The smell of success: Business is booming at the National Fishing Heritage Centre in Grimsby. Adrian Turpin trawls its fragrant exhibits

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There's no getting round it: the National Fishing Heritage Centre has an image problem. For a start, it's in Grimsby - the sole tourist attraction in a town whose very name speaks dourness. And then, well, fish and fishing have never been the sexiest of subjects.

'There are plenty of music-hall jokes about Grimsby and the smell of fish which I'm too polite to go into,' Richard Doughty, the manager of the museum says. 'So our only strategy has been to use humour and smell.'

Which explains the 'whiff you were here' scratch'n'sniff postcards, and 'Codfather Professor Schmell' (Doughty's mad scientist alter ego), who blows up 'smelloons' using his odour-producing 'smellovator'. And if you think using fragrances like Fo'c'sle Fug and Sentiment of Seaweed is an unlikely method of glamorising the 'industrial heritage' of Grimsby (once the world's largest fishing port), you'd be wrong.

Last year (the museum's second), 135,000 visitors signed the captain's log. This year saw Blue Peter badges all round when the centre won the programme's Children's Museum of the Year award, a success founded on a blend of realism and sugar, the better to help the cod-liver oil of education slip down. A complete trawler's bridge has been installed and genuine radio equipment whirrs. Stoical plastic figures gut fish, hack icicles and shovel fake coal into fake furnaces. A hydraulic platform mimics the pitch and yaw of a ship in a gale, while Radio Caroline chatters away. And then there are the smells - gusts of fish, and burning coal like the tang of lapsang souchong tea.

'I thought it was going to be glass cases but I was decieved (sic). It was like being on a real boat,' one child's thank- you letter reads - a fair assessment if you imagine that real mariners build their own John Dory jigsaw or play find the fishing ground with marbles.

In two years a small local museum has expanded beyond recognition, so that now four-fifths of its customers come from outside South Humberside, and a remarkable seven per cent from abroad. For all the marketing nous employed, beneath the hype, the museum is still very much focused on Grimsby's life- blood industry.

Like the smells, the voices of ex- trawlermen linger among the displays - whisky-inspired recollections of 'mean, lean firemen' or the problems of juggling a pan of boiling water in a gale. The centre has also become almost a home from home for retired trawlermen: 50 volunteers act as guides or help on projects. Four retired shipwrights help rebuild boats like Esther, the 19th- century trawler, brought back to its birthplace from the Faroes after 100 years. Alf Hodson, a ringer for Captain Birds Eye (this is, after all, the frozen food capital of Britain), shows visitors round the 1950s trawler, Ross Tiger, that he used to skipper.

In one of the last rooms, a port official informs a wife that her husband has been lost on the trawler Laforey, while the BBC Home Service details the loss of the captain and 19 men. The trawlermen, many of whom remember the disaster in 1953, call it 'the sorrow room'. It seems a long way from smelloons.

National Fishing Heritage Centre, Alexandra Dock, Grimsby (0472 344868), 10am-7pm daily, pounds 3.50, pounds 2.25 child

Comments