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Field Journal

The Last Shipyard

The Last Shipyard Photo: Rich Baybutt
Through occasional holes in the corrugated plastic roof, shafts of light cut the dust and pigeon feathers that hang in the air. They pick out a tiny figure, alternately silhouetted then brightly illuminated as he moves with precise steps. In this huge warehouse, the highline he is walking is almost too fine to pick out with the naked eye.

We are travelling around the UK with a crew of urban athletes – a freerunner, highliner, BMXer and skateboarder – exploring abandoned locations. We ask them to explore these spaces, to look at them with fresh eyes and imagine how they can bring them back to life. Our journey has brought us to an old shipyard on the banks of the Wear in Sunderland, a sprawling series of connected warehouses. In one, we find huge rollers where steel came in; in the next a fabrication hall where it was processed before progressing through to the centrepiece of the shipyard, the cavernous dry dock.

Designed to be flooded with river water, the dock could house two warships side by side. It is ringed by walkways that provide a vantage point across the warehouses, and the crew separate to explore them, looking for places to set up their tricks. The space is mainly used for storage now. Stacked rows of multicoloured shipping containers surround huge unidentifiable pieces of machinery. Everything is coated in a thick layer of dirt – a combination of grease, feathers, and years of grime.

The Last Shipyard The Last Shipyard
Photos: Sam McQueen // Rich Baybutt // Dora DC

The crew set up in the bottom of the dock, planning to flip onto and over shipping containers and a series of huge metal pipes. Most exciting is the unique opportunity to rig a highline the full length of the dry dock. At 180m long, 60m wide and 50m high, the scale of the room hints at the significance of the industry it housed. The yard has been involved in shipbuilding for more than 100 years, producing vessels that travelled the world. One of a string of shipyards along the length of the Wear, together they ensured that the river was dredged, keeping it clear for ships to come and go. The dry dock doors used to swing open to let the water in, but as the last remaining shipyard they don’t have the resources to dredge it alone. Last opened six years ago, the doors are so rusted they would probably disintegrate under the pressure of silt and river water now.

The highliners have climbed several sets of rickety ladders and are working at height in the girders above. We can’t see them but we hear occasional shouts. The line is attached to metal beams that suspend cranes capable of lifting 80 tonnes each. They’re easily strong enough as anchors, but rust, sharp edges and oil complicate the process, threatening to compromise the line. Hours of rigging finally translate into moments on the line. It’s loosely rigged, creating unpredictable movements that make it harder to walk. We watch our highliner fall spectacularly, backlit against the huge dock doors, shouts echoing until his harness catches him, breaking the illusion of walking on air.

A fourth-generation former ship builder has come to watch and reminisce with the crew. It was a dirty, physical job. They earned specialist knowledge through hard work and passed it on through generations, but that’s all gone. This shipyard once employed 2,000 people; now there are just 12, and the future is uncertain. He’s pleased to see the place brought back to life. In an ideal world the shipyard would be making something useful again, he says, but as time goes by it’s getting harder to imagine what. Above, our highliner raises himself back onto the line, breathing deeply to steady himself and, as stillness settles, resumes his walk.

Salt Street Productions visited the shipyard while filming Britain’s Abandoned Playgrounds, a series of short films commissioned by Channel 4. A behind-the-scenes premiere of Britain’s Abandoned Playgrounds will be at this years Kendal Mountain Festival. For information and tickets, visit:

Words by Anna Paxton
Instagram: @anna_paxton
Twitter: @annapaxton_




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