Portsmouth

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Part 2: The Mary Rose Museum (and all the rest)

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Here’s part 2 of my outing in Portsmouth, which mainly means the new Mary Rose Museum.  I was probably more excited to see this than the Victory, even though I generally prefer Georgians to Tudors, simply because I think the history behind it is pretty incredible.  (Do you have the first version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song  (before the Professor and Mary Anne rated a mention) stuck in your head from my post title?  Just thought it would go with the maritime theme!)

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For those of you unfamiliar with its story, the Mary Rose was a Tudor ship (Henry VIII’s flagship) that famously suddenly sank during a skirmish with a French ship in 1545, thereby drowning most of the crew (only 25-30 people survived out of a crew of over 400).  Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Rose was actually a perfectly capable ship for the 34 years prior to sinking, so the theories as to why it sank are numerous, and include being hit by a French cannonball, a mistake during battle, or being toppled by the wind after extra guns had been loaded on board.  At any rate, the ship sat at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor until 1982, when it was hauled up and preserved.  Because the ship is understandably fragile after being underwater for over 400 years, and only half the ship survives (the half that was covered up by silt, which protected it from various hungry and probably disgusting looking sea creatures), unlike the other ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it is kept inside the museum, with scaffolding to protect it.  The actual wood has been preserved by somehow replacing the water molecules inside it with wax, which is apparently quite a lengthy process (I’m not sure of all the science behind it, but it is briefly explained inside the museum).  The end result is amazing to behold, and the fact that half the ship is missing makes it into a convenient cross-section, so you can really admire the interior.

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Although the Mary Rose is undeniably the showpiece of the collection (and you can walk past it at multiple levels to give you the chance to admire every aspect, including a trip up a “viewing lift”), it is by no means the only incredible thing about this museum.  Because the ship sat undisturbed for so long, and many of the crew kept their possessions in heavy chests, it turned out to be a treasure trove of Tudor artefacts, most of which are on show in the museum’s galleries.  The museum has arranged them according to the type of people who would have been working on each deck of the ship, which makes for a trip through all the seafaring social classes. Common threads that united them all were the prevalence of fine combs, designed to remove lice, and the ubiquitous dagger (including my particular favourite, the “ballock” dagger, so named for its resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy.  You can probably see what I mean from the example above).  So, you do see a lot of the same objects again and again, but there are enough tools that were unique to particular trades (I loved the section on the ship’s surgeon, with all his medical implements), and personal touches on the more common items, like carved pictures or initials, to keep things interesting.

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Of course, since most of the crew went down with the ship, there were also lots of skeletons in the wreckage, as well as jewellery and scraps of clothing.  They’ve analysed the skeletons to try to determine the age, health, and occupation of each man (aside from the captain, George Carew, we don’t really know the names of any of the crew members), and the results are fascinating.  Judging from the skulls on display, not a single man on board had a complete set of teeth in his head, and even the men who were still in their 20s already had a whole host of injuries (many of them caused by Henry’s law that required every able-bodied man to practice archery; using a longbow from an early age means that shoulder bones never fuse properly), and probably looked quite rough, judging from the facial reconstructions.  I love anything to do with medicine, so I was enthralled by their findings (and the display of bones with various types of injuries and conditions).

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We spent more time in the Mary Rose museum than any other part of the Dockyard, and I think I could have lingered even longer if we didn’t have a tour of the Victory to catch.  I really think they did an excellent job displaying all the artefacts, and the amount of signage was just right.  Plenty of great information and special sections about the history behind each job or custom, but not so much that it felt overwhelming.  My only complaint was that some of the galleries were so crowded that it was difficult to see everything, and it’s only the start of March, so the crowds must be horrible during the summer.  Because of this, I’d definitely recommend going in the off-season or possibly on a weekday if you can (although I’d worry about schoolchildren being bussed in on a weekday).

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In addition to the ships I wrote about in my earlier post, there were some other attractions at the Historic Dockyard.  Since we were starving, my boyfriend and I queued for ages just to get a tea and some chocolate fudge cake from the small case in the museum (there were only like three people ahead of us, but service was so slow, though the cake was not bad); there are a few other cafes and a chippy, but I’d rather venture into Portsmouth and take my chances with a proper seaside chippy, personally.  But there were statues of famous people to have your photo taken with, which I love doing!  (Here’s another tip, some guy will offer to take your picture with the Henry VIII inside the Mary Rose Museum, which you can buy for 8 quid at the end.  But there’s another Henry VIII statue hidden in a corner across from the building where you buy your ticket, which you can photograph as much as you like for free.  Not that I think anyone would pay £8 for a hastily taken photo by a bored museum employee anyway, but just in case you really wanted a picture with Henry.)  I liked the giant Nelson the best, especially since they accurately made his one eye look all milky and weird (he lost most of the sight in it in the same accident that took his right arm.  Poor banged-up man).

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There’s also a figurehead of some Restoration era gent who was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, and even looked a great deal like Pepys, but was not Pepys (though I think there should have been a Pepys figurehead, he was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty after all!).  Another building on the site holds some cheesy gift shop, and this weird “dockyard apprentice” exhibit that you can walk through in the back.  I did not have time to read all the text associated with it, but I guess if you do, you emerge a full-fledged worker at the other end (conveniently, they sell diplomas in the gift shop. I seriously wonder whether anyone has ever bought one).  However, it did contain two of my most favourite things; mannequins with amusing expressions, and authentic smells, so it’s worth walking through just for that.

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I guess because they were trying to give the place more of a “seaside” vibe, there were a handful of penny arcade games in there as well (I say penny, but they cost between 10-50p).  We had a couple 20ps to hand, so got suckered into the crappy ones showing some kind of tableaux that “comes to life” after you stick the money in (usually a ghost or something pops out).  Like others of their kind, these were pretty lame, and I refused to try the one where a “war criminal” was hanged, as he was a supporter of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, so I couldn’t really endorse his execution.

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I should mention that the National Museum of the Royal Navy is also part of the Dockyard, and it looked rather large and impressive, but I simply did not have time to go in (assuming we don’t lose our stupidly small and awkwardly sized tickets, we’ll probably head back to the Dockyard within the next few months), so I think it would be quite easy to spend two days at the Dockyard, particularly if you have children.  Though I felt the main ships (Victory and Warrior) were kind of a mixed-bag, though certainly historically significant, and worth seeing for that reason alone, I really loved the Mary Rose Museum, and it made me slightly less salty about the admission price (though only slightly, I mean £26!?).  I think the Dockyard as a whole should get a 3.5/5, though I’d probably rate Mary Rose as a 4/5, easily.  Not at all a bad day out, if you can stomach the price.

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Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Part 1: HMS Victory and HMS Warrior 1860

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I’ve been feeling very tired of London lately (not necessarily tired of life though, sorry Dr. Johnson), so I was glad to get down to Portsmouth for a day to check out the Historic Dockyard.  Though it wasn’t quite the usual seaside excursion, it’s still a bit cold to go promenading with an ice cream (I will happily eat ice cream year round, but prefer to enjoy it indoors in the wintertime), so this was a marginally warmer alternative.

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I’ve done a lot of complaining about prices of late, but really and truly, the Historic Dockyard is not cheap.  They charge £17 per attraction, so the only sensible option is to get an all-in-one pass for £26, which is valid for one year (another pet peeve of mine: places that offer an annual membership with the admission price, but require you to hang onto a small ticket that you present for subsequent visits, with no replacements offered.  If you’re just issuing someone with a cheap paper ticket, odds are pretty good they’re going to lose it or accidentally throw it out and have to buy a new ticket if they come back, which I suspect is exactly what these museums want to happen.  I’d be a lot happier if they could at least humour me by giving me a membership card to stick in my wallet or something, so I’d have some chance of hanging onto the thing.), but paying £52 for the two of us to spend a day somewhere is not the kind of outing we can afford often.  Anyway, the pass gives you access to all the ships and museums on the property; I’ll be talking about the HMS Victory and the HMS Warrior today, and cover the rest in the next post.

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The HMS Victory was most famously Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, and although I can see its colour scheme not being ideal for stealth, it certainly is a beautiful ship.  You can see the Victory through guided tours only (they give you a time slot when you buy your ticket), so we joined up with the large group (30 or so people, more than I find ideal) outside and waited for our guide.  After “boarding” the ship, we received a brief introduction, and then were taken on an overly fast-paced tour that required trekking up and down very steep steps, and ducking under narrow entries (I’m only 5’4″, and I had a sore neck after leaving from bowing my head so often, so just a heads up (ha) for the tall people out there).

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Following a brief tour of Nelson’s surprisingly plush and spacious living quarters (almost everything in the ship is a replica), we were herded up on deck to see the spot where Nelson was fatally wounded (the shot passed through his lungs and lodged in his back; he was immediately carried belowdecks where he died three hours later), and then back down again to see the low-ceilinged and depressingly dark decks where the common sailors lived and worked.

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The tour guide did a very good job of engaging the children on the tour, but unfortunately, this meant that the rest of us had to stand in the back, and it was difficult to hear him at times, or see anything, for that matter.  As expected, he went through the origins of many common phrases which have their basis in nautical terms (there’s not enough room to swing a cat, pull the cat out of the bag, etc. etc.), but he also did provide some interesting facts about the ship and its crew.  It was launched in 1765, so it was already 40 years old by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (making it a near-contemporary of the Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship; sadly the original Endeavour was wrecked, so I’ll never get to see that dishy Joseph Banks‘s quarters), and the aforementioned distinctive yellow and black colour scheme was Nelson’s favourite, called “checkerboard” as that’s what it resembled when the black gunports were closed.

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I did very much enjoy getting to see the interior of Nelson’s gorgeous ship, and picture it in action, but I wish the tour had been more comprehensive (perhaps if they offered separate tours for families and adults?), as the whole thing felt quite rushed, and half the time was spent waiting for everyone to finish climbing up or down the scarily narrow steps.

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There was a small HMS Victory museum nearby, so we popped in to see if it could flesh out the scant details provided on the tour (although even with my limited knowledge, I managed to get 9/10 on the computerised quiz inside, go me!).  I felt bad for not experiencing the film and light show on offer, as the man working there seemed slightly disappointed when I turned it down, but I really was in a hurry. There wasn’t a tonne of content in the actual museum, although I did pick up a few more tidbits, but I was ultimately distracted by a glimpse of the flamboyant figureheads perched upstairs.

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I do love a good figurehead, and these were brilliant, with lovely eye-popping paint, and nipples galore!  Quite a few of them were based off royalty or Roman/Greek gods, although there were a few Victorian (meaning, slightly racist) depictions of various foreigners.  On the whole, however, I loved this display, and it was probably one of the highlights of the Dockyard.

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I know I’m already running on, but I still want to mention the HMS Warrior, which is seemingly there in large part to show the advances in technology in the century between the building of the Victory and the Warrior, though it is an interesting ship in its own right.  When it was built, in 1860, it was the “largest, fastest, and most powerful warship in the world” (according to the pamphlet we were given), but it was never actually used in battle (I know I’m meant to refer to ships as “she,” but having no naval background myself, it just feels kind of awkward doing so).

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The Warrior is viewable by self-guided tour, so we saved it til last, figuring we could always rush through if we ran out of time, though it turned out we were easily able to see everything in 45 minutes.  There were steps all over the place, so our route was a little confused, but I’m confident we saw everything in the end.

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Like the Victory, the Warrior also had very swanky Captain’s Quarters, though they lacked a little of the Victory‘s charm.  There wasn’t much information posted inside the ship, so I was fairly reliant on the free pamphlet, which quite frankly wasn’t detailed enough for my liking (I guess I could have paid extra for the official Historic Dockyard guidebook, but that would be completely out of character for me).

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By studying the map, we did manage to work out the locations of the jail cells, for seamen guilty of serious crimes, and some pens for the sheep and other livestock that were kept for meat.  Like any ship, things got grimmer the further you travelled down into its aptly-named bowels, and the engine rooms were the grimmest yet.

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The mood lighting did help me appreciate how hellish things must have been, and it was a comfortable temperature (instead of 120 F +) and not full of sweaty men when I was down there, so I can only imagine how bad things were when the ship was at sea.  No wonder they were paid more than normal sailors, though whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

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I’ve got far more pictures than words at this point, so I’ll just start throwing the pictures up here with brief descriptions as I’m sure you’re sick of reading by now anyway.  There are the engine room and  the Officer’s Dining Hall.

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Wheels (your guess is as good as mine, probably better as I don’t know much about ships) plus washing bowl (not a toilet)

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The raisin bin, plus “special issues” of food, in addition to the normal menu of bread and meat.  Conditions had certainly improved since Nelson’s day, when common seamen mostly ate ship’s biscuit, porridgey things, and rancid meaty stews, but I loathe raisins, so I would not have been a happy camper even on the Warrior.

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Barrel, perhaps it contained rum, which would explain the spirit of generosity towards the Queen, and cannon.

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The Warrior had scantier information on offer than the Victory, but it’s still worth a look around as part of the combined ticket.  Although I think I was meant to be marvelling at how modern it was in comparison to the Victory, I couldn’t help but think about how some of the romance of sailing had been lost (though that “romance” included a crew mostly comprised of men who had been press-ganged into service, who were flogged for any infraction and had terrible living conditions, so it is possible any positive connotations of a Georgian sailor’s life are all in my mind).  Honestly, I’d probably rather be aboard a ship in the heat of battle than stuck in a horrible boiler room, as at least your suffering wouldn’t last as long.  The Warrior just seemed more utilitarian than the Victory (though it was a Victorian ship, so not THAT utilitarian), and in purely stylistic and romantic terms, I think the Victory unquestionably wins out, though I’m sure the Warrior could have easily blown it to bits with its advanced technology.  I’ll hold off giving a rating until I’ve written about the entire Dockyard, as I’ll grade it as a whole.   So, I’ll just throw in a couple more pictures of figureheads to finish off the posts, because damn, they’re cool!

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(Oh, and that’s Charles II’s royal barge that you can see in that picture, also awesome.)