Southampton has turned out to be disadvantageous for visiting Avesbury and Stonehenge off-season. While I work on that problem, I decided to spend the day at Portsmouth’s historic dockyard (map) looking at more furious engines of war.
A shower set in as I arrived. I took refuge in the National Naval Museum, and went thru the sailing-ship part of it. There are some beautiful ship models here. Much of this building is devoted to Nelson, whom England regards with Beatlemania-like enthusiasm. His 250-year-old flagship HMS Victory is permanently dry docked outside. This too I went thru; with three gun-decks and 100 cannon, it’s an immense lot of wood.
I also looked at Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose. After a long career and service in two wars, it was rebuilt in Portsmouth. It capsized as it left the harbor, taking some 465 men and one dog down to their deaths. Restoration has progressed since my last visit 12 years ago. They’ve finished saturating it with polyethylene glycol (“wax”) and are now drying it, a process expected to take four years. An interesting gallery of artifacts surrounds the ship; they include the skeleton of the dog, found near the Master Gunner’s cabin. Windows give glimpses of the ancient hull, threaded with air conduits.
Both the Victory and the Mary Rose were infested with weeping toddlers. Their mommies kept up a cheerful commentary on the exhibits, imagining that they were being heard. I rode a harbor tour boat (with some screaming carrying on in the background). Portsmouth is still an active navy yard, and some impressive modern ships are here–a pair of frigates (destroyers) designed for missile detection and countermeasures; and the UK’s last aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious or “Rusty Lusty,” a surprisingly small ship that carried helicopters and 14 Harrier VTOL jets.
The most fascinating ship was the 1860 HMS Warrior, an iron-hulled steam-sailer. Its elegant wood panelling, gleaming brass fittings, long ranks of coal-burners and removable propellor gave it a Jules Verne fascination. It had dual steering wheels in case one was damaged–plus another pair of steering wheels on the deck below. I read that in its day it was regarded as so powerful that no enemy dared face it. I wonder if, in some alternate universe, it might have taken part in the American civil war. (More pictures)