At Keel Square in Sunderland, the names of 8,200 ships that were built on the River Wear are carved like tombstone inscriptions into a long line of granite paving stones.
The line stretches nearly 1,000ft and represents the length of the Naess Crusader, the biggest ship ever built in a city that was dubbed “the largest shipbuilding town in the world”.
The once great industry employing thousands of men collapsed in 1980 when the last of an estimated 400 shipyards on the river stretching back to the fourteenth century finally closed.
Now the people of the Sunderland, whose very hands enabled global trade, are finding out how their decision to vote by 61.3 per cent to quit Europe is impacting the business decisions of their current biggest manufacturer, Nissan, in 2019.
‘I want out’
But, despite warnings from the Japanese car giant that Brexit uncertainty is hindering the UK car industry as it withdraws plans to build a new model of its flagship X-Trail vehicle in Sunderland, people in the city tell i they would vote again to leave the EU.
They’ve made a hell of a lot of profit, but they’ve never stopped crying. All they do is moan
James Catcheside, Leave voter
“I’m 88-years-old and I was in manufacturing all of my working life. We built cranes for the docks by hand. There was none of this production line stuff,” says James Catcheside, who is wrapped up against the biting cold as he walks away from Keel Square.
“I voted Leave because Europe was dictating to us. I wanted out and that hasn’t changed. I still want out. We just need to get on with it.
“When Nissan first came here, they were subsidised. They’ve made a hell of a lot of profit, but they’ve never stopped crying. All they do is moan. It’s always the same and it’ll still be like that after Brexit.”
Nissan employs around 7,000 people at its plant on Wearside and around 27,000 in the supply chain rely on its success. Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott, who supports a second referendum, has said any loss of future production at the site makes it “less stable”.
It is a concern shared by some Leave voters in the city, who are worried about how the decision to concentrate X-Trail production in Kyushu could impact on younger people.
Sunderland voted by 61.3 per cent to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum (Photo: Getty)
I don’t really believe the Nissan issue is to do with Brexit
John Childs, Leave voter
“We both voted Leave,” says Jeannette Cowie, 71, who is shopping with her husband, Stan. “Part of it for me was being told the NHS would be getting back money that goes to the EU. Hopefully it still will but we don’t know.
“We’ve worked all our lives and I really hope that young people will still be able to find work. It will be such a shame if they cant.”
Others in the city who voted Leave remain certain that Brexit is the right way forward.
“I don’t really believe the Nissan issue is to do with Brexit,” says John Childs, also 71. “I think it’s more to do with people not buying as many diesel cars.
“I wouldn’t like there to be another referendum, but I would vote Leave again. People made their choice, but whose who want us to stay in Europe are trying to stop us. It would be better to have a deal, but if we don’t get one that suits us we should walk away.”
But others say they have been left confused by the constant arguments among politicians in Westminster around Brexit and are unsure how leaving Europe will ultimately affect the city.
At the Dip Shop, in Maritime Street, where customers are queuing for corned beef hash and mince dumplings, worker Tracey Smith says: “I think its ridiculous that Nissan are making this decision now and that they haven’t thought of this before.
Union leaders have pressed Nissan for guarantees on jobs and future production [PA]
I voted Leave because I think we send too much money to Europe. I wish it would all be done with
Jeff Allison, Leave voter
“I know a lot of people who work there. At the moment they feel their jobs are on the line. I didn’t vote in the referendum because I couldn’t make up my mind which way to go.
“All you hear about at the moment is Brexit. One person is saying this and another is saying that. We’re going round in circles and I really just don’t know what to think.”
Alex Bainbridge, 41, who used to work in the car parts industry, says: “When we used to go to the pub, we’d talk about football and our children, but now we just talk about Brexit.
“It’s Catch 22. We’d probably be better off partly in and partly out. Nissan will always put its own interests first, but the arguing among politicians doesn’t help.”
One person who will be affected by the Nissan decision is Jeff Allison, 53, who works in the car manufacturer’s supply chain.
Sunderland has along history of building [Getty Images]”Nissan pulling the new X-Trail isn’t a good sign,” he tells i as he walks down John Street.
“It will affect supply chain companies. I’m fed up with Brexit. I voted Leave because I think we send too much money to Europe. I wish it would all be done with. But I’m sure Nissan will survive.”
Land of ship makers
Back at Keel Square, a man in a blue woollen hat is walking his dog towards the memorial dedicated to Sunderland’s ships and an artwork that contains the photographs of 500 former Sunderland shipyard workers.
Emblazoned on the monument are the words: “Workers of the Wear, builders of ships, propellers of the city.”
“Don’t ask me about Brexit,” says the man with the dog as he hurries past. “I couldn’t give a monkey’s about how it turns out.”