doc

Just over 15 years ago, Newport’s medieval ship was uncovered after lying covered in the mud of the Usk for around 500 years. MARTIN WADE looks at how the ship could be preserved and put on show.

After the medieval ship was found, money was given by the Welsh Government and Newport council to fund a temporary home and initial preservation work.

Later, the ship was given a boost in 2006 when the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a two-year £799,500 grant to clean and record timbers – boosting the number of staff from four to 15.

This was when the preservation of the precious find could begin in earnest. Each component of the excavated ship was recorded using a cutting-edge contact digitiser to create a 3D model. This was used to create a 1:10 plastic scale replica of the surviving part of the ship, ready to serve as a blueprint for the ship’s reconstruction.

Cleaned and recorded, the timbers were then soaked in a wax-like substance called polyethylene glycol – or PEG – that preserves their cellular structure.

Once treated, the timbers were put in a giant freeze dryer to get rid of the water.

“Everything is soaking wet, it’s been wet for 600 years now,” said curator Toby Jones.

“If you just let the timber dry out on its own it will crack and warp and just destroy itself.

“When you pull them out of the freeze dryer they are like wood you buy in the store. It’s basically permanently preserved.”

The timbers from the ship are treated at a specialist facility in York.

Phil Cox, chairman of the Friends of the Newport Ship (FONS) says they are 18 months away from having all the timbers that were saved ready for re-assembly.

"There has been some delay in getting the timbers back from the York Archaeology Trust" he says "but by the end of 2018, all the timbers from the ship will be back in Newport."

But while the remains of the original are being preserved there are hopes that a replica of the ship could be built.

The Friends of the Newport Ship (FONS) have held discussions with a Basque heritage group, Albaola, over the possibility of creating a working replica to be ready to return to the water within 10 years.

“For a number of years, we have been in contact with Albaola,” said Mr Cox.

The group is building a replica of another historical ship, the San Juan but “once they have finished with that, they are looking to start a new one and ours is of interest to them”.

Last year, the FONS charity received a Basque flag from the group, and Mr Cox believes the recreation of the Newport ship could mirror what Albaola has achieved in attracting around 38,000 visitors to see their ancient vessels per year.

“Albaola has received funding from the Basque and Spanish governments, and it has helped to bring in employment and visitors to the area,” he said.

“So hopefully in around six years’ time, work could start on a project to create replica of our ship.”

He added that no work will be able to take place within four years on the Newport ship as Albaola has to finish the San Juan restoration project first.

However, the chairman said the prospect of having a working replica of the 15th century merchant vessel returning to the Usk would be a “wonderful sight”.

“It would take around a decade to complete but we think it would be a wonderful sight to see the ship floating on the Usk once again,” said Mr Cox.

When the timbers have been preserved and re-assembled, the ship will need somewhere to go. The project's home was originally a modest unit on the Maesglas Industrial Estate. Their home now is on Queensway Industrial Estate in Newport.

Although the vessel is in what he calls a "conservation phase", "we need to look for somewhere else for the ship to go."

An alternative home already exists in Newport, Phil says, with the third floor of the Newport museum on John Frost Square looking a likely candidate, but he is very keen to get the ship into a purpose-built home.

"What we have here is the Welsh Mary Rose" he says. The museum displaying the remains of the Tudor warship has become a major tourist attraction in Portsmouth and Phil thinks that a proper home for the ship could have the same effect for Newport.

There are other preserved vessels that would attract visitors he thinks. "The Barlands Farm boat was found 20 years ago when the Tesco distribution centre was built in Magor. The four-metre long vessel from the time of Roman Britain is currently storage. "It's criminal really" says Phil, "it's in crates and hidden away - it could be huge attraction."

As was shown by the thousands who supported the campaign to save the ship after it was discovered in 2002, that support has continued to show up at their modest home.

"We had 2,200 visitors in 2016 - a thousand more than the previous year. We're on target to get 2,800 this year". This is impressive given the limitations of their current home. "We don't really market it, we're at the back of a trading estate in Newport", but, says Phil, it shows the potential support a purpose-built home for the ship would get.

There is also a contingent of people who were part of the original campaign who now work as guides, showing visitors around the visitor centre.

He says there is also strong backing from local groups and companies, such as the local Royal Naval Association. "A firm in Cwmbran, Hempel UK, gave us the paint for the floor of the unit here - so support has come in lots of different ways."

That support alone won't help the Newport ship reach its potential, Phil believes. "We've got so much maritime history here and we need to shout about it, but we're down a side road of an industrial estate."