Tuesday, September 15th, 2009: Historic Portsmouth
Lois and Phyllis were suffering from sleep deprivation and jet lag, so I didn't have the heart to wake them up until the hotel was getting ready to close off its breakfast room around 9 o'clock. At that point I thought they would rather be jolted awake than miss a free meal, so I finally knocked on their door to get the morning ball rolling. Breakfast took a while, and we didn't get into the car to drive into Portsmouth "the crack of noon", but fortunately Portsmouth was not that far away.
I parked in the garage for a modern shopping mall a couple blocks away from the historic shipyard center, and we hoofed it from there. I enjoyed some of the nautical names given to the various businesses that lined the street. Once inside the perimeter of the historic area, we bought tickets good for all of the attractions, hoping to see as many as possible before our time or Phyllis's left knee gave out.
Our first stop was the Mary Rose museum just across from the ticket center. The Mary Rose is a warship from the time of King Henry VIII that had sunk just outside Portsmouth harbor during an engagement with a French fleet. The Mary Rose was unique in that it was the first purpose-built warship of the Tudor navy and had served in the royal fleet for around 30 years before sinking within sight of land as it sailed out to engage the French. The wreck had then settled into mud on the sea floor and been covered by successive layers of mud in such a way as to preserve the lower half of the hull and many historical artifacts.
Using a large selection of the recovered artifacts, the museum displays focused on recreating the nautical life and times of that era, which I found simply fascinating. The arms and armor from the wreck included a selection of the longbows (!!!) that were apparently part of the ship's small-arms arsenal. The cannon were somewhat longer and narrower than I had expected, and the ship's armament included breech-loading swivel guns and similar ordnance.
Quite a few of the wood and leather artifacts had been perfectly preserved. Games like backgammon and checkers (I think) were played by officers or crew. Musical instruments had also been aboard, including some large recorder-like woodwinds. One artifact, a piece of hawser covered in pitch, could be handled by visitors and I was amazed that I could still smell the tar even after 500+ years!
We also toured the Mary Rose preservation hall in which the remains of the original hull are being preserved. Just like the Viking ship hulls in Roskilde, Denmark, the wooden hull of the Mary Rose was carefully retrieved from the bottom and then sprayed with ethylene glycol to replace the water and stabilize the old wood. That process is a very gradual one and will not be complete until 2012 or so, but in the meantime we could watch that process and see the remains of the hull from an observation gallery. Our view was necessarily obscured by the spray mist, but once the hull is preserved it will be displayed in a new museum together with the retrieved artifacts, I imagine.
The main reason I had wanted to visit Portsmouth was to tour HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson when the English fleet defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet off Trafalgar in 1805. That victory was crucial to ensuring English dominance of the sea for 150 years, which in turn was a prerequisite for establishing and maintaining the British Empire, so it is rightly accorded a primary spot in British history.
I am no great fan of empires, be they British, Roman, French, Russian, or American, but I do admire brave, capable people in any line of work. So for my part I admire the career and achievements of Lord Nelson so much that I wanted to see HMS Victory in order to get a feeling for how he had lived and to see the exact spot where he had died during the battle.
We entered the Victory through a low entryway on the port side lower gun deck, and predictably I cracked my head on the low ceiling, getting a bit of a bump but fortunately not breaking the skin or getting any bleeding. Our guide was a very knowledgeable man and he showed us the nicely furnished stern cabin where Nelson lived, a suspended bed where Nelson had slept, and the spot on the upper deck where Nelson had been shot. He also described the very rugged life and cramped living and eating quarters of the common sailors of the ship. We toured all the decks from the main deck to the orlop deck below and even peeked into the powder magazine, the surgery where Nelson died, and so forth.
I was thoroughly satisfied and by the time our tour was over they were getting ready to close the historical area for the day so we set off for our car. Phyllis's knee was just about ready to give out but she gamely persevered and limped back to the car while Monika and Lois visited the Cadbury Chocolate store in the shopping mall. Besides chocolate chip cookies and chocolate spears, Monika bought a 750 gram sack of "factory second" chocolates for 4 pounds that provided us with snacks until Iceland over a week later. Our bag of Cadbury "factory seconds" was about 40% chocolate-covered caramels, 35% some kind of chocolate-covered nougat-caramel mix, and maybe 25% pure milk chocolate pieces. If you ever get the chance to buy "factory second" Cadbury chocolate, grab it because that is perfectly fine tasting even if a bit misshapen chocolate, and a great value for the price! Yum.
On our drive back to the hotel, the roads were clogged with traffic and it was raining steadily, and the resultant poor visibility dramatically increased the level of difficulty. The drive was only a few miles but it was completely stop-and-go, so it took us at least an hour and I was totally exhausted by the time we arrived at the hotel. After everyone else got out of the car, I just sat in the car with my head back for a while. I finally stumbled out and Monika joined me while I walked down to the gas station and convenience store just to calm my nerves. We purchased some muffins and bread to complete our usual simple supper, after which I read a book for a couple hours to further calm down before I could finally get to sleep that night.
Copyright 2010 by R. W. Holt and E. M. Holt
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