Dundee's Victoria Dock has seen significant regeneration in recent years. New apartments have sprung up between it and Dundee's other docks, while part of the dock itself has become home to the City Quay shopping development, linked by an attractive pedestrian bridge to the car park now occupying the south side of the dock.
But the past has not been wholly swept away. One corner of the dock is dominated by a Victorian warehouse, while the new bridge gives some of the best views of Victoria Dock's most cherished resident, HMS Unicorn, moored on the south side of the dock.
The Unicorn is the oldest British-built warship still afloat, and one of only six ships still surviving built before 1850 anywhere in the world. Still more remarkable, though launched in 1824, the Unicorn you see today is well over 95% original. Other preserved wooden ships of anything like her age usually include as little as 20% of the actual wood put there by the shipyard that built her, with the remainder resulting from later repairs or restorations.
Experts will tell you that the Unicorn is also of international significance because it is the only surviving ship built with the strengthening system invented by Sir Robert Seppings. This system is significant because it later allowed wooden ships to carry the weight of steam boilers and engines before the later transition to all metal ship construction.
But for the less expert amongst us, what the Unicorn offers is an all-too-rare chance to step back in time, to see and experience for ourselves an aspect of a world now long gone. It's almost as if HMS Unicorn was launched from the No.4 slipway in the Chatham Royal Dockyards on 30 March 1824 straight into a time warp, only to re-emerge, virtually unchanged, in today's Dundee.
The Unicorn's remarkable state of preservation is largely down to an accident of history. Her keel was laid in February 1822 at a time when the Royal Navy was still trying to replace ships worn out in the Napoleonic Wars, which had only finally ended in 1815.
But by the time of her launch it was becoming increasingly clear that the unusual period of peace being enjoyed, in Europe at least, was likely to last for a while. In those days it took a team of 20 riggers just 230 hours to erect the masts and rigging of a warship from scratch, working non-stop. As a result the Admiralty stored "surplus" warships without their masts or rigging, protecting them from the weather by building a roof over the upper deck. In time of crisis the temporary roof would be removed and the vessel prepared for war.
A vessel stored in this way was known as a ship in ordinary. The Unicorn's roof was erected either before or immediately after her launch, and has remained in place ever since. Ship technology changed, and she was never needed to serve her country in anger.
As an aside, the Unicorn Preservation Society spent many years intending to equip the vessel with a full set of masts and rigging. Since it has come to light that the Unicorn has always been as she is today (give or take the odd temporary signal mast) the Society now intends to keep her as she is, sheltering under the weatherproof roof that has preserved her so well.
The Unicorn came to Dundee under tow behind the HM Paddle Sloop Salamander in November 1873. She has since been moored in the city, serving the local naval units in a range of roles from floating drill hall to the headquarters for the area. Until 1962 she was moored in the Earl Grey Dock, filled in that year to allow the building of the Tay Road Bridge. The Unicorn was very nearly scrapped, instead being saved at the last moment and moved to Victoria Dock. In 1967 the Unicorn became surplus to RN requirements when a new shore HQ was built, and on 26 September 1968 she passed into the hands of the Unicorn Preservation Society, who have looked after her since.
Today's visitors have access to four decks on the Unicorn. On the upper deck you begin to understand just how large the Unicorn is. And also how sleek. The clean lines of a Georgian frigate are obscured in many views of the vessel, which as a result can seem rather dumpy. The best external views are probably from the bridge leading across the dock to the shopping centre.
The floor below the upper deck is the gun deck. This runs most of the length of the ship and was home to her 28 large cannons. The other 18 that made up the frigate's total complement of 46 guns were smaller, and placed on the upper deck. At the rear of the gun deck is the captain's cabin, proving that at least one member of the crew of a naval ship of the day lived in some style.
But only one, as a visit to the lower deck confirms. Here the ceiling was so low as to require constant bending and was home to most of the 250 crew. The rear part of the lower deck comprises the officers' wardroom, complete with their tiny cabins: but at least they had cabins. Your tour is completed down another flight of stairs, which gives access to the orlop deck from which you can see into the ship's hold.
The Unicorn Preservation Society is working to protect and preserve HMS Unicorn for future generations to enjoy. The society has been working to create a sustainable future for HMS Unicorn, which has led to the development of a major maritime project: Operation Safe Haven. HMS Unicorn will form the centrepiece exhibit of the new Dundee Maritime Heritage Centre, acting as a catalyst as Dundee rediscovers and celebrates its maritime past with the next stage of development of the city’s waterfront. Operation Safe Haven will see Unicorn moved to the dry dock where conservation work will continue.