In June, I visited Margate, Ramsgate and Wells-next-the-Sea. I’ve been sharing some of the story on Facebook and Instagram over the last few weeks but, until now, I haven’t fully explained the context.
Remember to read to the end for my some of my thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s film!
Earlier this year, the RNLI were making rumblings about Dunkirk. The anniversary of the beach evacuations was approaching.
At 77 years, it wasn’t a big anniversary to be marked with additional ceremony — the rumblings were more to do with the imminent blockbuster movie release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
I must confess, I was a little ignorant of the details at the time but the more I heard, the more I became intrigued. I won’t go into the great historical details here as there’s so much fantastic material elsewhere, in particular the new Dunkirk pages recently compiled by the RNLI.
In short, nineteen lifeboats were called into action. Joining the huge flotilla of Little Ships, they crossed The English Channel in 1940 to rescue thousands of soldiers from the sands of Dunkirk. Truly incredible stuff.
As I mentioned, the more I heard, the more my interest piqued, especially when I heard from the RNLI about the direct contemporary connections with those heroes of 1940. They (the RNLI) were keen for me to be involved in gathering material to coincide with the release of Nolan’s Dunkirk — it became increasingly clear that this was a very special invitation and an opportunity to be grasped.
The RNLI asked if I’d visit Margate and Ramsgate lifeboat stations before making the journey once again to Wells-next-the Sea. The latter would be my third visit. Not to make photographs at the lifeboat station this time but to make a glass plate photograph (an Ambrotype) of the magnificent RNLB Lucy Lavers.
So, that’s what we did — we gathered photographs, video clips and sound recordings at those three locations to help tell the story of Dunkirk and the RNLI.
You can see some of the results within this post but click on the other links dotted about to see the full extent of our efforts.
Lucy Lavers was built in 1939 and initially served as the Aldeburgh lifeboat. Her first call to service was in 1940 for the Dunkirk evacuation. What a thought — that this beautiful open boat’s first rescue was to journey across The Channel, not to rescue people in peril on the sea but to evacuate troops stranded in a foreign country under attack in a war zone!
When photographing Lucy Lavers, I had a clear idea that I would like the finished result to be timeless, for her to sit in open water away from any pontoons or moorings. So, we made a plan with Wendy Pritchard, Liz Rogers and Nick Groom from Rescue Wooden Boats the evening beforehand. The ubiquitous sand dunes would also provide a gentle reference to the Dunkirk environs.
With the location chosen, it was great to see Nick masterfully positioning her for us with assistance from Liz. My job was simply to wrestle the mud and make the best photograph I could while they hid out of sight behind the canopy…
With a magnificent glass plate of Lucy Lavers under our belts, we made the short drive to Stiffkey to meet George and David Hewitt, two gentlemen who had a hand in restoring her.
It was wonderful hearing their stories, which I recorded as part of the gathering process for the RNLI. Knowing that we’d be going to sea on Lucy Lavers later in the day, I also hoped their voices would be an ideal accompaniment to a short film I had in mind.
Our little voyage was the icing on the cake and gave us a real insight into what it might have been like to make that journey across The Channel to Dunkirk. You can now see the film I had in mind below.
LUCY LAVERS’ NEW LIFE AFLOAT
Lucy Lavers’ story is permanently on view at the Maritime Heritage Centre in Stiffkey, Norfolk. It’s well worth a visit in this beautiful part of the world. Support her new life afloat by pre-booking trips to sea, just as we did in the film above!
There’s also an event coming up on Saturday 12th August. It’s a family day of maritime heritage events, including showings of the film “Lucy Lavers’ Return to Dunkirk”.
THE CHERRY ON THE ICING ON THE CAKE
With much of our work compiled into its final form, the release of Dunkirk was suddenly upon us.
It transpired that the RNLI had been allocated some tickets for the World Première in London’s Leicester Square. Following our recent collaborations, I was on the list of potential invitees. After being assured that I was by no means top of the list and that other possibilities had been exhausted, I couldn’t resist yet another bucket list opportunity.
I jumped on a fast train from Newcastle and slipped into journalist mode, recording the special moments and feeding them to the RNLI’s Press Team so that they could report live on social media.
Slow and steady Victorian photography on the coast one moment, high-pressured digital journalism among the glitz and glamour of film stars the next!
WHAT WAS THE FILM LIKE?
Well. Now. You may have seen the rave reviews — “Christopher Nolan’s finest yet…” etc etc.
As Nolan said when he addressed the audience ahead of the screening, “It’s difficult to suggest that you enjoy the film, so experience the film.”
Overall, I loved it. The experience was stunning. Gripping. Engaging.
The beautiful aerial sequences will stick in my mind for a long time to come. The sounds of gunfire and exploding bombs really placed us in the moment, enabling the audience to begin to understand the trauma of the situation. Not to mention Tom Hardy’s unsurpassed ability to act with eye movements and grunts alone.
To see the old Teignmouth lifeboat RNLB Henry Finlay heading the flotilla of Little Ships really tugged at the heart strings too!
There’s a but coming, though, isn’t there?
Yes, there is.
But…I found myself unable to ignore and excuse some of the styling. Modern details that clearly dated from much later than 1940.
I found that very confusing in such a high budget film. More confusingly, I can’t seem to find any reviews of Dunkirk picking up on it — perhaps you can tell me differently? It’s as if everyone’s blind to it!
Here’s an example, not only from the lingering shot in the film but the official main trailer:
Observe the modern pontoons in Weymouth harbour, the modern buildings and — here comes the jaw-dropping clincher for the lifeboat geeks out there — THE CURRENT SEVERN CLASS WEYMOUTH LIFEBOAT in the distance moored alongside other modern vessels!
Why? I just don’t understand it. Again, perhaps someone can enlighten me as to why this apparently lazy styling was not addressed.
The final smack in the face detail came towards the end:
As the soldiers boarded their train in Dorset, the seats were clearly bearing a moquette from the 1960s onwards. The scene transported me right back to my school days, not the 1940s!
As wider shots of the carriage interior were shown, it was starkly obvious that this was not authentic rolling stock. Again, a detail that would have been so easy to remedy.
By contrast, last weekend I managed to catch Leslie Norman’s film of the same title released in 1958. Starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, it’s another must-see for anybody interested in those remarkable events of 1940.
For what it’s worth, I recommend making sure you watch both versions for a more rounded understanding of the story.
Both are beautiful in their own way. Ultimately, I guess, it’s a story that will never be easy to relay with pinpoint accuracy.
My sincerest thanks to Rory, Joanna, Mairéad and Julia from the RNLI Communications Team for including me in their plans to tell the story of Dunkirk and the RNLI. It has been a privilege and resulted in a wonderful dimension to The Lifeboat Station Project.
I’d also like to thank the following people for helping us to achieve our goals:
- Nick Smith and John Ray from Margate and Ramsgate lifeboat stations respectively;
- The volunteer crews of Margate and Ramsgate lifeboat stations with special thanks to Ian and Becky Cannon;
- Nick Groom, Liz Rogers and Wendy Pritchard from Rescue Wooden Boats;
- George Hewitt, David Hewitt, Ben Riches and Tom Gathercole who restored Lucy Lavers in Stiffkey, Norfolk;
- David Cox, retired Wells-next-the-Sea RNLI Coxswain who served aboard Lucy Lavers in the 1960s.
Finally, one more thank you to Reuben Kemp who helped me photograph Lucy Lavers at Wells-next-the-Sea.