Thursday, June 01, 2006

Travels West goes to England

In which M2 and Pops visit some very old places

I: Portsmouth

The Sally Port Inn stands a stone’s throw from England’s southern shore in the historic, walled sector of city of Portsmouth. It’s an old building, its earliest timbers dating back to the mid-1600’s. After suffering damage during an air raid in the Second World War, the row house was converted into the present-day inn. It’s a tumbledown old place, with slanted and creaking floors, peeling wallpaper and chipped paint. The Sally Port’s central spiral staircase, added in 1805, is said to be supported by a spar from Her Majesty’s frigate “Penelope.” There is nary a straight line in the place, and fire-blackened beams jut out occasionally at odd angles from the walls and floors.

Part Fawlty Towers and part living history museum, the Sally Port is the perfect place to stay for maritime buffs eager to experience the seafaring past of Perfidious Albion and the faded glory of its Royal Navy. Two thumbs up for the Sally Port.

We came to see Royal Navy history and see it we did.

Pops and Mrs. H. -- me U.K. mum -- stand in the actual "sally port," through which generations of sailors shipped out to sea, and for which the Sally Port Inn is named.

The view from atop the old fortress wall on Portsmouth harbor. The needle at top right is called "Spinnaker Tower," for fairly obvious reasons, and is a recent attraction to the port. It is 558 feet (170 metres) tall and has three observation decks that look out onto the Isle of Wight. The tower is meant to symbolize the redevelopment and revitalization of the Portsmouth harbor area, which is certainly undergoing a lot of development with new waterfront shopping and residences.

The H.M.S Victory, an 88-gun man-o-war, launched May, 1759. Crew: 850.

Note the windows on the three-deck main cabin aft. Each pane is a unique trapezoid. Before going into battle, these windows were taken down and stowed below, and canon put in their place.Victory was Lord Admiral Nelson's flag ship. He was killed aboard during the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle which determined that Britain, not France, would rule the seas (and much of the world) for the next century and a half. Nelson was shot through the lung by an enemy sniper and was taken below, where he expired with the words, "Thank God I have done my duty." They just don't make men like that anymore. The spot where Nelson whispered his last is still considered so sacred by the Royal Navy that no photography is permitted there.

People have been asking me about the the extraordinary detailed scrollwork, cabinet work and glass work on display on what is essentially a floating gun platform. Why, they ask, tart up a weapon of war that's likely to get blown to smithereens?

The answer is fairly straightforward. In about the reign of Henry VIII and the advent of the widespread use of canon, it was discovered that ships could be the ultimate vehicle for projecting power. By the 18th century, warships like the Victory had become, in essence, floating castles. And like the castles of the Middle Ages, they were built as much to overawe a potentially hostile populace as to actively engage and subjugate it. They were expressions of royal -- and later, national -- wealth. As such, they were "dressed to impress," much like the soldiers of the era in their peacock-like uniforms. It was as much about prestige as about readiness for battle.


Blogger steve said...

So frickin' cool...

(Currently in the middle of 'Treason's Harbour', book nine of the Aubrey/Maturin series.)

3:58 PM  

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