The rewards of history
William Byford revisits the past
Currently my son Barry and his crew are still holed up in Gosport, waiting for both weather and orders. Yesterday he rang to mention that in the afternoon they were going to visit the new Mary Rose exhibition centre at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth and on a whim I drove over to join them.
As some might say, I have ‘history’ with the Historic Dockyard. Before the first British iron-clad, the Warrior (now formally renamed ‘HMS Warrior (1860)’ arrived there in 1987, I had visited HMS Victory on several occasions with my parents as a boy and had been to see the Mary Rose in the mid-1980s, not long after the remains of her hull was raised ‘live’ on television from the Solent on 11th October 1982 – an historic event I remember well.
Apart from a single visit to see the Warrior on or before 1990, I had not been near the site since. Things are much changed and modernised, as you’d expect.
I followed the well-positioned signposts straight into Portsmouth and to the Historic Dockyard multi-storey car park and then entered the ‘ticketing’ building, doubling as a café.
There I was fleeced of £28 for a ticket to see all the exhibitions (i.e. including the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Action Stations, Dockyard Apprentice and Harbour Tours as well as the three historic ships) and then – because I thought they might be worth it – £5.50 for a general guidebook and another £5 specific guide book to the Mary Rose. Nearly £40 to ‘enter’ seems a bit over the top to me, even though you’re given the marketing ‘plus’ that you can visit again as often as you like within the next 12 months for free [who’s likely to do that, well unless you’re determined and mean enough to insist upon gaining your money’s worth?].
You have to walk around HMS Victory in order to reach the Mary Rose exhibition centre.
Seeing Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar in the flesh always sends shivers down my spine. It’s the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission, its keel having been laid at Chatham in 1759.
She was nearly scrapped in 1903 after a modern ship accidentally hit her below the waterline and was eventually moved into a dry dock in 1922, where she has remained ever since. I recall my father attending a dinner on board several years ago and returning with the news that there is barely a sliver of timber on board her now that is original.
Nevertheless, I was keen on history as a young kid and famous military heroes such as Wellington and Nelson seemed like mythical gods to me. Early on, aged about seven, I saw a television documentary on Nelson’s last days which gave me nightmares and, ever since, whenever I read a new book or article about the Battle if Trafalgar, I cannot help it, I devour the contents wishing and hoping that the ending – Nelson being shot on the deck of the Victory and then dying below decks just after hearing the news of the defeat of the French fleet – will turn out different.
It never does of course. Even so, just being in the presence of the Victory never fails to inspire awe. It seems incredible that for all her magnificence, when fully manned, she carried a total of no fewer than 821 men and officers.
The new Mary Rose exhibition centre is equally impressive for different reasons. It’s been thirty years since I last saw her, since when they’ve turned off the sprinklers spraying a mix of water and resin designed to preserve her timbers and a few years ago began blow-drying them.
As with the Victory, the Mary Rose’s sense of ‘living history’ is strong. Henry VIII watched her founder in 1545 from the shore and the thousands of artefacts, exhibited in glass cases along with straightforward but compelling written explanations, are excellently presented and eye-opening.
Where else could you see the entire contents of a Tudor master carpenter’s or surgeon’s chest and cabin, including their most personal possessions; a backgammon board including counters and tiny dice made of bone; surgical instruments, cooking utensils; and hundreds of shoes, ill-preserved socks, jerkins and leather pouches, let alone long bows still stashed in their wooden cases awaiting their time to be used?
What came home to me with bells on was – despite this being the 16th Century – how well-informed about the world they were. The ship’s navigator even had a compass mounted on a gimbal and a ‘tide chart’ wooden dial, with the details carved in grooves upon it so that, by feeling it, he could still make his calculations in the pitch dark of night.
These were sophisticated human beings, not just loons whose lives were nasty, brutish and short.
Further, what makes a Tudor kid of fourteen go to sea? In those days, in that harsh environment, few people lived beyond the age of thirty. Over 90% of the 300 who drowned that fateful day in 1545 were in their twenties. There’s no way I’d have gone to sea in the 16th Century with my life-span being so short. Or is that correct? In those days I guess going to sea was just about as attractive as any other career you might have …
I came away from Portsmouth last night with a sense of wonder and achievement in having been. You can get around the Mary Rose exhibition centre in less than two hours, which is just as well because by the end – for me at least – there was just a degree to which the ‘novelty’ of looking at endless 16th Century artefacts was just beginning to wear off …