For 164 years the Appledore yard has been alive with the clang and clatter of shipbuilding. Hundreds of ships – navy vessels, patrol boats, carriers, dredgers and super yachts – have been built on the banks of the River Torridge in north Devon with skill and love.
But the yard, where once almost 1,000 people worked, is about to fall silent when the engineering giant Babcock International moves out of the village on 15 March. In the short-term it means 200 jobs are vanishing from a remote coastal area where skilled posts are hard to come by and millions of pounds will disappear from the local economy.
It also spells the end of a way of life for an area that has been defined by ships and shipbuilding since its men were among those who fought the Spanish Armada in the 16th century.
Heathcliffe Pettifer, who worked in the yard for 20 years and is regional officer for the union Unite, said the closure was a tragedy. “It wasn’t just a job, it was much more than that,” he said. “Fathers passed their skills down to sons – it was all men in those days. The older guys would take you to one side if you weren’t quite doing something right and show you how to do it. The men didn’t consider themselves owners of their skills. They were only the custodians of them. It’s a tragedy that those skills are going to be lost.”
Many of those who had worked at the yard did not have much in the way of academic qualification. “For them, this yard was the university of life. It was a big community, a family. The shipyard used to sort you out, make a good person of you.”
There have been bad times before, times when the yard has closed or work has been scarce. Pettifer remembers a time when the workers occupied the yard and locals brought food to the gates for them. “But the feeling now in the town is very flat,” he said. “It is going to hit the place badly. The workers and the town have been betrayed.”
Just about every resident of the Devonshire village has worked at the yard or knows someone who has. Andrew Eastman, a district and county councillor, broke down in tears as he remembered his time as an apprentice at the yard before going to sea. “It is a magnificent shipyard,” Eastman said (he cannot bear to speak of it in the past tense and refuses to remove the Save Our Shipyard poster from his cottage window). “When a ship was launched the town band would turn out and there would be cheering and singing. We’re as proud as proud could be of the yard.”
Mike Guegan, a stalwart at the North Devon Maritime Museum, spent 40 years working at the yard. “It was a good living,” he said. “I’m sad it’s closing, not for me – for the generations that came after us. The north Devon economy is not strong. Our good times are the same as most people’s bad times. I think the government has contempt for the West Country.”
According to Torridge district council, the area has among the lowest average weekly earnings in the UK. The average (gross) weekly pay in Torridge is about £452 compared with £531 for the south-west and £571 for Britain.
Tourism and agriculture are important industries here but the district council worried about the “brain drain” even before Babcock’s announcement. It says only 20% of people in Torridge are aged 24-44 compared with 27% for the national population. Babcock’s decision is bound to mean more talented young people leave.
The company has given little detail of why it is moving. It issued a brief statement at the end of last year saying it had taken the “difficult decision” to “exit operations” at Appledore. It made no mention of the impact on north Devon.
On Thursday it issued a further statement saying it would leave the site at the end of next week . It said around half of the Appledore employees had decided to redeploy to other Babcock sites, mainly at Devonport in south Devon.
However, it is a gruelling, four-hour round-trip to Devonport. One current Babcock worker, who asked not to be named, said he preferred to stay and see his family, even it if meant taking up a job stacking shelves in a local supermarket. Another said he was having to move his family to south Devon.
It is not as if Appledore does not have the skills and facilities to build top-notch vessels and parts. Recent projects have included four patrol vessels for the Irish navy and the “bulbous bows” (the structure that protrudes from the front of a ship just below the waterline) for the UK’s two new aircraft carriers.
The closure of Appledore is uncomfortable for the government and the local MP, the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox.
In January 2018 the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, visited Appledore and spoke about the government’s procurement programme for a new class of warship, the Type 31e frigate. In its press release at that time the Ministry of Defence called Appledore an “integral link in the production of the largest ships in the navy’s history.”
In December, Babcock was announced as one of the companies on a shortlist to build the Type 31e – but by then it had already made the decision to shut Appledore. Babcock is also in the running to build fleet solid support ships (which provide dry stores such as ammunition, explosives and food to navy ships at sea) but again, this will come too late for Appledore.
The government rejects any criticism that it has not done enough to save the yard.
An MOD spokesperson said: “The Ministry of Defence spent more than £1.8bn with Babcock last year and the Appledore yard has played a key role in building the nation’s two new aircraft carriers.
“We were very disappointed to hear that Babcock did not plan to renew the lease at Appledore and, while this is a matter for the company, the government has thoroughly explored potential solutions with them. We also stand ready to support any workers affected.”
It points out that its National Shipbuilding Strategy is clear that all Royal Navy warships will be built in the UK – although the fleet solid support are being procured through international competition.
There is still a chance the yard could be saved. There is talk of trying to get a new Isles of Scilly ferry built in Appledore but once the yard is mothballed and many of the workers move away, the chances of a reprieve lessen.
Chris Langham, the chairman of Langham Industries, which owns the yard, said it was working to secure a new operator. “We absolutely want to see shipbuilding continue at Appledore. It would be a terrible waste if this superbly equipped modern yard and the skills of the wonderful workforce were lost forever.”
Kathleen Kay, who works at the grocery shop on the front at Appledore, said Babcock’s departure was devastating. “It will impact on the town and so much history, so much heritage is being lost,” she said. Kay fears that if more young people move out there may not even be enough people to crew the lifeboat and the fire station. “I’m angry and sad,” she said.