HMS Vale transformed into a floating café on the River Deben

PUBLISHED: 15:33 23 November 2018 | UPDATED: 09:21 28 September 2020

TS Lord Nelson has made its way from Norwich and this afternoon it comes through Woodbridge Picture: CATE MEADOWS

TS Lord Nelson has made its way from Norwich and this afternoon it comes through Woodbridge Picture: CATE MEADOWS


Cate Meadows, proud co-owner of HMS Vale, has bold plans for the retired Swedish attack vessel, starting a new life on the tranquil upper reaches of the River Deben | Words: Nick Cottam

First came the Saxons, then the Vikings . . . and now for something completely different. The River Deben is playing host to a Swedish fast missile attack craft, all 120 feet (37 metres) of her, which has nosed her way up river from Norwich to a new permanent home at Melton Boatyard, near Woodbridge.

HMS Vale P155 is, by all accounts, the largest vessel to come up the Deben since the wooden three-masters and it was an act of faith for those involved.

“The vision is several fold,” explains Cate Meadows who, with Melton Boatyard owner Simon Skeet, has brought HMS Vale to Melton. “In the short term, our rock solid plan is to create a café kiosk on the foredeck. Longer term the vision includes developing some kind of education centre for adults and school students.

Adults for example could come aboard for art, photography and creative writing classes, while young people could learn such practical skills such as the ecology of the river, weather patterns and some of the activities which take place in the boatyard.”

Cate Meadows, co-owner of HMS ValeCate Meadows, co-owner of HMS Vale

HMS Vale, you could argue, is exactly the right space to be doing this and Cate, a secondary school English teacher, who has also worked in a pupil’s referral unit, is a suitable person to have at the helm. The ship, which was taken out of service in 1995, after pitching and tossing in the stormy Cold War waters of the Baltic and beyond for the Swedish Navy, was purchased by Norwich Sea Cadets in 2003 and refashioned as the Training Ship (TS) Lord Nelson.

Out went her bristling missiles and in came modernised accommodation, showers, catering facilities and other features to give the cadets a gritty, challenging maritime experience. After the ship had earned its keep in Norfolk for several years, Cate heard on the news that it was going to be scrapped if a new home for her couldn’t be found.

“I wrote the Sea Cadets a letter and after agreeing to purchase the ship we arranged to have it towed to the Deben by two tugs,” says Cate. The tugs are owned and operated by Tam Grundy, who is based at Melton Boatyard. The journey south to the Suffolk river was not without incident. Before setting out, on what was likely to be her last voyage, she had to undergo a series of tests to ensure she was safe and seaworthy.

This included taking the 120 ton ship out of the water for a detailed inspection of the hull and carrying out various tests to ensure she wouldn’t roll and potentially capsize when towed out to sea and then into the river over the Deben’s often daunting bar.

HMS ValeHMS Vale

“We had to take out £5 million worth of insurance which required us to have someone on fire-fighting equipment and someone on submersible pumps at all times, just in case.” Another hurdle to overcome was Great Yarmouth’s 90-years-old Haven Bridge, where problems lifting the bridge left HMS Vale and her crew stranded for eight days upstream at Breydon Water.

“The authorities were concerned about traffic gridlock in and around Great Yarmouth, following the passage of the tugs to Norwich when the bridge didn’t shut properly,” says Cate.

HMS Vale (now back to her original name) eventually made her way up the Deben on July 16, entering the river at the dead of night. There was another lengthy wait for high spring tides before she made her way upstream to Melton Boatyard to a fanfare of interest and media attention.

A river with a historic reputation for fitting out the king’s ships was seeing an altogether different type of man o’ war. These days, ‘ship of peace’ is a more accurate description as the former attack craft settles into her new home, at what is virtually the furthest reach of the Deben tide.

HMS Vale on her way to her berth at Melton BoatyardHMS Vale on her way to her berth at Melton Boatyard

“The beauty of this part of the river is its nothingness,” says Cate. “Nothing can get past Wilford Bridge except a rowing boat and we have no intention of spoiling that.” Just up river from Melton Boatyard, over the mud and the multiplicity of wading birds and other wildlife, just before Wilford Bridge is the turning circle, where tall ships and barges would turn around after unloading their various cargos at Woodbridge.

Plenty of epoxy, numerous coats of paint and sheer hard graft is transforming HMS Vale into what surely will become a source of pride and interest for all those who cherish the river – Deben Café certainly, and a centre for practical learning, but there could be so much more, believes Cate.

Sitting on deck to contemplate the undisturbed birdlife – avocets, lapwings, herons, oyster catchers and egrets – and seeing the spacious accommodation below, it’s not hard to see what she means. The ship has a function room, 20 berths, including what could be a family room, the prospect of a birders’ hide and, of course, priceless views across the river.

Yet this colossus of a ship manages to blend with its natural environment – mud and metal, brown and grey – along a rather special part of the river. As for the beauty of the place, juxtaposed against the still busy and enterprising Melton Boatyard, Cate and Simon believe that the born again HMS Vale can help them to keep it that way.

HMS Vale on her way up the DebenHMS Vale on her way up the Deben

“We want the lovers of Suffolk, river folk and walkers to visit the ship,” adds Cate. “This is a peaceful, beautiful part of the river and we have no intention of seeing that change.”

What & where

Deben Cafe

Dock Lane, Melton

Woodbridge IP12 1PE

Open at weekends

T: 01394 386327

Facebook @debencafe

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