Portsmouth Dockyard review
I'm trying to remember the last time I saw the sea... I think it was about fifteen years ago, smoking a fag on Brighton beach. Do you remember when your parents drove you down to the seaside when you were kids and said: "The first one to see the sea gets 10p!" Well, that is what I am doing right now, sitting on the train to Portsmouth, trying to spy the sea. I'm too old for sandcastles though. I'm off to see HMS Victory in Portsmouth Harbour -- that's the boat that carried Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. It seems almost miraculous to me that it still survives. Can it really be the same boat that split the line in 1805? Surely not -- I don't believe it.
I'm quite looking forward to stepping inside it, if I'm honest, because Nelson is one of my heroes (I'm getting very patriotic in my old age). Apparently he was a bit of an idiot in real life though. He was the kind of guy who talked about himself in the third-person, and filled his house with paintings of his own face. He insisted on wearing all of his medals too -- all fifty thousand of them at once, jingling and jangling like a one-mad band. He didn't do modesty, that is for sure. He knew he was good, and told everyone worth telling.
The other standout boat in Portsmouth Harbour is even older: Henry VIII's flagship from 1545 -- the Mary Rose. That's the one they managed to pull from the sea in 1982 -- 440 years after it got sank by the French.
As soon as you get off the train you will be glad you came. There is nothing like the fresh smell of the sea and the sound of seagulls wheeling around in the wind. Portsmouth Harbour is a bit of a misnomer because it's more like a port -- it is absolutely huge. You can't even total up the boats on the other side of the bay because they are too far away to see. It's just a distant picket fence of bright white masts spiking up out of the water. On this side I've got a big boat which I don't know the name of (yet) and a messy yard of upturned fishing boats and fish nets, with piles of coiled up rope. It's a proper seafront, with grubby seaside pubs and the smell of seafood and seaweed. There's a couple of tanker-sized car ferries too, probably off to the Isle of Wight.
The historic dockyard is just a few minutes walk from the train station, and I don't mind admitting that I choked up a bit when I first clapped eyes on the Victory. I am standing in front of her right now, with a little tear in my eye. There she is -- I can hardly believe it. And she looks exactly like she's been described as well (which makes sense, I suppose, seeing as she's the same thing). She's missing her sails, of course, but half of the masts are up and every porthole has got a cannon in it. When you step inside you'll see her decked out exactly as she was on the day of the battle. But here's the caveat: she looks like she did BEFORE the battle. There is no damage on her at all. It's like looking at Bridget Bardot after sixty years of plastic surgery. She's been beautified to within an inch of her life. I would have quite liked them to have left some of the damage intact, so we could see her battle scars, but I can't see a single scratch or scrape. There are no shrapnel scars, no splinters, no smashed up planks. Everything has been replaced and made to look like new. And notice that I said REPLACED -- not repaired. I had a chat with one of the navy guys onboard and he reckons that only 25% of the wood is original. It's a bit of a shame really; it makes her into a !@$%. But who cares anyway -- it's HMS Victory!
Because they've decided to restore it, and not leave it alone, every six steps is decorated with an historical object or artefact. There must be hundreds of cannons and cannonballs, to the reddy-gold lanterns and wooden buckets on the deck, and linen beds and slap-dash tables filled with biscuits and barrels of grog. It's almost as if they lifted her straight out of time and plonked her down in Portsmouth Harbour.
The Mary Rose is situated just ten steps away from the Victory, in a modern looking museum they've built especially to house her. It's a bit weird though, because the most impressive part of the wreck is not the ship's timbers themselves, but the thousands of artefacts that they pulled up with them. It really is amazing what they've managed to retrieve from below the seabed. The glass cases are stuffed full of cannons and cups and combs, and bizarre stuff like a backgammon board, the skeleton of a dog, and a whole shoe shop of Tudor shoes. They've even got a full-size skeleton of one of the archers, alongside some bows, bellows, brooms and flutes.
The last boat that you can board in the main yard is the same one that I saw at the beginning -- HMS Warrier. It's one of our very first ironclads from the 1860s. It's worth a look, but it lacks the history of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose. There are also a couple of other boats to visit across the bay, including a WWII submarine, but you have to board a waterbus to see those. Unfortunately I ran out of time at this point and had to give them a miss. I'd already spent close to four hours looking around the boats and associated museums, and I couldn't squeeze in a waterbus plus another boat (plus the waterbus back), followed by a two-hour train ride back to London. So here's my advice: plan your day and decide which boats you want to board beforehand, otherwise you will run out of time. But in hindsight I probably spent a crazy amount of time floating around the Victory, looking at every nail and speck of sawdust, so you might have better luck fitting them in than me.
So that's about it really. The rest of the port is home to the Royal Navy's modern-day fleet, but you can't go anywhere near those without getting arrested. I was quite surprised to learn that over 50% of Britain's entire fleet can now fit inside these docks -- which shows you how small our navy is these days. But it does look pretty formidable though -- some of the ships I spied from afar looked like they could blow a hole in the world.
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