Set as it is amid the lush green, rolling hills of the Welsh borders, you can’t get much further from the sea in the United Kingdom than the small town of Hay-on-Wye.
However, it is also the living embodiment of the fact that in the UK you can never really escape the sea, for nowhere in this sceptred isle is more than 60 miles from it. Hay is 63 miles from the coastal resort of Aberystwyth.
Sheep farming being its primary industry for many centuries, Hay-on-Wye has been fought over by English and Welsh warlords down the ages, sacked more than once, including suffering a rather cruel torching on the orders of nasty King John – Robin Hood’s arch enemy – in the early 13th Century.
Hay is not, then, the sort of place you associate with naval matters, though these days it is globally renowned for its literary festival, drawing high profile authors to a cluster of temporary structures assembled on the edge of town. This lit fest village encloses lecture theatres, as well as a few bars and even booksellers. Bibliophiles listen to writers explain themselves and their works, and get to discuss relevant issues with them.
And so it was on the final day of the Hay Fest 2010 that the Guardian Stage was host to five authors with the sea flowing through their veins, assembled for a panel discussion of Britain’s ‘maritime culture…and the resourcing and strategies for defence of the realm in a 21st Century.’ Sponsored by Seafarer Books and The Maritime Foundation, the event was chaired by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow, whose recent BBC TV series ‘Empire of the Seas’ provided the over-arching title for the discussion. The panel included this magazine’s Associate Editor, Peter Hore, who is a former Head of Defence Studies in the Royal Navy and author of the recent ‘Sydney, Cipher and Search’. His companions on the panel were the award-winning naval historian Brian Lavery (author of the book of the series ‘Empire of the Seas’), Richard Woodman, prolific chronicler of merchant and naval history, and Lord Selsdon, who served in the RN in the late 1950s but is these days an authority on trade and defence, as well as a hereditary peer active in the House of Lords.
The event was opened by Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, Commanding Officer of the destroyer HMS Gloucester during the 1991 Gulf War, when the Type 42 destroyer shot down an Iraqi Silkworm missile heading for the American battleship Missouri. Having later commanded all of the Royal Navy’s destroyers and frigates, as Rear Admiral Surface Ships, shortly before his recent retirement from the Service, he was at Hay in his capacity as a member of the organising committee of the UK’s Maritime Media Awards, which is run by the British Maritime Charitable Foundation. To help engage them in the themes about to be discussed, Rear Admiral Wilcocks asked audience members to close their eyes and picture their local supermarket stripped of the 75 per cent of shop shelf goods that are imported to the United Kingdom by sea. He also suggested the remaining 25 per cent of goods might not make it to the shelves either, as diesel for lorries and aviation fuel for cargo air craft all needs to reach the UK by sea. Rear Admiral Wilcocks joked that the imaginary supermarket might also have collapsed, as the steel needed for its structural support girders must also come by sea. It was an interesting way of illustrating the UK’s dependence on maritime trade and Dan Snow began the panel discussion itself by asking Brian Lavery why the sea matters at all these days. “I don’t think there is much doubt that people are rather less aware of the sea than 50 – 60 years ago,” the distinguished historian replied. “Back then if you had a sailor living on your street he was a hero – he had seen the world.”
However, said Professor Lavery, the advent of cheap air travel meant that not only was the sailor less exotic – because any one could travel – but also going via ship was no longer the best way to see the world. He said the sea does remain immensely important, citing the example of the number of containers carried aboard a single large cargo ship being enough to stretch all the way from Hay to London. Lavery pointed out that the decline in maritime profile in the UK could be partly down to the fact that the Royal Navy is today a quarter of the size that it was half a century ago, while the Merchant Navy is even more reduced. However, he pointed out, there are now probably more ‘amateurs’ on the ocean wave than ever before, in the form of dinghy sailors, yachtsmen, diving enthusiasts and cruise ship passengers. Peter Hore enlarged on Lavery’s container ship theme, explaining that a single huge vessel of the type probably carries enough products in a single voyage to equal the Gross Domestic Product of a small country such as Wales. “The loss of such a ship would be equivalent to all the essential goods lost in vessels sunk during the single worst month in the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2,” he claimed. By way of further illustrating the UK’s dependence on the sea, Hore also mentioned the long chain of Liquid Natural Gas vessels stretching all the way from Milford Haven to the Gulf. He suggested it would require only a small step change in capability, and intent, from that currently being exhibited by pirates off Somalia, for a terrorist organisation to use the same methods in order to target vital merchant vessels. Hore also pointed out that the recent sinking of a South Korean Navy corvette, and the use of submersibles by drug barons, show the threat can also still come from beneath the sea.
Richard Woodman expressed concern for the state of the Merchant Navy, with decreasing numbers of UK merchant mariners, and also British-owned ships, both of which are fundamental to the nation being certain it can keep the lifeblood of trade flowing during times of crisis, such as war. He remarked: “Ship owning in this country is no longer very attractive – and profits have always been on the margins in running ships.” Lord Selsdon aired his concerns, too: “It is a worrying scenario when we forget that the UK has to have a worldwide role, for we do not have a self-sufficient economy.” Dan Snow asked if the war in land-locked Afghanistan was proving the Royal Navy is irrelevant. Peter Hore responded: “l think there is a real danger we are going to configure our forces to fight the war in Afghanistan at the expense of meeting other threats.” He described both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns as “strategic mistakes”, declaring it would be a grave error to see them as the template for the future shape of Britain’s armed forces. Hore suggested protection of trade is an important mission that must not be neglected. Brian Lavery concurred, pointing to flexibility in defence as vital, for, he felt, one thing that defence planners could be certain off is that “the war you fight is never the one you plan for.” He cited two examples; WW2 being fought by a Royal Navy configured to fight in the North Sea and the Falklands War, in which warships configured for the Soviet threat in the Cold War found themselves engaged in expeditionary warfare. All members of the panel agreed that something more needs to be done about combating sea blindness and that the teaching of history in British schools should feature maritime achievements more prominently. Peter Hore suggested that rather than focus on Nazis and the Soviet Union lessons on revolution and dictatorship could find inspiration closer to home, in episodes of British history. “I think schools should teach more about our islands,” he stated, to a round of applause. A member of the audience asked if the two new carriers being built for the Royal Navy were a worthwhile project. Hore responded: “It is an investment in two ships that will last for 50 years. It is a good investment.” Lord Selsdon promised the House of Lords would ask the navy to justify the new ships. In response to another question from the audience, about what they felt about the loss of the Britannia both Hore and Woodman agreed a new Royal Yacht would be a worthwhile investment. It could be used as a training ship and to promote British industry when not required by the Royal Family This convergence of trade interests and the Royal Navy, as well as a mission to raise awareness of the vital importance of the sea to the UK, via training activities or other pursuits, seems entirely in keeping with the approach of the new coalition government. Therefore, perhaps the issues of concern raised by the panel may be addressed.
Such was the success of the event at the 2010 Hay Festival, its organisers have already discussed a repeat at next year’s. Patricia Eve, Managing Director of sponsor Seafarer Books, revealed there are hopes for a Literary Festival on the banks of the Thames close to the WW2-era preserved cruiser HMS Belfast during the 2010 Olympics. Mrs Eve explained the reasoning behind sponsoring this year’s ’Empire of the Seas’ event at Hay; “The Maritime Foundation promotes Britain’s interests across the entire maritime sector and as a nautical publisher I am very enthusiastic in supporting the aims and objectives of this charity as well as publishing important books about the sea. We are an island nation and our survival depends on the sea. We were fortunate in assembling an excellent panel of experts chaired by Dan Snow and there was an excellent attendance. As there is extensive media coverage for the festival, it must be a good forum for supporting the aims and objectives of the Maritime Foundation and promoting the importance of the sea to us all.”
Report by Iain Ballantyne
Warships, International Fleet Review, August 2010