The sky was leaden grey as the svelte, storied bulk of the QE2 slipped proudly past the headlands of north east England. The sea donned similar dress, topped with long, rolling whitecaps that rose and fell like so many angry wraiths. A cold wind whipped across the decks that Sunday afternoon. Bundled up against the cold, I silently mused that our bruited, imminent arrival on the fabled River Tyne might be in some danger.
On the second full day of her historic fortieth anniversary cruise, the QE2 had a long overdue rendezvous with a massive part of Cunard’s fabled history. For this same day- September 17th- marked the centenary of the delivery by Swan Hunter shipyard of the legendary Mauretania to Cunard. The rest of that particular success story needs little embellishment here.
I had thought about it many times already on this voyage, especially as I gazed at the huge painting of that self same event that had graced QE2 herself for many years. It shows the brand new Mauretania, pristine and so full of promise, making her way down that same River Tyne on September 17th, 1907, escorted by a flotilla of tugs and excursion boats. As a Tyneside native, that picture always filled me with a deep, real sense of pride.
And, of course, it was so apt that QE2 of all ships should honour that anniversary. For the first time, the giant Cunard flagship would grace the steel grey expanse of the Tyne. That was, if we could get in at all in the prevailing weather conditions. And, despite this being her first actual visit, QE2 herself and the Tyne did have a brief, fleeting history.
She was scheduled to call there back in August of 1995 and, bang on schedule, QE2 duly arrived off the river. But our ever mercurial weather kicked up yet again, making it impossible for her to tender passengers in on that day. After several hours of hoping for a break in the weather, the ship and her frustrated human cargo upped anchor and headed off in search of more benign climes.
That memory played on a loop in my head as the QE2 surged north on the forenoon of September 17th, still intent on making the Tyne for an overnight stay. Of course, for Captain Ian McNaught up on the bridge, it was far more problematical. As a ‘local lad’ from North Shields, it was so right that he was on the bridge of the ship he loved so much to- hopefully- take her into home waters. But would the weather play ball this time?
The estimated half a million people that already blackened the long, winding banks of the Tyne certainly hoped so. For them, the bruited arrival of the QE2 was a huge event; the advent of something fabulous. magical and, of course, timelessly majestic. They braved the cold in their thousands. Old, young, families and ship lovers, drawn to the edges of the river as if by some incredible, unseen siren.
Thousands gathered to witness the slow, stately procession of the great ship as she sailed within close proximity of the headlands of Blackhall, Horden and Seaham that day. Among them were my sister and my nephew. They stared with jaws scraping their shoes as the giant Cunarder sailed past at almost touching distance, bucking through the whitecaps with her usual, poised majesty. I guarantee that many of those spectators will never forget the sight until their dying day.
Inside the Tyne, the howling wind whipped up to thirty knots, making the approach a hazardous process. The entrance to the Tyne is perilous enough in such conditions for a trawler, never mind a 70,000 ton, 963 foot long liner. Things were beginning to look a little hairy.
The QE2 made three successive, abortive attempts to thread her way into the mouth of the river, but the adverse weather made her break off on each occasion. Rain came and went in angry little flurries that stung the skin; the wind continued to lash at us, and the sky showed no signs of clearing. On board, a rumour began to surface that we would stay offshore for the night. and wait for the weather to hopefully clear next day. Some ventured that we might even go straight on to Edinburgh instead. My heart sank as I shivered under my blanket. Would the weather cheat us of our moment of history?
And then, suddenly, we were surging through the breakwater…
A brief, almost biblical wave of sunshine danced skittishly across the scene, and the waves inside the Tyne receded for just long enough. And then that proud, graceful bow surged past the pier as one vast, ragged cheer went up from the crowds dotting the beach.
It found an echo in the shouts, cheers and yells from half a million hardy souls that surged to the edges of the river as the QE2 loomed into the Tyne. On cue, a staggering firework display crackled, roared and erupted against the setting sun as we came on. Sirens on small boats screeched, car horns tooted. Somewhere, I could hear a dog barking.
From the shore, QE2 was a magnificent sight; proud, imperious and elegant. The last rays of the sun glanced against her charcoal hull and sparkling white superstructure. High overhead, her siren boomed out a deep, sonorous salute to the crowd; one acknowledged with another series of huge, ragged cheers.
Slowly, the gap between hull and quay diminished from a steel grey sliver into nothingness. One hundred years to the day after proud, elegant old Mauretania sailed down these self same waters, the soaring flank of the QE2 kissed the quayside of North Shields. Gangways were rigged, and we could go ashore.
The liner that had taken me away on so many adventures over the years, had finally delivered me back to where it all began.
Standing there, trying in vain to take in the enormity of the event, I cursed silently at the rain that was once again beginning to dance on my face. It shook me out of my reverie, and I moved under cover.
But there was no rain.
And it was then that I realised that my own tears were trickling slowly down my face.