|Newcastle's quayside has come a long way since the 1990s when I was last a regular visitor - as we made our way to the CATHERINE, artists were busy painting river scenes, street musicians provided entertainment, the sun shone and the area was busy with tourists. This is the dream of any city councillor being sold a "vision" - in Newcastle it has come off, at least superficially in the day time. Down the cost in Middlesborough, sadly, it clearly has not.
The CATHERINE was berthed just downriver from the Pitcher & Piano bar - one of the very first landmark, architecturally-noteworthy, council-encouraged developments on the Quayside in the mid/late 1990s and still very popular and distinctive today. The CATHERINE and her operating partner, ISLAND SCENE, operate regular public cruises (in season) and private charters for Tyne Leisure Line. This is a small, family-run operation and we were shown around the CATHERINE by her co-owner, David Fozard. The ship herself was built in 1961 along with two sisters (EDITH and ROSE) for BR's Tilbury-Gravesend passenger ferry service. The demand for this operation was declining fairly rapidly: after the opening of the Dartford Tunnel in 1963 the associated vehicle ferry service was closed, the passenger ferry remaining essentially for the use of dock workers. As early as 1967 the ROSE was sold to the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, staying operational (latterly largely on cruises) with Cal Mac until the early 1990s - she is still in service in Malta. The CATHERINE and EDITH soldiered on together until 1981 (by then as Sealink ships) when the former was reduced to reserve vessel. The reality of this seems to have been a certain 'butchering' of the ship for spare parts for use in EDITH - certainly by 1988 she was in no fit state for operation as another ship had to be brought in on charter when the EDITH went for overhaul. In 1989, CATHERINE was sold for use on the Tyne, having a paddle wheel incongruously added at the stern and assuming the name CATHERINE WHEEL. The EDITH meanwhile continued operating the service for which she was built until 1992 and is now a houseboat on the Thames.
The CATHERINE WHEEL seems to have initially been a floating restaurant but later on was re-engined, had the paddle wheel removed and resumed the name CATHERINE for the Tyne cruises she has maintained ever since. On board we found that everything was in good order, and the ship had just been freshly repainted. An entire new deckhouse has been added on top of the original main enclosed passenger space which has added a large open-plan lounge. This is surrounded by a narrow external promenade on either side where originally the six hydraulic gangways were located for the quick disembarkation of the passengers making use of the five minute Tilbury-Gravesend crossing. Looking carefully, one could make out not only the gaps in the railings, now filled in, where the gangways once were but also the strengthening of the deck to support them and disused pipeworks associated with the hydraulics.
Down below, there are two saloons - one forward and one aft, separated by a small galley area. These both still retain the original perimeter wooden bench seating around the edges (albeit now with the added comfort of cushions, at least in the aft lounge). Dancefloors and bar counters have been added as appropriate. David expected the ship to remain in service for the foreseeable future, and she will shortly be sent for overhaul to have her rudder brought back into operation. He was particularly interested in pictures of the CATHERINE from her Tilbury days and was clearly not just very proud of the ships he operates but also genuinely interested in their histories prior to coming to the Tyne.