As a seafaring, island nation, we have traditionally looked to the sea as our defence in times of war, our trading link with the wider world and a source of natural resources.
This link provides the basis for the SeaBritain 2005 festival, a year-long programme of events and festivals based around the theme of Britain’s maritime history, culminating in the Trafalgar Weekend (21-23 October) with events throughout the UK and the Channel Islands.
“The sea touches our lives in countless ways,” says David Quarmby, Chairman, SeaBritain 2005.
“Being surrounded by sea has defined our history, our culture, our national psyche, how as a trading nation we have prospered, and the kind of recreation at which our nation excels.”
The Battle of Trafalgar was a defining moment in British history, whereby Admiral Lord Nelson saw off the invasion threat led by Napoleon, against a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships.
He may have been fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet on October 21, 1805 – you can still visit the spot where he fell on board Trafalgar – but his legacy lives on. Particularly, that is, in Portsmouth, the festival’s hub city.
Portsmouth is where Captain Cook arrived after circumnavigating the world, Captain Bligh of Bounty fame sailed from its harbour and Lord Nelson himself set sail in his flagship vessel, HMS Victory, in 1805 for the Battle of Trafalgar.
Today the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to some naval big-hitters, including the restored HMS Victory, the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
It also houses Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose. This was raised to the surface in 1982 after 17 years of salvaged operations and now restored to its Tudor glory.
But the festival, and wider links to our maritime heritage are not confined solely to Portsmouth.
As the festivities get underway, we profile six of Britain’s best coastal cities for messing about on the water this spring.
Maritime heritage and Liverpool’s history are inextricably linked, a fact recognised by Unesco’s decision to award the Liverpool waterfront [pictured above] its World Heritage status.
The abundance of merchant’s houses reflects the city’s erstwhile status as a major commercial port, while amongst the warehouse conversions, the Merseyside Maritime Museum today traces the links between the city and the sea.
Liverpool has designated 2005 ‘Year of the Sea’ as part of its Capital of Culture 2008 countdown. As such, the 25th annual Mersey River Festival will be the biggest ever this summer from June 10-13.
But if culture doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry. The Albert Dock has some of the city’s best shopping, while Mersey Ferries still ply the famous ferry cross the Mersey.
The redevelopment of Bristol’s harbourside over the last ten years has re-established the city’s links with the sea.
This year also sees the completion of a conservation project to restore both Brunel’s iron-hulled ship, the SS Great Britain and the Victorian dockyard it was built in, to their original Victorian glory.
The Bristol Harbour Festival runs 31 July to 1 August this summer with a slew of family events.
Meanwhile, if you fancy something more active, the Severn Way is the longest riverside walk in England and terminates in Bristol.
If you prefer getting in the water than admiring it, the World Heritage Roman Baths in nearby Bath have reclaimed the steaming dipping pools for public use after years of restoration.
The redevelopment of Cardiff Docks has seen a run-down area transformed into a ‘little Covent Garden by the sea, especially since the opening of the Millennium Centre last November.
The Cardiff Bay Regatta (July 28-29) kicks off this summer’s Cardiff Harbour Festival along the waterfront, while Nelson Week has family activities, such as visits to the tall ship Tenacious.
Further afield, Wales plays host this year to two major maritime festivals: the Swansea Bay Summer Festival in June with the Welsh Power Boat Grand Prix; and the Cleddu Waterway Festival in Milford Haven.
Meanwhile, Wales continues to act as a magnet to adrenaline-seekers trying new sports such as kitesurfing and coast steering, especially around the Gower Peninsula and the Pembrokeshire coast.
With the Atlantic crashing in on the beaches of Cornwall and the heart of Britain’s burgeoning waterspouts industry located along the coast, the South West is natural seafaring territory.
This year, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth hosts a major surfing exhibition from July 1 to December 1 in its Flotilla Gallery, celebrating Britain’s surf culture.
Newquay, the home of British surfing, boasts the Extreme Academy for the pick of adrenaline adventures.
Otherwise, nearby Plymouth Hoe is rich in maritime heritage as Frances Drake’s favourite bowels green and the National Maritime Aquarium Plymouth has the deepest tank in Europe.
The Northeast’s cultural hub has transformed its waterfront in recent years with projects such as the award-winning Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Sage Gateshead performing arts centre bringing new vibrancy to the area.
This summer the city will launch its own River Festival, the main event of which will be The Tall Ships’ Race, whereby 120 tall ships will drop anchor in the Tyne before setting sail across the North Sea to Norway.
The Northeast also features some of the best coarse and game fishing in the UK, not to mention great bracing walks, accompanied by seaside vistas, along the spectacular Cleveland Way walking trail.
From the Tall Ships on the River Clyde, to the erstwhile Royal Yacht Britannia now berthed in the port of Leith, just outside Edinburgh, Scotland is also celebrating its maritime heritage this year.
This year’s Edinburgh Military Tattoo, running August 5-27, has a strong nautical theme, while the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, held in Portsoy Harbour, Aberdeenshire, from July 2-4, features one of the largest collections of traditional boats in the UK.
Meanwhile, the Glasgow River Festival celebrates its second year in 2005 with events along The Clyde. Special events will take place over the weekend at venues along the waterfront and on the river itself, including Glasgow Science Centre, The Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour and the SECC.
This summer will also see further completion of the Waterfront Edinburgh project, one of Scotland’s largest urban regeneration schemes to transform derelict land around Granton.
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This story was first published in Hotline magazine in 2005.
As he strides around the de facto Bolivian capital in his kilt – a tartan from the Steward clan borrowed from a Scottish friend – he attracts attention not only for unusual attire, but also for his finely-crafted calves.
Then again, Abdul Aspiazu is not your typical 25-year-old Bolivian man about town.
As the first Bolivian dance enthusiast to join the Las Paz Scottish Dancing Group three years back, he is now more likely to be found dancing a highland fling than salsa-ing the night away in a steamy Sopocachi nightspot.
“I travelled around Scotland with my grandfather when I was 17 and fell in love with the Celtic culture: the music, the countryside, the whisky,” he smiles, adjusting his sporran.
“When I heard an advert on the radio for new members to join a Scottish dancing group here in La Paz, I had to give it a go.”
[Photo via VisitScotland.com]
Every Saturday afternoon a 20-strong group of European ex-pats and local Bolivians gather at a ballet school near La Paz’s Plaza Espana for a two-hour dance session. With a shared love of Celtic music and a token contribution of five Bolivianos (about US$0.75), the group is growing fast.
With Burns Night [pictured above] this weekend, the group will be out in force.
“We have seen the Bolivian membership grow dramatically since the political turmoil of last year,” explains Valerie Mealla (nee Black), a native of Sterling, who leads the practice sessions.
“Bolivians love to dance and, while Scottish dance involves complicated routines, I’m constantly amazed how quickly the locals pick them up.”
With anti-gringo feeling running rife since a popular uprising unceremoniously dumped the previous US-backed Bolivian president in October 2003, the social aspect of these weekly sessions provides a means to foster mutual understanding and tolerance between La Paz’s small foreign community and local Bolivians.
“Dancing provides a great medium for solidarity and friendship,” says Valerie, casting a beady eye over attempts to master a new routine.“Despite the country’s political divides, we all support each other. For us, the music and love of dancing provides a common language.”
It’s also tremendous exercise. Given that La Paz is one of the world’s highest cities at 3,600m, the sessions can bring a whole new meaning to ‘out of puff’, even for those well-prepared for the effects of altitude sickness.
Regardless, the group last year broke the record for the world’s highest Scottish traditional dance, performing a Dalkeith Strathspey (a slow dance) at the Chacaltaya ski resort outside La Paz – an altitude of 5,260m above sea level.
The Guinness Book of Records refused to acknowledge their achievement but, undeterred, the group is now planning a trip to the Scottish Highlands.
“I like dancing and I like the music,” says the group’s youngest member, eight-year-old Erika Guerra of La Paz’s Miraflores district.
“I want to go to Scotland and eat haggis.”
Back on the dancefloor, the group are attempting a Burns Hornpipe routine. Valerie shakes her head wearily: there’s a lot of practice needed before the group is ready for its next performance at an Anglo/Bolivian fiesta.
After practice, as night temperatures plunge across the Bolivian Altiplano, the members bid their farewells in a mix of English and Spanish.
Abdul pulls on his boots and strides out into the La Paz night.
“We all take the dancing and the traditions of Scotland very seriously,” he winks, sinewy calves glistening in the moonlight.
* Something a bit different this week in response to the sad news of a major fire at the Glasgow School of Art. I toured this very building just a few weeks ago on a visit to Glasgow and stood in the now burnt-out library.
I look forward to visiting again when the building re-opens.
As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.
The Glasgow Miracle was a hybrid of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, which flourished in Glasgow from 1890-1905. It drew on the materials of the industrial age but merged them with romantic flourishes.
The pioneering Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was the leading figure in the movement and the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) is considered to be his masterwork.
Two city walking tours, the Glasgow Miracle and the Glasgow Style (running May to mid October) both look at Mackintosh’s legacy on the city.
Many of the buildings Mackintosh designed remain open to the public, notably the Willow Tea Rooms and the Mackintosh House, a reassembled family home at the Hunterian Art Gallery.
But the GSA remains the cornerstone of Mackintosh’s legacy to Glasgow.
When I was there in late March, the Reid Building, the light-filled new design school designed by the American practice Steven Holl Architects, was about to open.
Current students or graduates of the GSA lead the tours. The School has an illustrious list of alumni, including the sculptor Martin Boyce, who won the Turner Prize in 2011, and David Shrigley, a nominee in 2013.
The Turner Prize will be staged in Glasgow in 2015.
I joined 19-year-old Jamie Snedden [pictured, above], a first-year architecture undergraduate originally from Inverness, for a behind-the-scenes look into hidden nooks and crannies.
The young Mackintosh, he explained, studied at the GSA himself and then worked on designs for the new building as a young draughtsman in a Glasgow firm.
As such, he built lots of personal touches into the building, such as no door handles but swing doors – ideal if you’re carrying a large portfolio of drawings and sketches.
“As a designer, what impresses me is his vision to design a bold new building before even the age of 30,” says Jamie.
“This building showcases he cannot be slotted into a single category.”
We climbed staircases, passing walls of Glasgow granite (polished concrete in fact) and colourful mosaic designs built into the walls by Mackintosh as some sort of secret design code.
Many of the doorframes have shelves built into the wood. This, I discovered, was Mackintosh’s idea to place a single red rose (his emblem) into the slot each morning, a trend revived by current students each Valentine’s Day.
On the top floor I find the Hen Run, the place where the then segregated female students would be watched by the male students below. The south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Sauciehall Street, home to the Willow Tea Rooms, another of his signature designs.
The piece de resistance, however, is the library, a three-storey space dating from 1908 and still enveloped in the rich musty smell of old, leather-bound tomes.
We ended the tour in the furniture gallery, admiring a curved, lattice-back chair of ebonised oak from 1904. It was once the manager’s chair at the Willow Tea Rooms.
“Mackintosh believed in form, not function.”
“That’s why,” he laughs, “So many of his pieces are incredibly uncomfortable.”