Clichéd it may be, but as I haven’t been abroad much this year for a variety of reasons, I’ve been rediscovering quite how beautiful and interesting this country is – particularly when the sun shines! One of the first adventures of my British summer was what was for me a return visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards. Even before the brand-new Mary Rose Museum opened this summer, the Dockyards were high on my personal list of one of the best museums in the world – and I don’t make that claim lightly. I’ve seen quite a few after writing 30 guidebooks on four continents.
Henry VIII built the world’s oldest dry docks in Portsmouth in 1495 and the city is still home to two-thirds of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet. With commercial shipping, ferries and pleasure boats also using the harbour, saltwater is built into every stone and every stone can spin a naval yarn. I’ve quite literally spent days in the Historic Dockyards and there are whole sections I still haven’t seen. A single day isn’t nearly enough. It is huge, it is action-packed and the maritime history is astounding.
A Warrior Ship
As it was my partner’s first visit, we started off on HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled steam-driven war ship, built in 1860. She is a thing of beauty, straddling the worlds of wind and power, still with soaring mast and rigging. Sadly as a national monument, her ladder stairs are definitely not easily
navigated by arthritic knees and I chose to stay on deck and chatted to a very nice lady from Canada and a former sailor from Liverpool, both also clutching walking sticks, while Mark explored below. Unlike them however, I had been lucky enough to go below before – for an extraordinarily memorable banquet years ago, eaten at trestle tables between the ship’s guns – and I couldn’t possibly top the memory of that spectacular night.
Henry’s Seventh Queen
From there, we walked up to the far end of the site (it’s a fair way) to the main focus of our visit, the ship-shaped Mary Rose Museum. For any Rip van Winkel who’s been asleep for the last 35 or so years and has missed the blaze of publicity that surrounded her discovery, recovery and restoration, The Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s flagship. She sank in the Solent on the 19 July 1545, while facing an invading French fleet. No one knows quite what caused her to sink although some think that she had been over-enlarged and made top-heavy. Only 35 of the well over 400 men on board survived (some say up to 700). Some 179 bodies were recovered with the wreck along with over 19,000 artifacts.
I’ve always felt a slight proprietorial interest in The Mary Rose as she was discovered just as I was graduating with a newly minted archaeology degree and they were advertising for archaeologists with diving capabilities to work on the wreck. A different decision and she could have been my life’s work. I’ve tracked her progress ever since.
While it has been possible to see many of the finds in a different museum and see the murky outline of the hull in the process of renovation for years, it is only recently that the sprays of glycol preservative fluid on the timbers have been switched off and you can see it clearly. They are spectacular – you can understand how England lost her forests to these soaring slabs of oak. It wasn’t possible to move the delicate structure, so the museum was built around the ship with the artefacts moved to the other side of the three corridors that float between the two halves of the display.
The result is a breathtaking tour of life on board – sombre, compelling, beautifully presented and documented, with superb lighting and, full marks, proper disabled access. Mark, for whom ‘OK’ is normally high praise was moved to say that it was ‘the most interesting thing he’d ever seen’. For me, it was the tiny details that made the tragedy seem so fresh, the life aboard so vivid – the minute silver ends from an officer’s shoelaces, the plates from the galley, a finely carved manicure set, coils of tarred rope, English long bows and arrows and wildfire near the crows’ nest, ready to rain down on the French, the skeleton of the ship’s dog.
Victory and scones
It says something of the quality of the Dockyards that HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship from Trafalgar and scene of his tragic death, one of the most famous and fascinating ships in the world comes in second! By the time we got on board, we were almost ‘museumed out’ – there had been such sensory overload. You really need, if possible, to take advantage of the year-long ticket and return several times to let your brain catch up.
A harbour boat tour (all part of the museum ticket and well worth it) and we called it day. We’d done perhaps half of what there was to see, perhaps less. We hadn’t been near Action Stations or the main museum, but I couldn’t walk any further, our brains were about to explode and the café had stopped serving anything that I could eat. All that seemed to be on offers was the odd sandwich and cream scones and I don’t eat wheat or dairy. OK, I know I’m picky but many smaller museums manage to rustle up a bowl of soup or a salad all day and these days, I’m not alone.
So at the end of my visit, I’d like to make two teeny tiny requests, rather than complaints. I absolutely accept that there are huge difficulties putting full disabled access into the old ships but perhaps the museum authorities could consider putting on some kind of golf buggy or bus to take less able walkers from one end of the site to the other so we could keep our walking energy for looking around. And could they please keep serving some sort of meal that doesn’t involve bread through the afternoon for those who’ve got carried away in the museums and lost track of time?
Other than that, the whole experience was superb and I will go back again and again. One day, perhaps, I will see it all, but by then, I feel sure there will be more to discover. Portsmouth may not be on everyone’s tourist map, but the Historic Dockyards should be. Going down the docks with Mary Rose is a gloriously British day out.
Melissa was given a press ticket for entry to the Historic Dockyards; Mark paid for his admission. If you want to know more about the Mary Rose, try http://www.maryrose.org or this article on the museum in Current Archaeology. The Mary Rose photos are (c) The Mary Rose Museum.