Monday, October 5, 2015

Day 35 - Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

It’s a glorious morning with bright blue sky and lovely cool temperature. St Pancras Station clock tower shines at the end of Argyle Street as I wait with the luggage on the footpath while Hubby goes in to check out.  When he returns I’m successful in persuading him to get a cab rather than drag our luggage on the tube with sore feet. I suspect I’m suffering as much as Hubby these days. Why oh why did I buy new waterproof shoes. I haven’t needed them.
Our route to Victoria Station takes us along an interesting route past Brunswick Square and ornate Australia House and onto the Strand. We have unwittingly been so close to Australia House and not realised it. We round the corner and we’re at Somerset House. We keep on and pass Trafalgar Square. I think how very fitting today when we’re on our way to Portsmouth to see HMS Victory. I notice the statue of a horse skeleton. What’s that about? Down along Horse Guards Road. Past Buckingham Palace with the Victoria Memorial, the gilded pinnacle resplendent in morning sunshine. If I could have devised a route to make the most of our drive on the way out of London it would be hard to come up with a more lovely one thismorning.
The journey south is something of a blur. A large ancient building on hill north west of Lancing makes an impressive sight viewed from the train and I resolve to look up what it could be.
Our arrangements require us to get off at Fratton where Enterprise will meet us at the station with a hire car. If they’ve told us to call when we get there I’ve forgotten all about it and can only remember that they said they’d pick us up at 11.30. By the time we ring to see what’s going on and they’ve made their way down here we’ve slipped a little but nothing drastic. Back at the car rental office we are doing paperwork. We have a little Ford number and what a tinny piece of crap it is compared to the Seat we’ve been driving around in Scotland. Hard to believe they are both in the same class and same price per day. This one doesn’t fit our luggage in the boot so one suitcase needs to go on the back seat. The service isn’t as good as the Enterprise outlets in Edinburgh and Glasgow either. For some reason here they feel they need to underline that the change we made to our original prepaid booking is not normally allowed and how good are they that they met our need. Then a little lecture about making a flexible booking if we’re not sure of our plans. Patronising little squirt. It’s not good service to point out how grateful we should be for the service. Luckily it’s not long before we are in the car and driving away because that bloke was really giving me the shits. I make a conscious decision to let it go and enjoy our day.  We’re making directly to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
There’s a couple of obvious parking options near to the Dockyard but we take the official Dockyard one even though it is slightly further away from the Entrance. We hobble around high brick walls that have shards of glass embedded in the top to deter trespassers. I’m diverted by a strange statue of a child lifting her skirt and handing a coin to a man. What the? I head over to investigate and find that there is a longstanding although recently defunct tradition of “mudlarking” that is children touting for people to throw coins into the mud for them to retrieve. Tricks and schemes to induce greater sums are all part of the game.  Looking out at the water we can see the tall masts of HMS Warrior. What an impressive sight she is.
We head on in past a man on gate duty retrieve our tickets and a map and consider our plan of attack. Warrior is tempting and so beautifully close by but conscious of our ever limited time we decide we’ll go to the furthest point of the dockyard and tick off the sights in priority order. That means we’re headed for HMS Victory. Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s quite a long way and we’re diverted for a few moments to watch the boats that visitors can drive around outside the Action Stations building. Wouldn’t this place be fantastic fun for kids.
I’m a little disconcerted to find the Victory dismasted and in dry dock. She’s currently undergoing restoration work. The information available to us suggests this was supposed to finish long ago but she’s still clearly being caught indisposed. I try to imagine her with her rigging in place. There’s a large display board alongside her that explains the masts, rigging and sails of a first rate ship of the line. I’ll study that at my leisure later. I am usually pretty good at visualising things but it’s a struggle to see Victory as she would be fully ship shape. Even with her masts off, the scale of the ship makes her impossible to capture in a photograph away from the hoardings and construction scaffolding used for her repair. She is very large indeed. We flash our tickets again and this time resist the offer of a souvenir guide book. £6.50 is pretty steep and fresh from carrying our excess baggage that is largely composed of attraction guides, I resist.  Up the gangway and through an ornate opening in the ship’s hull, we’re into the ship and right amongst the guns which are lined up facing the gun ports as far as the eye can see. Wow. Even indisposed she is one magnificent vessel. Easily the most impressive we’ve seen and easily the most important as well. The leather buckets and ram rods for firing the guns are all there awaiting action. This is really worth seeing. Myths are dispelled about gun recoil and detailed information provided about the various guns. What an extraordinary thing it is to walk these decks. I am experienced now and I know that this time spent stalking the ghosts of an 18th century battleship is going to mellow and mature over time, my appreciation will expand as I finish reading the beautifully written two volume biography of Nelson I have waiting for me at home. I only managed to get through his childhood and some of his very early career before we came away. What an amazing thing it would be to see this ship in full sail. What a dream to see it with a full complement of seamen lined up at action stations.
We head down the stairs, which are pretty generous in their proportions, to the gun deck below. A sign explains the conditions during battle. There’s less light down here. I marvel again at the extraordinary developments in camera technology. A film camera would never in a million years manage to capture most of the interior spaces.
We move along, guided by the ropes that corral visitors along the carefully thought out route around the ship pausing to read information boards here and there. There’s also a number of guides stationed strategically on the different decks but mostly they seem to be slacking off and for a long while I don’t realise that their job is actually to engage with us and tell us about the different areas. One fellow is making himself useful measuring the distance the chairs are from the captain’s dining table, concerned that lest he do it right it just looks a mess. The chairs nearest the ropes suffer most from people feeling a compulsion to move them. Across the way Nelson’s dress uniform is on display resplendent with high honours. Is that original? I suppose it must be. Wow. …Wow. Nelson’s ghost haunts this ship. Resting on the table a display case contains the ceremonial sword of the First Sea Lord, here on his flagship. It just blows my mind that HMS Victory is still the flagship of the Royal Navy.
Recording these impressions a few weeks later, looking at the photos already I don’t recall if there was information to explain what the box like tented hammock affair was. Should have added that expensive guide book on the Victory to our guide book hoard. Sigh. Maybe it’s Nelson’s bed? It’s beautifully embroidered so perhaps it must be. I think I was wondering the same at the time. The guide book would probably tell me. One day maybe I might get to see the Victory in all her splendour when her overhaul has been completed. If so I will buy the guide book!!
Hanging in a position where most sane people would be tempted to have a go at it, is the drum that I guess was used to beat time for the gun drills. Naturally there’s a sign saying not to touch. We move along to see the bilboes where offenders were constrained prior to punishment.
It is fascinating to learn about the sick bay and the changes that were quickly made to the ship for battle. Once again I am struck by how fantastic it is to learn about this history with the benefit of seeing the real thing. To consider Naval warfare on this of all gunships. I will never tire of the urge to congratulate British people on their extraordinary commitment to preserving their heritage. It is truly humbling to see the nationwide evidence of just how proud the community is and the enduring reverence for figures like Nelson and Wellington or for that matter Robert Burns or William Wallace.
Our tour continues past the galley which is large and equipped with state of the art equipment for its day. It’s a really pleasant space actually and I can think of far worse set ups in which to prepare food. It’s all in very good condition also. Very evocative.
We go down again and again exploring the quarters of the young gentlemen (midshipmen), visit the storage areas and learn how they managed the gunpowder and the risks associated with it. As we descend the light gets less and less and eventually the camera is defeated. Flash photography is not allowed. The lower echelons sleep in almost total darkness. In the lowest depths of the ship is the area for bulk storage of food and coal and other general stores. I never imagined that gun ships in the days of sail were so sophisticated or so large or with so many levels. If we include to open deck there must be at least 5 levels to her.
The most affecting area of the ship is the presentation on the death of Nelson. The original is long gone, but they have on hand for viewing a large cask of the type that Nelson’s body was placed in, submerged in alcohol for the journey back to Britain where he was buried in Westminster Abbey. I had never given the remotest thought to the logistics around repatriating a body in those days but apparently this was the established practice for senior officers. This information is given to us by a guide who is actually working.  The personal interaction really enhances the experience. Standing here on the Victory, I feel extremely saddened to think of the nation’s loss and how sombre it must have been on board carrying his remains home.  It’s amazing to stand at the place where Nelson was killed and where earlier in the battle the ship’s secretary was cut in two by flying shot, his lower ranked remains promptly and without ceremony flung overboard.
Victory had suffered some damage in the battle and having returned safely was then sent back to where she was built at Chatham for repair. That’s where she should be now. The place where her refits were done in the past. Chatham. We know from our visit there that the Chatham Historic Dockyard is very much of the view that she should return there. It makes sense that should be so and I emerge from the ship in agreement with Chatham. Victory should be at the dockyard where she was built when she is undergoing work. Victory was pensioned off to Portsmouth in 1922 while Chatham was still a working dockyard. She’d been where she is for 50 years before returning permanently to Chatham was an option, so it's not likely that's going to be taken away from Portsmouth. Still, wouldn't it be fantastic to see continuing to sail back and forth. 
Done with HMS Victory our next target is the remains of the Mary Rose in its purpose built museum. We pass by the ship’s bell and on into a gallery with some information panels containing contextual information on the ship. To move into the Museum proper we need to navigate some doors that open every few minutes and close again while we watch a short film of the Mary Rose and her demise which open again to let us on our way, sending pulses of human visitors into the gallery.
We peer into the enormous chamber where the remains of the hull are now being carefully dried after a couple of decades of being sprayed with a sort of wax solution with which the salt water supporting the now fragile structure of the wood has been replaced. It’s in an advanced state of destruction. Along the opposite wall are items recovered from that area of the ship. Guns quite often but a myriad of other treasures, large and small. The museum is designed on levels coinciding with the levels of the ship and the remaining hull. The hull I can live without. The relics are absolutely extraordinary as is the excavation and the magnitude of the task they set themselves raising all of this from the sea bed. We spend a couple of hours slowly moving around the exhibits and reading about what they are and what has been learned from them. It’s almost unbelievable what has survived. They have everything from skulls and a skeleton of crew members and forensic mock ups of what they may have looked like. Most on board perished due to the anti-boarding netting that was in place to prevent the ship being boarded and taken by hostile forces. Not only humans but animals too. The skeleton of the ship’s dog sits in its glass case 570 years after death. And they believe they know who some of the skeletons are as they were found within spaces and alongside belongings that give strong circumstantial evidence to back up the forensic analysis of the affects of their occupation on their skeleton. The whole presentation is fascinating. We are completely absorbed. I am amazed when we come to the display about the long bows. The wreck contained cases of long bows and cases of arrows. Presumably this is the best of them arranged so beautifully behind the glass. What they’ve found has revolutionised understanding of long bow technology. There is also a hands on experience where a member of staff guides you having a go of a couple of newly made long bows of different hardnesses. I am quick to accept an offer of a turn and others follow me.
We read and watch with interest the displays and presentations about the salvage of the Mary Rose. Surprise surprise, the President of the Mary Rose Trust, which gets no public funding, is Prince Charles and he was also among the volunteer divers who contributed so many thousands of hours to painstakingly reveal the treasure beneath the silt.  Is there no end to the heritage projects the prince champions.
Absolutely gobsmacked at what we have seen, the Mary Rose Museum has completely and comprehensively exceeded our expectations, we talk to each other about our wonderment and our admiration of the conservation effort as we make our way out through the gift shop.  It’s unbelievable. Outside once more, Hubby heads back to buy the guide book. Obviously we have to have the guide book on the Mary Rose. 
It’s now approaching 4:30 and I commence an earnest search for some toilets. Every facility I can find is closed for cleaning. There follows a ludicrous hunt around the enormous scale of the dockyard in search of an accessible toilet. In the end in desperation I just go in and ignore the bloody sign. It’s not all bad though because the hunt has brought us to the coin operated machines in Boathouse 4 and we waste 10 minutes or so watching them operate. Most are pretty funny, a definite favourite being the one that presents a hanging!
What now? We check out our map and note that we have the narrowest of margins to make last entry to the only possible further exhibit today. It’s way back down the other end of the dockyard though. Hubby’s inclined to leave it for today and I’m inclined to agree. We’re in wind down at the end of a long, exhausting trip. Let’s head home, or really, let’s head over and check into our B&B. Hubby leads us back to through the gate that is patently not closed despite the signage.
We’re staying tonight in the historic area of Portsmouth and in particular the highly rated Fortitude Cottage. The operator’s son who’s home from the Army at the moment gives us the run down on breakfast and parking (glad we didn’t pay and display before coming in and seeing our hosts). We’re keen to get something to eat so we put the parking permit on the dashboard and head down the street. It’s a beautiful mild day. There’s a fabulous view of the Spinnaker Tower and the Historic Dockyard over the water. The light has that golden glow about it and people are congregated around the pubs enjoying a sociable drink. It’s a beautiful spot to get together that’s for sure.  We’ve been advised to continue past the Spice Island Inn and on to the Still and West just around the corner which is just as busy at the outdoor tables. 
It’s tempting to just sit outside but it will cool off as the evening progresses so we head inside to the dining room slightly delayed by stopping to admire a beautiful vase of fragrant oriental lilies, richly pink offset by blue Delphiniums. We have a choice of tables at this early time. It’s only just after six.  We take a seat and peruse the menu waiting for the staff to bring the portable specials board over for us.  It’s a beautifully relaxing ambiance and the views across Portsmouth Harbour are wonderful. I spend a little time considering how difficult maintenance of the paintwork on the sea side of the room must be. It seems to be a pretty sheer drop to the rocks below.  Watching the Wightlink and Channel ferries coming in to their dock is really impressive.  We’re in no hurry here. Really I cannot recall the last time I ate somewhere that felt so relaxing. And this despite my chair not being all that comfy for my particular bottom. 
To start we have decided to share a serve of salt and pepper squid. This arrives on a bed of leaves, tentacles upper most and rings beneath, a lovely little dish of aioli on the side for dipping. Well. This is unexpected. Remember the squid at Fritzel’s Schnitzels? I say to Hubby. Over thirty years ago there was a schnitzel house in Sydney that we used to go to when we were dating. Sometimes we’d just go for the calamari (squid) and leave, raising the eyebrows of the staff. It was the BEST calamari. We still talk of it often. In all our lives we have had a lot of calamari most of it very good, but a couple of places it was amazing and truly memorable. Best of all was at Dining Room 1, one of Stefano’s restaurants in Mildura in regional Victoria back in 2005. Second best for quality, but unbeatable as sentimental favourite was at Fritzel’s Schnitzels. It was baby squid. It was superbly tender. The coating was crisp and light and in perfect balance to the squid. Well. I’m sure it’s obvious by now that this squid at Still and West is as good. Not nearly as good. It’s as good. I wish we’d ordered a serve each. It is absolutely beautiful.
Looking out at the golden light falling on the harbour that stretches off into the distance reminds me of home and Sydney Harbour. Portsmouth Harbour is extremely impressive and scenic too. Hubby sips his beer and I’m doing the same with my cloudy apple juice watching the sun set.
All of a sudden our reverie is interrupted by the arrival of our mains. Hubby’s done what I’m thinking could be risky. He’s having the roast with Yorkshire pudding. I’ve opted for bangers and mash after bit of a struggle. I was tempted by the fish and chips. We haven’t had much fish and chips this trip – much to my surprise.  I can’t resist nicking a bit of the Yorkie. It’s as crisp as it looks. Hubby really enjoys his dinner. My bangers and mash are delicious too and the caramelised red onion gravy is beautifully sweet and tangy. It’s a beautiful meal. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  I really was not expecting to have one of the most enjoyable overall dining experiences of the trip here, I really wasn’t.  We tie.
We get cocky. How about dessert? I’m tempted by the apple crumble but I’m still wary. I take our waitress by surprise and ask whether the crumble topping is cooked on the apple or added later. Cooked on. Right easy choice for me. I’ll have the apple crumble. I look expectantly at Hubby waiting for his selection. He’s going with the Lavender panna cotta with berry coulis and shortbread. He wins. Easily. My crumble topping is cooked on and the dessert arrives in a hot ramekin that has just come out of the oven, but the crumble topping is hard like finely ground bullets sprinkled over the fruit. Sigh. How disappointing. It’s still a cheat’s apple crumble. Perhaps I should just send them a recipe. I couldn’t discern much lavender scent in the panna cotta but it was at least nice and creamy. It’s a shame about the dessert. We’re keen to get home and rest today. We have no joy getting the attention of someone to bring us our bill so Hubby wanders over to the bar and I sit in the comfy… oooh that IS a comfy sofa. Gee I can see myself just chilling out here over a drink. The friendly host has come over to help us and he agrees. The sofa is deadly after a long shift. You sit down in it and just don’t want to get back up.  But we drag ourselves out.
Down at ground level the Spinaker Tower is lit in bright colours that rotate through a spectrum, the colour shifting gradually to the next every ooh, maybe 20 seconds or so. It’s beautiful. The evening is cool but not cold. We stand and watch as we stroll. Hubby’s feet are sore so he’s keen not to be standing in one spot. Standing is harder than walking for him so he goes across to a bench to sit down. I’m mesmerised by the display. It’s a beautiful night and a beautiful scene.
We’re on our way in, all set for the night, having made sure we’ve got what we need from the car before going inside.  Our room is very comfortable. What a lovely day we’ve had.

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