I’ve always liked Portsmouth. I used to have to go there regularly in a former career, but I never got too much time to take in the sights and enjoy the city for the wonderful tourist attraction and monument to naval history that it is.
The Illusive Father has never been to Portsmouth, so we decided to drive down and take a long weekend to visit the city and take in the museums. We stayed at the Ibis Hotel at Winston Churchill Avenue in the city centre. The hotel staff were friendly and the place was lovely and spacious, and despite being in the city centre it was still very quiet. We arrived mid-morning on Friday, and after getting checked in, took the water taxi to the other side of the harbour to visit the museum of naval fire-power and one of the last remaining WWII-era submarines. There were a lot of parts to the Explosion museum that we didn’t get to see because of a wedding that was taking place, but even so, there was still a lot to get round.
The submarine was also very impressive: massive and yet somehow cramped and small at the same time. It was hot, humid and horrible just walking through it: it would have been amplified enormously if the sub was under the water. I would have liked to have gone round the sub again when there were fewer people walking through it – the cramped conditions inside weren’t really conducive to being able to take many photographs, or to investigate too closely.
Dinner that night was at the Old Customs House in Gunwharf Quays. I always enjoyed sitting outside there when I was in the city: guaranteed a good pint, it was always nice and cool, and the views across the docks were amazing.
The next day it was time to visit the ships: HMS Warrior, HMS Victory and HMS Mary Rose. A quick cruise around the harbour was also on the agenda: there are certain things that you just can’t see from the land and the docks.
HMS Warrior was a Victorian ironclad. She had a steam engine as well as conventional sail, and her hull was iron plated. Despite having more weight than other ships of her class and time, her steam engine made her faster and more manoeuvrable than any other ocean-going vessel of the time. Historical records show that she could end engagements by merely arriving in theatre: she never fired a shot in anger – her reputation and her power ensured that enemy ships simply surrendered. Visitors can visit all areas of all her decks, and talk with role-playing volunteers who are all experts in her history to get a sense of what life would have been like as a crewman and an officer on board this mighty ship.
HMS Victory was Admiral Nelson’s flagship, and again visitors can tour almost all of all her decks, though the lower decks are somewhat cramped, so do take care if you’re tall or prone to banging your head on low beams! Again, the ship is impressive: the sheer feat of engineering required to take all that wood and rope and fashion an ocean-going vessel is amazing. It was in pioneering such endeavours that the English became masters of the seas.
The star of the show, however, had to be the Mary Rose. She was the flagship of King Henry VIII, and was sunk in the Solent during a battle with a French fleet. There was always some debate about how she came to sink so quickly, but historical records, examinations of the wreck itself and computer reconstructions seem to point to the fact that after firing a broadside, she was coming about for another volley when the wind took her sails, pitching her into the swell of the water, allowing her gun decks to take on water through the still-open gun ports. She sank in seconds, taking 500 souls with her to the bottom of the ocean. She would spend the next 437 encased in mud, until she was raised in 1982. The remnants of her hull and decks are still being treated and preserved, so close approach is not possible. However, the museum containing her hull has been designed in such a way to allow you to see her decks on three levels, and the museum forms the other “half” of the ship, as it might have been had it survived in entirety. The number of artefacts on display is breathtaking – the amount of history that has survived equally so. I very much recommend leaving this museum until last, or doing it when you have the most time, as this certainly contains the most to see.
I hope you enjoy the photos below: I’ve done some HDR treatment on a few selected photographs, too.