Saturday, 4 January 2014

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

I visited Portsmouth Historic Dockyard today with my parents, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. I'm not a massive fan of naval history, but it was so interesting learning about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, the Mary Rose and the HMS Warrior. We had an hour tour around the HMS Victory, Nelson's ship, which is the oldest commissioned war ship in the world. It was built in 1765, so the ship was forty years old when Nelson lost his life at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. 821 men served on the ship, and it was amazing to see how the ship had been designed to accompany this amount of men, plus the food, the cannons and gunpowder. Our tour guide brought the history to life, describing the daily life of a man on the ship, how a wound would be treated, showing us where Nelson slept and explaining the different punishments the men would face. (The phrase 'let the cat out of the bag' comes from the idea that the cat o 'nine tails was taken up in a bag to the top deck when someone was to be punished, and it would be taken out of the bag and then used on the offender - usually between 12 and 48 times. The other phrase, 'no room to swing a cat' also comes from this - this punishment was always administered on the top deck to show men they would be wise not to misbehave but also because there was no room to flog an offender below deck - hence, no room to swing a cat o' nine tails.)

From there we visited the Royal Navy Museum and had a quick walk around the HMS Warrior in the rain. The ship was commissioned in 1861 but "never fired its cannon in anger." It was the fastest and most powerful ship at the time and acted as a deterrent to other nations. Don't mess with the Warrior, basically.

The new Mary Rose Museum was also open. £35 million had been spent on preserving the wreckage and creating the museum, and I can honestly say it was worth it. The exhibition describes how the ship was built and it has recreated a passageway so you can walk alongside the wreckage. The ship sank in 1545, and at the moment air is continually pumped out to preserve the remains. It will take four years to dry, and it was so interesting to see the wooden planks where hundreds of men would have walked up and down, shouting and obeying orders, and chillingly, where they met their death. (Only 35 survived when the crew numbered roughly 600). The artefacts were incredible - plates, cutlery, shoes, cannons, cannon balls, books, chests, jewellery - the list is endless. What I found the most fascinating however, was the facial reconstructions of some of the crew members. Several skeletons had been analysed and archaeologists estimated what they looked like and their professions. For example, the face of the master carpenter had been reconstructed and it was possible to tell he liked archery (from wear on his bones), he was literate (books were found in his berth), he was in his 30s and 5ft 7inches; an abscess in his jaw meant he could only chew on the right side of his mouth and he had arthritis in his spine and ribs. INCREDIBLE to have this amount of detail. It takes us one step closer to the past, to know what a man might have been like - what someone liked to do or felt at a particular time. The museum also described an archer, a cook, an accountant - all from their bones.

Such a wonderful visit and a reminder to me, if it's necessary, that history stirs my soul.

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