Director’s Diary: Atlantic crossings

I cannot quite explain my nervousness as we sail from Miami. With a stop at the Azores it will take the ship nine days to cross the Atlantic. The flight is only nine hours, but the distance is the same and the sea is not emptier than the sky and the sky is not more dangerous. Christopher Columbus wrote: “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore”. If I feel some trepidation on a big ship like Jade, 93,000 tons and headed for home – what must it have felt like for the pilgrims on their tiny sailing ships? 

Henry Flagler, builder of railways.

Today I talk about the famous Atlantic crossing by the Mayflower, which of course sailed to America in 1620 and from Rotherhithe via Plymouth. Tomorrow I talk about another crossing made by Sea Venture, sailing to Jamestown in 1607 and saving the colony. The miraculous shipwreck and survival of all crew and passengers inspired Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest. Jamestown was briefly abandoned, so is not the oldest permanent settlement, but for some Americans 1607 in the south is more important than 1620 in the north. 1619 is the date indentured servants (or slaves) were first brought to work the tobacco plantations, and is commemorated with some unease as the meeting of three cultures.

It is the strangest thing to wake and sleep and wake again in the same endless blue with the same unchanging horizon. This is the same sea, the Pilgrim’s sea, the voyager’s skyline. It is not emptiness, it is very restful and and almost reassuring. There is a real sense of abstraction: in the world but not of the world. Jules Verne’s novel The Floating City was inspired by his Atlantic crossing on the Great Eastern and I think he was describing not just the ship’s movement, but this strange sensation of being between things. On a more concrete and prosaic level, I have enjoyed large and appreciative audiences and excellent five star food in eccentric settings. These glorious ships are a kind of anachronism and draw me in…

I have given my last talks about Brunel, his ships, his railways and his tunnels. I have compared Brunel with Henry Flagler, the great railway builder who opened up Florida. I note that Flagler began his Florida East Coast railway for his invalid wife, and that Brunel began dreaming of bridges and railways when he was sent to Bristol, as an invalid, after the flood in the Thames Tunnel. Both men built holiday railways.

This week children from Pilgrims Way and Hollydale Primary School met Brunel in Person, and children from St John’s explored the foreshore with Thames Explorer Trust. The Anglo Russian Culture Club held another successful concert in the Grand Entrance Hall.

Next week we host visits from Orpington U3A, singing lessons and a private view of new works by residents of Ronald Buckingham Court. In partnership with London Walks we begin a new weekly heritage boat trip on Sunday, now running every day of the week except Monday. The joyful Midnight Apothecary’s summer season continues on Friday and Saturday with exquisite cocktails and food in the Museum grounds right through till end of September.

Here are details of events this week:

Sunday 7th May

10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 8th May

10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 9th May

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Wednesday 10th May

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

12.00 Orpington U3A
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 11th May

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.00 Private View Cafe Gallery Residents of Ronald Buckingham Court

Friday 12th May

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
17.30 Midnight Apothecary’s summer season continues every Friday until the end of September

Saturday 13th May

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room17.30 Midnight Apothecary’s summer season continues every Saturday until the end of September.