It was a return journey to an old favourite destination — Flanders — but with a new perspective.
I’ve been before to Bruges, Ghent and several times to Antwerp.
But I had never visited the WWI heritage sites of Flanders Fields, nor previously witnessed the moving Last Post ceremony [pictured above] at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
It was also my first river cruise assignment after several previous ocean-cruising commissions.
The story is for Telegraph Cruise and will appear in the spring of 2017, timed with the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele.
But here’s a preview:
What struck me most about the surrounding countryside was the dramatic juxtaposition of historical sites and regular suburban houses, where people lived everyday lives untouched by war. Amongst the shrines, monuments and memorials, I sometimes spotted little commemorative crosses, marked with red poppies. One read simply: “Harry. In Loving memory.”
While the captain is struggling to navigate the treacherous tides of the River Mersey, one of the Liverpool River Pilots will shimmy up a rope ladder, come aboard and peel off their waterproofs to reveal a neatly pressed suit before extending a firm handshake and taking conduct of the ship.
It may sound like a scene from the new Bond film but for Chris Booker, Chairman of the Liverpool Pilots, it’s another day at the office.
Liverpool Pilotage Services was founded 1766 and this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum is now hosting the exhibition In Safe Hands: The story of the Liverpool Pilots [pictured above] to explore the vital role of the service in navigating ships in and out of the Port of Liverpool for more than two centuries.
I met Chris at their offices on the Birkenhead side of the river, historic paintings of pilot ships at sail alongside whiteboards of calculations and twin high-tech simulators.
It was at the controls of one of the latter that Chris planned the meticulous set of manoeuvres for Cunard’s Three Queens event last May to mark the 175th anniversary of the first transatlantic crossing.
“We gave our time for free, only being paid for the piloting on the day,” says softly spoken Chris.
“The event brought 1.5m people to Liverpool but we don’t get carried away. We’ve simply got a job to do.”
As we pour over a huge chart of the approach to Liverpool in the Chart Room, Chris points out the natural features that make the waters some of the toughest in the world to navigate.
“Liverpool has a lot of idiosyncrasies: strong tides, westerly weather and a series of locks,” he explains.
There are also some 5,000 wrecks beneath the surface — hence ships entering the Mersey rely on the skills and knowledge of pilots to ensure their safe passage.
Unusually, captains entering UK waters must hand over conduct of their vessel to the pilot coming aboard, integrating him into the team on the bridge. It’s an agreement only also observed in Panama.
“We are not advisors,” says Chris. “We take control.”
Life at sea
Later, over lunch at the Woodside Ferry Terminal, sunlight glinting off the Echo Arena across the Mersey, Chris tells me about his love affair with the sea, a romance that started aged 12 on a coaster with his father, sailing from Yorkshire to Holland.
“I remember it like yesterday,” he smiles. “It was a defining moment.”
Chris went onto study at the Hull Trinity House Academy in before serving an apprenticeship at sea. At 16 he was flying to New York to join a ship trading down the east coast to Central America.
After years as a captain and master with the Mobil oil company, he joined the Liverpool Pilots in 1995. The pilots, already captains, undergo a further seven-and-a-half years of training to gain their full qualifications.
“Having gone round the world as a captain, I wondered, at first, if I would get bored on the Mersey but, just last night, I was piloting gas tanker into the Mersey with one engine in bad weather,” he says.
“It was properly dry-mouth, hands-shaky scary.”
Now aged 52 and with three grown-up sons at sea, Chris has had more than his fair share of sea-faring adventures — from fending off pirates in Nigeria as a teenage cadet to charting an undiscovered sea mount off the coast of the Philippines.
“I remember sailing from Japan to Canada and we could smell the pines before they even appeared on the radar,” he smiles. “I loved the adventure and I’d do it all again.”
We finish our coffees and watch the unusually calm water of the Mersey ebb and flow outside.
It’s a big year for the Liverpool Pilots with more events to be announced (details from the website) to add to the latest chapter in Liverpool’s rich maritime heritage.
But Chris says the Liverpool Pilots will continue quietly with their valuable work. “All the other visitors to a ship want something but the pilot is different,” he says.
“The service we provide is a proper challenge but, ultimately, we’re just there to help.”
Liz Woolnough was hoping for a double celebration.
On the day she was celebrating her 30th birthday, she drove from her home in Lancashire to the historic town of Chester where, bathed in sunlight by the River Dee, she was to compete in the inaugural World Ladies Town Crier Tournament [pictured above].
There, locked in vocal combat, she hoped to strike a blow as the world’s youngest town crier to challenge the old guard of town crying head on — and go home with the gong.
“I like nothing more than dressing up and being a bit theatrical,” says Liz, who fronts a pub covers band and cites Joni Mitchell, Prince and The Darkness amongst influences on her vocal style.
“I’m not a rock-chick town crier, but I have been blessed with big lungs and a deep voice.”
Historically town criers have provided a cornerstone of community life.
William the Conqueror is credited with importing their trademark call of ‘Oyez’ (it means ‘listen up’ in French) but bell-totting criers also appeared in the Bayeux Tapestry and are cited by The Old Testament in The Book of Proverbs.
Far from a dying art, however, town crying is today enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to its tourist appeal. There are currently around 300 town criers across the UK, their numbers swollen by a slew of young recruits such as Liz.
The man championing a more forward-looking groundswell is David Mitchell, secretary of The Loyal Company of Town Criers, Chester’s working crier and organiser of the tournament.
“In the early 20th century town crying was a dying art as many criers never returned from the war,” says Mitchell, an ex-teacher, who swapped classrooms for walking the streets of Chester in £2,000 worth of frilly garb.
“But since I organised the first ever world tournament in mainland UK in 2001, Chester has led the town crying revival.”
Today he and his town-crying wife deliver a daily proclamation at noon from The Cross, the focal point of Chester’s community spirit since the Middle Ages.
But can The Loyal Company really drag town crying into the age of the iPod?
Michael Wood, the town crier of East Riding, Yorkshire and reigning male champion, thinks so. “We’re trying to open things up and move away from the Toby Jug stereotype,” he says.
“Town crying has been stigmatised as the preserve of old men in tights and weekend warriors with too much time on their hands.”
On the day of the competition, Liz draws nervously on a cigarette as time for her debut cry approaches.
Dressed in a tricorn hat, a jabou (cravat) and purple livery (uniform), she takes the stage and delivers her first four-minute, 125-word cry based around the theme of ‘A Woman’s Place’.
The crowd applauds enthusiastically but Liz looks worried, all the more so after a strong performance from July Campbell, the official crier for Murray River Paddle Steamers in Australia.
The second round, a self-scripted cry on the theme ‘Men!’, goes better.
But it’s Caroline Robinson of Palmerston North, New Zealand, who really catches the judges’ eyes with her rhyming couplets and hammed-up style. The judges just aren’t ready, it seems, for a rock n’ roll crier.
Liz may be going home empty-handed but she remains sanguine. “I may not have won but I’ve learnt a lot,” she says.
“Besides,” she laughs, “One of the old boys came up to commiserate me afterwards and said, ‘It’s lovely to see a bit of totty around the place at last’.”
Oyez to that.
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This article was first published in the Weekend FT in 2004.