Whilst the Chairman, Jack Chapman, was encouraging the great and the good to join him on a committee exploring the possibility of a Visitor Attraction in Ipswich's Wet Dock, other members of the Executive Committee were out and about seeing what has been achieved elsewhere. I knew I had drawn the short straw when the Newsletter Editor told me his travels would take him to New Zealand and the maritime museums of Wellington and Auckland. I doubt whether there will be anything of that scale in Ipswich however, so I travelled from Glasgow to Cardiff investigating marina developments and visitor attractions in both, and in numerous towns in between.
The town with the greatest opportunity to create a new visitor attraction is surely Newport, South Wales, where they have just uncovered a rotting hulk older (and probably more important) than the Mary Rose. Public pressure has encouraged the Welsh Assembly to find £3 million to ensure the small part of the boat uncovered so far is preserved in the basement of the new Arts Centre. It was whilst excavations were being dug for this Arts Centre that the ancient timbers were discovered. Dendrochronology (tree ring dating) of one of the ship's timbers indicates that it was cut from an oak tree felled between September 1465 and April 1466 AD. This ancient ship will join the recently restored 1906 Transporter Bridge and Newport's dock which surpassed Ipswich in the late 19th century to become the largest enclosed body of water in the country. The town can also upstage Ipswich with a cathedral, a castle and a 2000-seat conference centre. No wonder it's the "First City in Wales"!
Glasgow has certainly tried. A number of visitor attractions have been created on the banks of the Clyde, not always successfully. The Garden Festival of 1988 was a great success as a one-off event but the aspirations that it would be the seed corn for urban regeneration came to nothing. The site has recently become the home of Glasgow's Science Centre with the unique 400 feet high revolving tower. Unfortunately the tower closed for engineering repairs soon after the official opening and the ensuing bad publicity means visitor numbers at the Science Centre are very low.
Newcastle and Gateshead have seen an upsurge in visitor numbers since the opening of Eyre Wilkinson's Blinking Eye Bridge and the £22 million Baltic Arts Centre. Further downstream, adjacent to Albert Edward Dock in North Shields there are 200 acres of vacant land available for industry, housing or leisure facilities. Some have been developed but the biggest attraction by far is the Royal Quays Outlet Shopping Centre.
A similar magnet is bringing people to Hartlepool. The Historic Quay may be a vivid and atmospheric recreation of life in the Napoleonic era but it is the Designer Outlet Centre that draws the crowds. Visitors can go aboard a magnificent three-masted warship and the historic paddle steamer, the Wingfleld Cavtle, but most prefer the 50% discount offered in the shops. Catherine Cookson costume dramas have been filmed on the quayside but today's visitors are more interested in clothes from Nike, River Island and Gap.
Gloucester is home to Britain's most inland port. The fifteen outstanding Victorian warehouses have starred in numerous period films and television dramas. (Photo on opposite page.) Today some have been converted to become variously the Inland Waterways Museum, a Regimental Museum, the City Council head-quarters and offices for the Regional Health Authority. To attract visitors there is the obligatory shopping mail and a five-storey antique centre. In its heyday Gloucester Docks formed the gate-way for waterborne traffic into the Midlands. Today it has become a very successful tourist destination but, with the resident population of office workers, one that is popular all week long.
For a waterfront development to succeed it doesn't have to start with old buildings. Salford on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, has Michael Wilford's outstanding Lowry Centre, not only an art gallery dedicated to the great northern artist but a complete entertainment complex. Across the canal is Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North. There were 200,000 visitors in the first three months, considerably more than at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, where they would be pleased to see that number in a year.
My favourite, and I suspect the one that is likely to become the most successful economically, is Cardiff Bay. This is a scheme that started as a dream, then a model, displayed in a futuristic tube of a building and is now reality. Cardiff Bay (Tiger Bay) was a run down, derelict coal port on the mouth of the Rivers Taff and Ely. For most of the day, where there should have been sea, there was only mud. Cardiff has a tidal range of 14 metres; the bay was inaccessible to boats for most of the day. Today a 1.1m barrage encloses 500 acres of fresh water and lock gates allow 24 hour access to the Bristol Channel. This has created eight miles of prime waterfront, space for 5,400 homes (3,000 already built) and prestigious office, leisure and commercial developments. And, yes, Atlantic Wharf, the shopping and leisure complex.
Lincoln, Stockton and Sunderland have their waterfront universities, Hull its fish tank (called The Deep), Portsmouth and Chatham their Naval Yards, Bristol has qBristol, the Arnolfini and the Watershed. But what sort of visitor attraction for Ipswich? A question that will no doubt tax the team carrying out the feasibility study and Jack's committee.
[Editor: The consultants working on the feasibility study will have access to the Society's previous proposals for a "Gipeswic Centre". They will take into account those and many other ideas in their appraisal of possibilities.]