How the maritime history of Buckler's Hard is being resurrected
PUBLISHED: 11:06 19 May 2015 | UPDATED: 11:06 19 May 2015
Buckler's Hard, the famous shipbuilding village on the banks of the Beaulieu Estate, is set to become more than a tourist attraction when doors open to the new Shipwright School this summer. Viv Micklefield met with the woman who's resurrecting the maritime history of this important site
For many of the 70,000-odd paying visitors who head down to Buckler’s Hard, and the thousands more who stumble across it whilst walking the local trails, or sailing along the Beaulieu River, it’s a slice of British maritime history. Yet although these ancient walls and slipways faithfully retell the story of 18th century shipbuilding, this has always been a living, breathing community, not simply a museum piece. And that’s just how Mary Montagu-Scott intends to keep things.
Leading the way towards the water’s edge, it’s clear that the daughter of Lord Montagu has a long-held affinity with the site. That’s not unsurprising perhaps because as well as being a keen sailor herself, the charming St Mary’s Chapel was where she and husband Rupert Scott got married - and they still live close by with their two teenage children.
Having overhauled the exhibits at the village’s Maritime Museum to widespread acclaim back in 2011, more recently Mary, who trained as an interior designer, has been the driving force behind the creation of a brand new Shipwright School. Intended to keep Hampshire’s historic boatbuilding skills alive, it’s taken almost five years to get to the stage when the first students are about to take up their tools. Yet there’s no sense of panic.
“You have to have immense patience here,” she says. “But we’ve not been in a rush and our whole approach is long-term. We hope, in time, to address the skills shortage in the restoration of heritage ships by creating a specialist place of learning. One that will put Buckler’s Hard back on the map as a centre of excellence for shipwrights, and will also re-establish the link we used to have with Portsmouth.”
It’s a link that once saw some of Nelson’s greatest ships, including the 64-gun Agamemnon, being constructed at this private yard. And now, with the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) having recently opened within Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, it’s a natural partnership.
As part of the IBTC’s diploma course, budding shipwrights will soon be able to master how to shape and fit together the timbers for the keel, frame, stern and hull of a variety of vessels. And according to Mary: “One of the things that the Beaulieu Estate can also provide here, and which is quite exceptional, is the access to lots of woodland in private hands.” This means that students will get to know about arboriculture – the cultivation, management and study of individual trees. “So it takes the process right through from seed to stern.”
Having a ready supply of English oak and Douglas fir less than a mile away certainly proved useful when constructing the timber-frame for the new workshop, which is the centrepiece of the school. Based on designs for 18th century Hampshire barns Henry Russell, a leading expert in such buildings, oversaw the task of felling and bringing around 50 trees to Buckler’s Hard back in February 2014. After Mary had assembled a willing team of apprentices, volunteers and professional carpenters, some of whom came from as far away as Italy, the timbers were converted entirely by hand into the impressive framework. Despite resembling a “Meccano kit”, several weeks of intensive manual labour were rewarded once this was raised into its final, upright position last August; with Mary reportedly swinging a rope to break a 40-year-old bottle of rosé wine from her father’s cellar in the topping-out ceremony.
“You can see that this building looks very ‘handmade’ and although it’s a really basic workshop space, it’s beautiful,” she says. “With no power tools involved, it has very strong green credentials. They’ve done lots of examples of jointing methods, the bricks are all reclaimed from elsewhere on the estate and a local blacksmith made the nails. We wanted this to be a training programme too, and as a result it has great integrity.”
And that’s important as in addition to the Beaulieu Estate’s £85,000 contribution towards the project, a £20,000 grant was received from the National Park Sustainable Development Fund. Remarkably, for a structure that’s less than a year old, it already looks part of the local landscape. And although there will be nothing to compare to the hundreds of shipwrights once hired for the 18th century yard, the sights and sounds of their fascinating craft will soon be revived. So far, there’s just a stone tool sharpener in place but with the workshop having been handed over to the IBTC at the end of March under a lease agreement, workbenches, vices and storage cupboards are set to be installed.
Just as their predecessors did, students will be able to work with adzes (a type of axe) and saws on big heavy timbers outside. And as Mary points out, the adjacent grassy areas allow Buckler’s Hard visitors to enjoy a grandstand view.
“One of the reasons that we located the workshop here is because there’s a natural bank to one side. Sitting on the water’s edge watching someone at work is a pretty good way to spend the day.”
And this could well include witnessing historically important boats, up to 90 feet long, arriving on the tide for restoration. Although, even with a fully qualified shipwright about to be appointed onsite, there’s no drawing her on whether a replica warship might someday be built. She does confirm however, that as well as hosting the students coming over from Portsmouth, the nearby classroom building will offer public courses in everything from rigging to maritime carving. While the Shipwright School may be nearing completion, Mary channels energy (she’s also on the board of both the IBTC and the Beaulieu River management) in many directions. And further projects sound imminent, as Mary admits: “There’s a whole raft of things we still want to do. A permanent sawpit is the first item on our list. Then later, if the Shipwright School is a success, we anticipate building a forge, as a huge amount of metalwork went into historic boats. I can’t say now where it will end in terms of our ambition, but the rest of my family is very pleased about it all - my brother Ralf is very supportive and my father too, having been down to see the workshop being constructed. Just standing inside the building I find it so amazing. I’d love to have my own office here.”
Become a professional boatbuilder
Based in Boathouse 4 of Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, the full-time practical boatbuilding diploma run by the International Boatbuilding Training College provides hands-on experience of real vessels. With four weeks of the 47-week course spent at the Buckler’s Hard Shipwright School, Nat Wilson the CEO says: “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for us and re-establishes 18th century boatbuilding on a site that would have been a hive of activity in its day.” With no previous qualifications required and start dates throughout the year, find out more by visiting www.ibtcportsmouth.co.uk or call 02392 893323.
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