Wales’ rich maritime heritage explored in medieval Pembrokeshire ships by David James
In July 2020, a ginko sapling was planted on the grounds of Kure Naval Base in Japan, donated to the city by the residents of Pembroke Dock. This happened very ceremonially as it commemorated the West Wales town’s ties with Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who once housed there, and, in addition, with a 2,200-ton armored corvette called the Hiei which was built in its shipyards for the Japanese Navy. To thank the inhabitants of the city, Lieutenant Togo at the time gave them a ginko tree, to plant in his accommodation at the house of the master carpenter. He of course became one of the country’s most celebrated and decorated war heroes. He faced off against the Chinese Navy before defeating the Russian Baltic Fleet and thus saving Japan from invasion. No wonder then that this connection to Wales is being taken seriously and there are plans to plant more trees in places linked to the illustrious admiral.
Much of this is due to the efforts of David James, a member of this diligent legion of amateur historians who enjoy digging deep into their local plot, often unearthing nuggets, if not entire veins of fascinating information and perspectives. James also campaigned for a memorial to ten Japanese sailors buried near Angle, further deepening ties between Pembroke Dock and Japan.
His latest book is A Rattle Bag – to use Seamus Heaney’s phrase – a brilliant assortment of stories, facts and vignettes that began life as an investigation of the ships that appear on the seals of two towns in the Pembrokeshire, Tenby and Haverfordwest which developed into an intention to build a scale model of the ship connected to the latter. But as so often happens with such historic sleuthing, he found himself walking various avenues – and sometimes a rabbit hole – exploring heraldry, Viking ship design, and the many places in the county whose names are linked to the Viking Age, from towns such as Fishguard to islands such as Skomer and Skokholm.
The most fascinating James examines some of the Mercies, or wooden sculptures in the choir of St Davids Cathedral. One of them shows four men rowing a small boat through choppy waves, one of them so green about the gills that he is violently ill, while one of his fellow travelers appears to be comforting him patting her on the back. Another actually shows a clapboard ship under construction, with two carpenters taking a much-needed break from their work. The cathedral also has medieval graffiti, carved in stone and occasional graffiti also connects to the sea, as befits a small town that was, in the so-called saints’ day, as busy as Crewe Junction, like Gwyn Alf Williams said it in a memorable way. .
David James draws inspiration from and describes the life of Geraldus Cambrensis, the sometimes unreliable Norman observer who gave us The journey through Wales and a range of documentary sources that have helped him not only understand the methods used in shipbuilding, but also figure out how to replicate them in his own miniaturized but no less detailed version. He built his in the authentic Viking way, first creating the outer shell and then equipping it with ledges, frames and beams. He researched the shapes of the hulls and sails they used as well as how castles could be built on a ship to convert it from merchant use to attack and plunder capability. In doing so, he learned a whole new lexicon of words to describe the parts and equipment of ships, from gripping clinker grapples and strakes to crow’s nest and cross pattée which is a kind of Christian cross that appears. very early in medieval art. And when the whole pattern had taken shape, it was time to make colorful and symbolic decisions about which heraldic devices should adorn the sails.
The resulting craft was built with a mixture of love and precision and is now safely housed in the Haverfordwest Museum. This book, in a sense, obscures this building process and offers further evidence of James’ lifelong and seemingly limitless interest in the sea, which has seen him restore boats and then sail there and to shaping a small flotilla of model ships, giving lectures on the sea, being a dinghy instructor and river pilot at Miford Haven. The sea is in his blood, flows in his veins. David James’ passion and enthusiasm shines through all of his books and collectively reminds us of the very rich maritime heritage and history of West Wales which he has done so much to chronicle, defend and explain .
Medieval Pembrokeshire Ships are available to purchase, for £ 9.99 plus postage, from the author ([email protected]) or by writing to 44 West Haven, Cosheston, Pembroke Dock SA72 4UL.