Portsmouth and The Historic Dockyard

We spent our first entire day in England in Portsmouth. We only had to walk a few steps from our hotel to come to the Historic Dockyards, and if you are going to Portsmouth, that´s pretty much where you are going, as far as I can figure. This is what Portsmouth is all about, after all: warfare at sea.

There is a small museum on the grounds, and something called The Action Rooms, which is a kind of educational playground for kids. However, the real attraction of this place is the three war ships on display: the Mary Rose, the HMS Victory, and the HMS Warrior. All examples of the best and most advanced technology of their time.

There isn´t much left of the Mary Rose. For a Swede, it´s hard not to compare with the Vasa, which is more than 100 years younger.

The Mary Rose sank in 1545, while leading an attack on an invading French fleet, after serving 33 years in King Henry VIII´s navy. She was discovered in 1971, buried in the Solent just outside Portsmouth, and salvaged in 1982. Actually, they used the same salvage vessel, the Sleipner, as was used to take up the Vasa.

Only half of her remains, and the museum is built like a multi-storied walkway around a gigantic display case, where the conditions are being monitored for the continued preservation of what remains of her.

Also exhibited are what was found in and around the wreck: canons, shoes, pots and pans, small things that - together with educational displays - give witness to what life was really like onboard. Some of the crew members have been reconstructed from their bones even, really bringing the past to life.

The second ship on display is the HMS Victory, the commandship piloted by the famous Horation Nelson, who also died onboard at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. She also served in the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary War.

She is now in a dry dock, and visitors are welcome to walk around as they please, more or less. It´s hard to imagine now how it must have been out at sea, going to battle. It all looks so cosy, snug and quaint somehow, and then you see the leg irons and realize it must have been pretty hard, after all.

A few photos, to give you my impressions:

The third ship on display is the HMS Warrior, which is still very much in the water. It feels like it´s tip-top battle ready, just waiting for the men to go aboard and sail towards the enemy. This was the first British battleship to be ironhulled, and it had a steam engine as well as sails. It´s an odd hybrid of old and new, ancient and modern. Launched in 1860, she was declared redundant in 1923, when even the navy schools didn´t want her anymore.

It´s an amazing experience to walk around her. She feels more like a battleship than the Victory does I think, perhaps it´s all that iron, and the dark belly of the engine rooms that give the impression of power and destruction. I remember all those old films about heroic sea captains talking to the engine room, where the officers seemed to inhabit a whole different world, a whole different reality. Even Star Trek had that structure on the Enterprise, with Scotty trying to hold the ship together.

What struck me most is how the crew all lived among the canons, ate there, slept there. Considering how many tables there were and how many plates could be set on every table, you really understand how many men they would have fit into that ship, going into battle.

The contrast to the officer´s dining room couldn´t be more telling of the hierarchical system of the navy. And guns and sables placed here and there, like a set of fine table ware or something.

This very friendly carpenter was happy to talk about his work and pose for a picture at his carpenter´s bench. I have found that so many British museums are full of elderly men and women, entusiastically upholding traditional handicrafts, sometimes making museums possible with their free labour. I´m sure Bletchley Park or any of the museum steam railways or old batteries from the Second World War we have visited over the years wouldn´t even be open if it wasn´t for this white-haired army with deep knowledge and love of the old ways. 

I recommend anyone with the slightest interest in history, and going to England, to visit Portsmouth and the Historic Dockyards. Make sure you have a whole day at your disposal, though. We had one more thing I absolutely wanted to do and had to run for it late in the afternoon. Actually, one ship a day would have been more digestible. Great, great fun!

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