Down to the Sea in Ships by Ursula Bloom

Many things have led me to books over the years, but I think this is the first time that a portrait has inspired me to seek out the work of an author.

DE-600730 27-05-2010 from Petra /PetraKrista

I knew nothing of Ursula Bloom, save that her name rang a very distant bell. But she was sitting by the sea, holding a book. And there was something in her expression that spoke to me.

Google searches told me a little. That she was a vicar’s daughter. That she had been a hugely, hugely prolific author. That she had started writing at the age of seven. That she had been encouraged by a family friend: Marie Corelli …. but I could find nothing about those books.

Next I turned to the library catalogue, and I found that somebody had considered her significant enough to put a number of books into reserve stock. One title caught my eye: Down to the Sea in Ships.

I placed an order and a little green book, looking more like a notebook than a literary work arrived. When I looked inside I found that it was a memoir of Ursula Bloom’s years as a naval wife.

It began as crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square to give thanks for the end of the Great War. The war to end all wars, they thought.

Ursula had become a  bride in 1916 and a widow in 1916, but she knew that she was luckier than most. She shared a house in Frinton-on-Sea with her brother and she had already had three novels published.

She was ready for the future and she loved it. Trading in her corsets for cami-knickers! Learning the tango! Going to the cinema to see Rudolph Valentino! And, most daring, most exciting of all, she had her long hair cut and shingled!

And then she fell in love.

Friends took her to a party on board a naval ship, and that was where she met her Robbie – Paymaster Charles Gower Robinson. They fell in love and were quick to marry, as he had to leave for a tour of duty in the Mediterranean.

Ursula – madly in love and, I had realised by now, romantic to the core – decided that she would follow. She left her son with her brother and set off for Gibraltar. She hadn’t travelled before, and the journey wasn’t easy, but a mixture of good sense, charm and luck got her there.

Only to find that the ship was to move on. Again and again. She learned on her feet and soon became an experienced traveller, thrilled to see the world and thrilled to be able to see it with her husband.

They had wonderful times together. Carving their initials together. Watching the world go by. Whispering at dull functions. Seeing so many wonderful sights.

At first Ursula was so focused on her travels that she barely took in the world around her, but she learned quickly and found time to appreciate the journey. She found France a little disappointing, but she loved Rome, and she was fascinated by Greece. Her son joined her as soon as he was old enough and they had a lovely time together.

A trip home at the end of the tour made her wonder if it was time to settle down. But as soon as her husband’s ship came in to port she knew she had to follow again. She was a member of the Senior Service, after all!

I liked Ursula Bloom from the start. She was warm, she was practical, she was romantic, and she told her story simply, clearly, very well.

It was a little like hearing a story from a friend of my mother. She held a certain amount back but she told more than enough for me to understand everything that I needed to know.

A few details maybe slipped her mind, as this memoir was written many years later and published in 1958. That didn’t matter too much because her positive nature, her sense of adventure and her love for her husband were still tangible.

The book is dedicated to her Robbie, with much love.

She’s not a great writer, but she is a very capable one, and I am very pleased that we met.

A Dash of Romance … to bring warmth and light to a cool grey evening …

We walked that evening through a big arch and into the small, rather wild La Maison Gardens overgrown with red roses, with Judas trees and bougainvillea. There was a long wall looking out across an inlet of Sliema harbour where the destroyers had their pens, and we leant on the wall into which soldiers had cut names and had carved their badges, some very beautifully.

The sun was dropping quickly over Citta Vecchia and this was the perfumed hour, when the flowers smelled sweeter and the world seemed lovelier. It brought us close. We talked of each other; it is the oldest story in the world, of course, and thousands of others must have done the same thing in the same way in these gardens and will go on doing it every year. But to us ours was the most wonderful of all because it was OUR love story.

We cut our initials in the wall, intertwined. U and R. They must be there today, and long after we have ceased to be, the sweet memory of an evening when we were so much in love is carved there for the world to see.

‘Whenever we come to the island we will visit it,’ we promised each other, and we always did.

U and R. For ever.

Ursula Bloom and husband

From Down to the Sea in Ships by Ursula Bloom (1958)