Bristol's Voyage of Discovery

History Today, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Bristol's Voyage of Discovery


A reconstruction of The Matthew, the ship that brought John Cabot and the first Europeans to the North American mainland in 1497, forms the historic centre-piece of the first International Festival of the Sea, which opens later this month in Bristol. This is the first celebration all things maritime ever held in Britain, allowing visitors access to some 800 vessels, classic and modern, and a wide variety of events and exhibitions.

A ninety-acre site in the centre of the city has been given over to the festival, which lasts for the long weekend of the 24th-27th of May. One of the highlights for history buffs and sailing enthusiasts will be the commissioning of the newly built Matthew, which is due next year to set sail for Newfoundland in Canada, recreating, after 500 years, the voyage of John Cabot, the man who initiated Britain's extended sojourn in the New World.

However, the festival is not just a celebration of momentous achievements; the everyday life of people who make their living at sea is explored too - visitors can watch, if it appeals, freshly caught fish being hauled from boats onto the quayside and then filleted, smoked and kippered. Those curious to find out what Creel-making involves can watch live demonstrations of traditional shipwright arts.

Beyond the stalls, sideshows, model boat displays and musical interludes the organisers hope the festival will also perform a valuable educational function. A series of history-based exhibits are planned to bring home to visitors the importance of the waters that surround us, both as a protective barrier and an historical highway.

The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century quayside reconstruction in the city's Arnolfini building will stage re-enactments of commercial vessels loading and unloading cargo, and the Industrial Museum exhibit links the import and export role of merchant shipping with the early success of British industry two centuries ago. One display features the Saxon ship Sae Wilfa from Sutton Hoo, while another explores modern seafaring through an examination of submarines. In the Tall Ships section over 800 classic boats are registered to appear.

A fitting end to the festival comes with the dedication ceremony of The Matthew on the Monday evening. Although no contemporary drawings of the ship exist, Colin Mudie, the naval architect in charge of the reconstruction, by studying plans of period ships, believes the builders have created 'a representative vessel of the period', as close to The Matthew as possible. …

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