The historic dockyard in the Royal Naval Base of Portsmouth is a treasure trove of British naval history throughout the centuries. In the one area, the Mary Rose from the mid-1500s, Admiral Nelson’s famous HMS Victory from the late-1700s and Britain’s first iron-armoured battleship, HMS Warrior from 1860 stand proud from the era where naval power was a passport to military dominance. A combined ticket offers good value to see all three ships along with a handful of museums.
From the seafaring figurehead at the front of the ship, elegant yellow and black paintwork, the network of rigging on the masts and the superbly constructed (though smallish) admiral quarters encased in numerous windows at the stern of the ship, HMS Victory has a regal feel. The hull is constructed from two feet (60 centimetres) of solid oak.
By contrast, the cramped conditions with over 100 cannons and 800 men in a tight space must have made sea battles a hell on water. Utilising every inch of space, the men’s hammocks swayed over the cannons while even the dining tables hung from ropes. People of even average height today need to duck to avoid striking their heads on the beams below decks.
With the pride of victory at Britain’s most famous sea battle at Trafalgar, HMS Victory remains in commission as the navy’s oldest ship. A plaque marks the location where Nelson was shot in the shoulder by a French musket ball. He died below decks three hours later, victory having being secured, supposedly uttering the words “Kiss me, Hardy” to the ship’s captain. On 21 October every year to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, marine flags representing Nelson’s famous expression “England expects that every man will do his duty" are hoisted.
Remarkably, one of HMS Victory’s large sails (around 25 metres by 15 metres), scarred with an estimated 90 shots from the French navy in the Battle of Trafalgar is on display in a special separate room.
Nearby is the Mary Rose, or more accurately a cross-section of it. Having capsized and sunk in 1545, King Henry VIII’s flagship lay on the seabed until she was retrieved in 1982, the portion that lay above the seabed having being consumed by marine woodworms. Today she sits in a ghostly mist of glycol behind Perspex windows, using the same longwinded but successful preservation method as the Swedish Vasa. A staggering number of artefacts are displayed nearby.
HMS Warrior reveals the life of a seaman in Queen Victoria’s time. This giant iron-hulled warship, replete with both steam power and sails never fought a battle. Her mere foreboding presence, power and heavy armory supposedly deterred all enemies. Again the starkness of the living conditions between the senior officers and the seamen and the cramped living conditions are visually striking.
Though a dull town, the harbour is a flourishing centre of activity with modern naval craft competing for space with the hordes of ferries heading for the neighbouring Isle of Wight or the European mainland. Portsmouth dockyards are a travel wonder making a wonderful day reliving naval history through three well-displayed and exceptional ships of their day giving a small sense of the harsh lives that the seafarers lived, especially in battle.
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Photo Source: Mary Rose