Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard

Posted on Aug 1, 2011

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Now I’ve been wanting to go here since I was a kid which was the last time that I went and fuelled my interest in the Napoleonic era. I couldn’t wait to get on the ships, especially the famous and beautiful HMS Victory that has inspired so many and so much over the last two centuries  with its famous captain and very famous Admiral.

We got in a very busy queue at the ticket office to pay the £21.50 Adult price tag. For an extra £2 you get to see two more attractions. A bit expensive you may think in these times of austere? Not at all in my opinion but it depends on the time you have and that’s the crunch of it. Are you there for the whole day, tow days or even more? If the answer is yes then you may well see quite a lot, most probably all of it but in my humble opinion you need at the very least two days to fit everything in. If you only have a few hours then you won’t get to see that much and you will be rushing around like the Mad hare from Alice in Wonderland. Me and my friend spent around three hours on HMS Warrior as it has so many decks to explore and is one huge ship, so that will give you some idea of what to expect should you visit all the nine attractions plus the museums and shops and that’s not counting if you want to have a break in a cafe there to rest your feet.

First though we decided to go on the huge HMS Warrior 1860. As much as I was anticipating going on HMS Victory, this ship has a legendary status itself.

The HMS Warrior 1860

Napoleon III wanted to be like his Uncle Bonaparte and built a fleet of steam propelled ships to achieve this, the first of the line La Gloire, causing concern here in Britain because of its ironclad design using a mixture of iron and and wood on its hull.

In retaliation we built the HMS Warrior in 1860. The press of the time as now, slated the high cost of building such a ship but they were put in their place when the Royal Navy accepted the Warrior into its arms on 24th October 1861 and in doing so made all other warships of the time obsolete because of its combination of an iron hull, steam engine and armour plating as well as its 110 pounder breach loader guns and twenty-six 68 pounders on her gun deck with a crew of 18 on each gun, made her the world’s first modern battleship of the time. She could out-run and out-gun anything on the seas of the time and Napoleon III gave up on his grand ideas calling the Warrior ‘a black snake amongst rabbits.’ Britain once again proved that she was mistress of the seas and woe to all who opposed her power! The success of Warrior was that she had never had to fire a shot in anger ever in her history and stands proud today at Portsmouth Dockyard in defiance still to all who oppose her.

HMS Warrior Main Deck and Mast

The ship was indeed huge and I could have spent a lot longer on there but we had another more famous ship to explore which the child in me was eager to explore once again.

The Warrior can be hired out for weddings and other parties and what a venue that would be!

So we leave the beautiful Warrior for another day and head over to the ultimate warship that has ever set sail. I could feel my heart pumping at the sight of her and my imagination went into overdrive seeing her sublime beauty and the grace which she held herself in.

What would I be like on board and amongst her decks. Nelson’s Cabin and where he died were two places I was looking forward to most. To me, Nelson was and still is someone to look and aspire to. A true hero, warrior and man. He was everything but ordinary and everything extraordinary.

The World's Oldest Commisioned Warship, HMS Victory

HMS Victory’s keel was laid at Chatham in 1759 and she was fully built and ready for service by 1765. She had many Captains and Admirals and served in many famous battles before Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy took charge of her.

She had a major refit too between 1800-1803 where Nelson took command of his flagship and the rest of the fleet. Little did he and his crew and officers of 821 on board of Victory know that they would be sailing into the most famous sea battle of all time that would go down in legend and hold a myth like quality over all who mentioned her name, even till this day.

The ship was complemented with fifteen(Thirty at Trafalgar) 32-pounder guns manned in pairs by a crew of fifteen, twenty-eight 24-pounders, forty-four 12-pounders, two 68-pounder carronades, so a total of 104 guns capable of firing a broadside of 522kg of shot! Plus it had 153 Royal Marines ready and armed.

At the start of battle all her guns were treble-shotted unleashing 1.5 tons of iron into an enemy ship so you can imagine the power of these going off in battle and the force of that power as the Victory fired in anger. The biggest guns were put at the bottom of the ship, the smallest to the top for stability in battle.

Walking through her decks and seeing how they lived and fought on not just Victory but other ships of her kind, you get the sense of a mad yet organized way of life in a dangerous world at sea. Imagine the chaos of battle and how good and focused you had to be at your job. Could any of us do that now? I would like to think that I could but somehow doubt it. They were much stronger and more focused than we are now, but then again it’s all down to training.

Coming to Nelson’s Cabin I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The room is huge, about double the size of an average living room, perhaps bigger. His sleeping cot and room was separate from his cabin, was small by comparison which really when you think about it made sense. You have a room to sleep in and that’s it. They would not have had much time to sleep back then as they were constantly working and on the lookout for the enemy.

''Here Nelson Fell 21st October 1805'' Forever Marked the Fallen Hero

Coming to the spot where Lord Nelson Fell to an enemy shot from the Mizzen Top of the French Ship Redoubtable at the Battle of Trafalgar, a quiet awe fell over me and some of the other people around this sacred spot.

Usually when a leader is killed in combat, the rest of that leaders men fall back or give up but not on the Victory. This seemed to have inspired them on for Nelson alone and the battle was almost won anyway thanks to the military genius of Nelson.

I could smell and hear the sounds surrounding that day and was almost there. It amazes me that HMS Victory is still standing and in good repair thanks to the many people involved in looking after her for future generations to come for she is more than just a ship but an ideal, a figurehead, a legend that inspires us all that we can be better and stronger and fight against tyranny and dominance under a great leader like Nelson and his flagship HMS Victory.

Another ship, equally as famous as Victory but for different reasons was the Mary Rose built between 1509-1511 under the orders of the newly crowned King Henry VIII, the tyrant King of Britain.

This ship also has a mythical and legendary status about it and when I was a kid in 1982, I remember the news saying that they were going to raise it from the seabed where it had lain in its watery grave since it sunk in mysterious circumstances back in 1545 on the 19th July. It Capsized during a skirmish in the Solent with the French fleet and no-one knows for sure till this day why it actually did sink as King Henry VIII watched in shock from ashore.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the actual ship on this tour as it is under protective covering whilst a huge state of the art museum gets built around it. I’ll certainly be one of the first in line for it when that opens in Autumn 2012. Next year is going to be a huge year for Britain with the Olympics, especially down in Portsmouth.

The Mary Rose Museum takes about an hour to get around if you don’t look at everything but it’s best to read all you can whilst in there. The kids will love the educational games and the Longbow test where they can see how strong they are by pulling at a longbow as can men and women as Longbows were made for these three groups so you had three different sizes. How the children learned their size I have no idea but learned it they did to great effect.

It’s also worth visiting the Trafalgar Sail That was used on HMS Victory’s Fore Topsail. This ‘little’ gem not only shows you the actual sail but a short film about the men on board the Victory. 

Someone I once knew, long since passed now, served on a Destroyer in WWII and said for his training they had to climb the mast of the Victory without harnesses or ropes like they did back in the days when ships like her sailed the seas. He said he was terrified but once he got up there he was fine. I have no idea if they do that now what with the ‘health and safety’ brigade about but you wouldn’t catch me up the Crow’s Nest of Victory or Warrior with or without a harness! I would be petrified! But I suppose that’s why they did it for, to make a man out of you and to combat your fears. That’s what my friend said anyway and he would know.

If you are not interested in this sort of thing then you will be by the time you have finished the tour. That I guarantee. If you have kids, they will love it or the kid inside you will! As for those of us interested in this era, but have never been, you will never regret going down there. It will become an addiction for you!

The staff were all helpful and friendly to such an extreme I felt like I had known them for years and almost invited a few of them for a drink to find out more and more about the history of the famous Dockyard and all who have sailed from her.  What an amazing day and I still haven’t used all my ticket yet which is valid for a year from the day you buy it.

The only small quibble I had was that when I return to use the rest of my ticket I will have to buy a full price ticket to go back on Warrior and Victory. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to pay an extra £5-10 on the day you return on receipt of your previous ticket should you wish to go back on those iconic ships? More money then for the conservation and education of the dockyard and it’s history. But all in all, I loved it and can’t wait to get back down there.

If you require any information on this tour or the history of the ships or the Royal Navy please go to the links below:

http://www.historicdockyard.co.uk/

http://www.hms-victory.com/

http://www.maryrose.org/

http://www.hmswarrior.org/

http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/