The weather was quite breezy by the time we arrived. The rail ended literally at the harbour. I think if it continued, it would have gone straight into the water. The area around the train station was a bit ratty, and we made our way quickly to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which wasn’t too far from the train station.
There is quite a lot to see, more than a day trip would allow. So we chose the “Big Daddy”, and went straight for the ship HMS Victory. Sorry, but the Mary Rose will have to wait. As we walked through the dockyard, I was surprised to learn that there were sections of it that was still restricted areas. That is, don’t go around behaving suspiciously and wander where you’re not supposed to, or the men in black jackets with the big guns will come after you. I guess I thought there would have been greater “separation” between the members of the public and the restricted areas.
To me, HMS Victory is a large ship particularly when you note that it housed some 900 men on board, though in quite confined quarters. (But not of course, when you compare it to the great cruising ships of today). The ship is beautifully restored, and it’s a real beauty. Given that I’m not a “sailing” person, and I don’t really like knots, that’s saying a lot.
Once on board, I became very present to the height of the ceiling. Whilst I could still stand tall, it is a confined space. And it is filled to the brim with cannons, and cannon balls, buckets, ropes and the like. I don’t think they put it there just for the tourists. You can really imagine the action that would go on during a battle in such a confined space. At the same time, almost everything is portable on the ship. The cannons can be moved and tied against the side of the ship to create space when needed. Even the tables and chairs in the Captain’s and Admiral’s quarters can be moved, cannons brought in and stuck out the window, and the whole place converted to a battle area. I now understood the flurry of activity that went on behind Russell Crowe in Master and Commander.
A few things intrigued me about 18th century naval life.
1. When they said that the officers slept in cots, I just thought it was a bed. I didn’t realise it was literally a cot, ie. a box that was hung from the ceiling. By the way, may I add that the box looked very much like a coffin, without the lid? I must say I felt very uncomfortable looking at it. You could only sleep one way, which is face up. What if you slept on your tummy ….?
2. I learned that the ship’s surgeon had his cabins below the water line because that was the most stable part of the ship. He had a large sturdy table and that’s where he would do his surgery, and amputations.
3. The galley was fascinating. The benchtop areas for chopping up meat etc is quite small, but the firebox is quite large. (Sorry, no photo. I tried to take a picture, but because it was so dark, it wasn’t clear what the photo was about.) They would keep coals burning 24/7, and from the firebox, there would be difference cooking stoves for grilling meat, baking, stewing and boiling. Live animals such as chickens would be kept on board the ship for fresh meat. From such a small area, the cooks were able to feed 900 men.
4. All partitions (for rooms and cabins) were hinged, such that if a battle was due to take place, they could lift the partitions and lock it to the ceiling. They would then have the space for the cannons.
5. “Walking the plank” is not a British naval term or activity. It was what the pirates did, and not condoned by the British navy.
There you go. You learn something new everyday! Naval phrases that have made its way to daily language, such as “three square meals” (where sailors ate their standard 3 meals from square plates); and “learning the ropes” (obviously comes from having to learn the ropes of a ship).
There were others but I can’t remember them now. For more on nautical phrases, follow this link.