Friday, February 20, 2009

Pausing in Portsmouth

Friday, February 21, 2009
Winchester and Portsmouth

The Hampshire landscape still looked rather autumnal--a blanket woven of beige and sandy hues--as we made the half hour drive from Winchester to Portsmouth. I was a little surprised at how large Portsmouth is--I guess I expected another little dinky town like Winchester! But, of course, I was aware that Portsmouth has been the head quarters of the Royal British Navy for a long while. In fact, Llew and I had visited Portsmouth many years ago though we did not really get as far as the historic dockyard. This probably had to do with the fact that neither one of us is a seafarer and navy history has not been our cup of tea.

So it wasn't with huge excitement that I alighted from the coach with my students and received the tickets (priced at 18.50 pounds for all attractions) that gave us free run of the area. Unlike Winchester, where there weren't many kids to be seen, this place had attracted a large number of families out at Half-Term Week to see a bit of their historic landmarks. And possibly because my expectations were so low, I was completely bowled over by everything I saw and the guided tours we took. Robert Pinkerton had handed me tickets that allowed us to board the H.M.S. Victory at 3. 30 pm for a guided tour--this allowed us an hour to see the rest of the complex which includes a number of museums and special exhibits and the hull of the Mary Rose, a Tudor ship that was Henry VIII's favorite war ship.

The harbor is dominated by a modernist structure that, for a moment, made me believe I was in Dubai for it resembles the facade of the Al-Burj Hotel. This one at Portsmouth is the Spinnacre Tower, its newest attraction. I saw people on the two highest floors and I can imagine how stunning a view they must receive, on a clear day, of the sea, the Isle of Wight and the southern English countryside. Alas, I had no time to find out for myself, as I did want to see the Mary Rose.

Again, I have to say that I wasn't sure what to expect. The ship had been built in 1534 and by 1550, it had sunk on one of its skirmishes with the French. It was only a few years ago that sonar technology made the location of the wreck definite and elaborate arrangements were made to bring it to the surface. The ship had broken in two along its cross section and a portion was rescued from the sea bed with everything it contained (including the skeleton of a dog who had been trapped in a door as the ship went down). These items are displayed in the Mary Rose Museum (which I found fascinating and in which I would have loved to have spent more time).

However, just gazing at the wreck itself (now in dry dock and undergoing conservation) was enough to raise the hairs on my neck. I recalled all the lines from the sea faring novels and comic books I have read ("Shiver my timbers, boy...who told you to come out of the crow's nest?") and I was enthralled. The audio guides that were provided upon arrival gave great detail about Tudor life at sea, about sea warfare and about the raising of the ship. It was indeed quite brilliant and time flew so quickly that before I knew it, I had to join my class for the tour of the H.M.S. Victory.

This ship, quite splendidly refurbished and impeccably maintained in rust and black paint, was the vessel upon which Lord Nelson breathed his last during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805--one of England's most decisive sea victories. I joined a group of about thirty students and was placed in the charge of a guide who was poker faced and had the most dead pan expressions as he mouthed his monologues. But then, later, I realized, that he was probably trained to remain detached as the information he disclosed was so astonishing as to make me feel squeamish on more than one occasion.

A tour of the ship taught us a great deal about naval life in the 18th and 19th centuries and most of it was shocking. Examples: the sailors caught rats in the galleys below deck, sold them among themselves and used them to supplement their frugal shipboard diets; the ship's doctor (known very appropriately as the surgeon-barber) had a range of instruments that looked as if they belonged in a carpenter's chest--and this surgery was performed without any anaesthesia at all and while the patient was stone sober; after being flogged repeatedly, even for minor misdemeanors, with a cat 'o nine tails (I finally discovered after I saw one why this whip is so-called), the miscreant was sent down to a doctor who, in an attempt to keep infection off his torn and skinned back, rubbed salt and vinegar into his wounds--you can see why I was squeamish and thought my knees would buckle. The sado-masochism of the captains and bosons of the time was touched on and I felt truly glad that I did not live in those often inhuman times!

A large part of the tour involved Nelson. We saw the spot on the deck at which he was hit by a bullet that went through his shoulder, punctured a lung, shattered a couple of his ribs and tore through his spine. His blood-stained clothing was striped off (and is now the chief exhibit of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich where I had seen it last Setpember). He was then taken below deck and attended by the ship's surgeon and its captain, the famous Hardy, all of whom knew, of course, that there was nothing that could be done for him. As he lay dying, he received the news of victory and said, "Thank God, I have done my duty". Earlier he had motivated his crew by declaring, "England expects that each man will do his duty". About three hours later, he died requesting Hardy to kiss him, a line into which much more than was intended has been read. There is a very good painting that depicts his final moments (but without much historic accuracy as most of these romanticized versions of such occasions are) and which made a fine backdrop for the telling of the tale. I have to say that from the first word the guide uttered to the last, I was completely engaged.

The tour also included a visit to the very bottom of the ship were gunpowder was stored in huge barrels in a copper lined chamber and to the ballast area where the ship's stores were maintained. I learned more about naval warfare and the seafaring life on this single hour-long tour than I think I have ever learned anywhere else and I was hugely grateful that I took it.

On my way out, I rushed through the Mary Rose Museum once more to see the original canons and guns that had been brought ashore and to hold in my hands an original cannon ball from the wreck--which gave me a massive kick! I can see why the venue is so popular with kids (especially boys) whose excitement was palpable and infectious and made me think of my young days in the company of my own parents as a little girl visiting places of educational interest in Bombay.

On my way back in the bus, I read the final chapters of The Prisoner of Azkaban which became extraordinarily complicated as the story reached its denouement. The miles flew past as outside my window a salmon and acquamarine sky indicated sundown and the end of another active, fascinating and hugely educational day of my life in the United Kingdom.

I arrived home at 7. 30 after seeing my students safely in their dorms, then spent about four hours on my PC catching up with email and planning some future trips to Paris and Belgium.

I then went to bed at 11. 30 pm. on a very happy note having received news by email that Chriselle was granted leave from work, has booked her tickets on American Airlines and will be here in London with me during the first week of May! The weather will be so much nicer at that time and I would like to make some plans for what will probably be our very last mother-daughter trip before she gets married. I am almost besides myself with joy at the prospect.

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