PUBLISHED: 15:42 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013
The sight and sound of a paddle steamer along the Bristol Channel coast of Somerset was once a common occurrence. This June, 'Somerset Life' looks at the history of the 'Waverley', the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. The Bristol Channe...
P&A Campbell's 'White Funnel' fleet of paddle steamers included the PS 'Waverley' www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk and PS 'Ravenswood', which was built in 1891 especially for the Bristol Channel services. The services were set to operate for the next 80 years.
The 'Waverley' that we see today is the ship's second incarnation - the first was sunk in enemy action off the coast of Dunkirk when returning with British troops in 1940. The current ship is about 73m (240ft) long but only 9m (30ft) wide, and although originally coal-fired, she was converted to oil in 1957. Weighing about 693 tonnes, she is one of the largest ships of her type, and was the first coastal steamer to circumnavigate Britain.
P&A Campbell used a variety of vessels until the 1950s when traffic started to decline rapidly and a number of ships were laid up. In 1959 a receiver was appointed and the business was sold to the Townsend Ferries Group. The business entered the 1960s under its new ownership, with two paddle steamers in service and a third vessel laid up. With more people holidaying further afield, however, the service never enjoyed the popularity it had in the past and the use of paddle steamers finally appeared to have ended in 1967 following the sale of the 'Cardiff Queen' and 'Bristol Queen' vessels. The business continued with motor vessels until 1981 when it was announced that the services would finally cease.
Having been withdrawn from service, the PS 'Waverley' was sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for the princely sum of 1
However, this was not the end of the story for the PS 'Waverley', which is today the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. Named after Sir Walter Scott's first novel, she was built on the Clyde in 1946 with the intention of operating between Craigendorran and Arrochar in western Scotland. In 1974, having been withdrawn from service, the PS 'Waverley' was sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society www.psps.freeserve.co.uk for the princely sum of just 1! The ship was restored and became a working museum. The short Scottish summer season had always been a problem for excursion ships on the Clyde, so she started sailing right round Britain and offering tours on the Bristol Channel, the Thames and the south coast of England.
In 2003 a major refit of the ship was completed, returning her to 1940s as-built condition, and her 2,100hp triple-expansion steam engine restored to its former glory. This overhaul was sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund to the tune of 7 million, along with support from the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society and its 4,000 members, without whom there would now be no 'Waverley'.
Magnificently restored with her towering red, white and black funnels, the ship is now Listed on the National Register of Historic Ships www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk Core Collection, joining the former Royal Yacht 'Britannia' as a vessel of 'pre-eminent national importance'.
The ship's annual programme includes a visit to the Bristol Channel to recreate those long-lost days of Campbell's 'White Funnel' fleet. The ship, which includes two bars and a dining saloon and can accommodate up to 800 passengers, visits the Somerset ports of Clevedon, Weston-super-Mare, Watchet and Minehead each year, usually in May/June, whilst her motor vessel companion, MV 'Balmoral', works services throughout the rest of the season.
A trip from Somerset's little harbours, with views along the Somerset coast which can otherwise not be seen, is a wonderful experience, particularly if the weather is fine. Whilst on board you can easily see the ship's paddles working in forward and reverse as she sets sail, and you can pay a visit to the engine room to see the steam engine itself and ask the engineer any questions you may have regarding the workings of the vessel.
So, the sight and sound of a working paddle steamer can still be experienced along the Somerset coast some 150 years after they were first introduced - a whiff of nostalgia. WORDS AND PHOTOS BY DON BISHOP
This year the PS 'Waverley' makes her first appearance in the Bristol Channel on 24 May and her first appearance in Somerset with a visit to Minehead and Clevedon. She stays in the Bristol Channel until 8 June making regular trips to Penarth, Ilfracombe and Lundy Island. For more information visit www.waverleyexcursions.co.uk.