St Helena was briefly rebranded as St Helena Island, and once the new RMS came into service rebranded yet again as “Avalon”, She was not a success.  

It was as Avalon that I first got my chance to sail on this little beauty in March 1991, from one end of the Ocean Terminal in Durban to another berth across from Ocean Terminal.  We watched QE2 arrive and sail from her decks,  But I knew then that this ship was unwanted, she was the wrong size, she was old and tired, and she never went very far after that, being laid up in Durban until finally sold for further trading as Indianoceanique. She was broken up not to long afterwards.

But what of the new RMS?

She entered service in 1990, trading along the same route, from the UK down to South Africa via St Helena and Ascension Island, she did occasional voyages to Tristan da Cunha, and was designed as a combi cargo/passenger ship. Her schedule was a demanding one, probably amongst the longest non cruise voyages that you could get. She was also very fully booked, and quite expensive to travel on in South African Rands. 

I got my first glimpse of her from the decks of the Canberra in Cape Town in 1992, and I was determined to try to get a voyage on her.

At that time she was operated by Curnow Shipping as had the previous vessel. I wrote them a nice letter requesting some info on her as I was doing some research, and I received a reply stating that she was doing her maiden call to Tristan Da Cunha in 1993, and there were limited spaces available in her “budget accommodation” The story of my subsequent cruise is on allatsea. It was one of the best voyages that I ever had, and it was on a real ship, not some floating gin palace.

 

It is now 2016, and the RMS is 26 years old, and now on her last voyages. She stopped calling in the UK a number of years ago, and is now managed by Andrew Weir Shipping. In fact she now is now more or less based in Cape Town from where she ploughs her lonely furrow to St Helena and Ascencion. Like the much missed Union-Castle Line, she too will be put out of business by the long distance jet aircraft as a new airport opens on St Helena in May 2016.

Where to from here?

She is scheduled to “return home” to the UK, arriving in London in early June, and will berth alongside HMS Belfast for a few days before making her last southbound voyage. Her future is not secure, and while there are those who are calling for her to be preserved as a floating hotel realistically that will not happen, and unless a buyer can be found she will end up on a beach somewhere being cut up.

She is a unique icon amongst ships, she is a real ship.

I was fortunate enough to see her in London when she arrived and said my goodbyes to her. I have dreamt about her many times, and even though I was never able to sail on her again, I always kept an eye out for her because she was such as special ship.

There will never be another RMS St Helena.   

 She is the last of her line.

© DRW 2016-2017. Created 14/06/2016. Updated 09/06/2016

Updated: 15/12/2016 — 07:26

Remembering the Mendi.

When I originally started photographing war graves and memorials I had very little information about the loss of the SS Mendi in 1917. An occasional mention in the newspapers was as informative as it got. There was one book by Norman Clothier that always stood out, but was almost impossible to find, and so I “went it alone”, producing my first page on the Mendi. There is not much to say here that isn’t on that page already, but oddly enough Mendi material still keeps coming my way.

SS Mendi in happier times.

The death of over 600 soldiers in one incident is not something that is taken lightly, although when you look at it in terms of naval deaths, the sinking of a capital ship can result in over 1500 deaths at a time.  However, what makes the Mendi deaths very sad is how the members of the SANLC and NMC were treated by the government that they were serving, and how little recognition they got for their service overseas. Make no mistake about it, these men were crucial cogs in the line of battle, and who knows how many lives they saved as stretcher bearers. In fact their contribution to the war effort was a major one, but the moment they returned home, they were forgotten.
NMC Collar and cap badge

NMC Collar and cap badge

There are a number of NMC graves in South Africa, in Gauteng the biggest concentration is at Palmietkuil War Cemetery, and it is here that we hope a memorial will be erected to the members of the NMC and SANLC who became victims of apathy in the war department. 
NMC Member, buried in Payneville, Springs.

NMC Member, buried in Payneville, Springs.

In South Africa the Mendi men have a number of Memorials, the most poignant is in Atteridgeville, and there are memorials in Avalon Cemetery and New Brighton in Port Elizabeth and one (which I do not have photographs of), in Mowbray in Cape Town.
 
How many of their family members were ever able to make a pilgramage to these memorials? How many even knew where their sons or fathers or grandfathers lost their lives?  All I know is, today it is up to us to keep their memory alive.
 
The words of Reverend Isaac Dyobha should never be forgotten,  
 
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die… but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazi’s, Pondo’s, Basuto’s, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. “
 
We need leaders like that today in our country, we need to show the youth that bling, alcoholism and ill discipline have no place in their lives. The courage of those long lost African Servicemen is all the example that we really need.
 
DRW 2012-2017. Images and links recreated 23/03/2016
Updated: 08/12/2016 — 07:35
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