Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Historic Dockyard Museums at Portsmouth

Historic Boat in one of the basins


I took a week off from the area around Portsmouth to describe some local sites in St. Louis. Now I will return to Portsmouth and finish describing the Dockyard’s resources.

I won’t repeat the basics about costs and such, since I’ve gone over that in detail before. The cost of admission to the dockyard includes
all the onsite museums and galleries. As I said just seeing the four historic ships can be almost a full day in and of itself. Even though the ships are
unique artifacts from their times and demand the attention of a visitor that doesn’t mean the galleries and their exhibits are any less interesting or worthy of exploration.

The entire history of the Royal Navy is presented through an excellent collection of well interpreted artifacts and In one of the basins are a number of small boats, some of them from the Victorian Era. Another gallery includes Queen Victoria’s steam boat. Over time the exhibits have changed but some that have really stuck in my mind include excellent displays on the Task Force sent to the Falklands, especially all the many merchant vessels converted for the conflict and the roles critical roles they played in that conflict.

Going back in time is the Trafalgar Experience exhibit
This purports give the visitor the feel of what a gundeck in Nelson’s fleet would have been like during the battle. A sail preserved from that day is on display as well

One of the new exhibits is Dockyard Apprentice This includes some of Marc Brunel’s equipment for the mass production of rigging blocks, one of the first (if not the first) efforts to mechanically
mass produce identical items.

In one of the open spaces is the monument to the Royal Navy’s Field Gun Competition
which was part of the Royal Tournament. Based on actions that occurred during the Boer War this hotly fought contest consists of teams with a number of extremely brawny men hauling a field gun across a series of obstacles, reassembling it and firing off rounds periodically in a timed event. Even video of the action is amazing.

When visiting the Historic Dockyard don’t worry about leaving to get a meal. There are a number of new catering facilities on site,
and I look forward to the Georgian Team Rooms when I go back. I have eaten at Boathouse No 7 the last two times I’ve been there and have not been disappointed either time. The food is good, portions reasonable and prices fair. This is another nice aspect of UK Museums, the ability to get a decent meal on site. I despise having to eat garbage at US Museums, if any food is available at all. Enjoy a break in your visit with some nice fish and chips and a decent cup of tea while recharging for the rest of your day.


What one does have to worry about is shopping. The number of locations at the Dockyard that can separate the nautical enthusiast from their
money has increased each time I’ve gone. If you are interested in books there are a wide number of excellent texts available. Airfix models are also well represented (luckily I can get almost anything in plastic back home, so I don’t have to worry trying to get something so crushable home). Nautical reproductions are available in wide variety and enormous quantity.

Be prepared to finish your day off at the Dockyard with some Queen Victoria's Steam Engineshopping. That way you won’t have to carry the diving helmet you always wanted
around with you all day!

Steampunk Days Out-Compton Hills Water Tower



I found out that the Victorian Era water tower in Compton Hill Reservoir Park would be open on September 3rd. I decided to make a special Steampunk Days Out trip to go see this structure.

During the Victorian era municipal drinking water systems used massive walking beam steam engines to move water to through the pipes. The steam engines were so powerful that they could produce high enough pressures to cause blow outs. To ensure the pipes weren’t damaged most systems had large diameter standpipes installed. These were often six feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. The pressure would be bled off through the open ends of the standpipes. A 6 foot diameter iron or steel pipe soaring into the sky would not meet with approval in terms Victorian aesthetics, so most were encased in attractive structures called water towers. Of the hundreds if not thousands of these that once dotted the skylines of many cities only seven such still exist in the United States. St Louis is extremely lucky that three of them are at the Gateway to the West While aboard Eureka I took pictures of the two that are in North St Louis, only a few blocks away from each other. One is the neoclassic column shaped “white tower”. The other is named for the Bissell family and is more architecturally complex.

On the far side of the city a much more exciting example exists, the Compton Hill Park Reservoir Water Tower. This tower really exemplifies how the Victorians viewed their world and the pride they took on objects or structures no matter how utilitarian. The Compton Hill tower is a lovely structure that far exceeds the needs of the system to produce a positive addition to the area’s visual appeal. Today such a structure would be built with the bare minimum. Before I get into our visit to the water tower let me tell you about the restaurant we had lunch at, for it is another St Louis gem.

When we were children if we had been good we might get rewarded with a trip to The Fatted Calf This was a local chain of burger places, ah but what burger places! Decorated as an old English pub with pewter cups and dark beams the place always seemed very comfortable. The tables are thick and heavy oak. Originally the condiments were in open crockery set in slight depressions cut into the surface. Those days are long gone as current health regulations forbad such things, however the types of relish that can be applied to the burgers at the last remaining Fatted Calf are still as tangy! Located in Clayton the lone surviving Fatted Calf still delivers on atmosphere and truly awesome burgers.

The Fatted Calf is known for its flame broiled burgers. These are made to order and the kitchen is entirely visible to the customers. An impressive selection of sides are available including great fried, decent onion rings, fried mushrooms and coleslaw. The house specialty is a cheese
burger with melted soft cheddar. A couple of strips of bacon can only add to the ecstasy of the experience. We enjoyed a very wonderful lunch at this St Louis landmark. A large selection of drinks, including some adult beverages, is available. If you find yourself in the Clayton area I highly recommend stopping in an experiencing the best cheeseburger St Louis has to offer. Even if you aren’t in the area a drive of half an hour isn’t too much out of the way for a really worthy lunch or dinner.

From there we drove about twenty minutes to the Grand Avenue near Highway 44. The tower overlooks the St. Louis University Hospital campus
as well as several neighborhoods of preserved Victorian houses. The park is open and free and there is ample free parking on side-streets all around, although the park itself has no lot of  its own. Parking on the side streets is free and is within easy walking distance of the tower.

Griffon on the corner of the water tower

The Tower itself is a masterpiece of Victorian that blends Victorian art and technology in a structure as lovely as it is useful One of the greatest things about that era, one of the things I love most about it and something that should be core to VSF and the emerging Steampunk artistic movement is the fusion of form and function.

The park isn’t huge and a large part of it is taken up by the reservoir itself. This is a more modern structure than the tower and lacks
its architectural appeal. The good thing is that the tower dominates the park, the surrounding neighborhood and the skyline for many miles around. Even after over 100 years the building makes a stunning statement. The park had a very nice reflecting pond and is well kept but in no way does this compare to the landscaping found around the tower as it was originally built.

The architect Harvey Ellis designed the structure. He also designed parts of St. Louis Union Station and the St. Louis City Hall, so his legacy in this city is still strong. The tower was raised late in the 19th century, being completed in 1898. It is
built in a French Romanesque style of rusticated limestone and buff brick. It is faced with terra cotta. Details include griffons and vine scroll details. The observation deck that tops the tower is reached by a spiral staircase of 198 stairs. These curve around the six foot diameter standpipe’s 130 foot height. The tower itself rises 179 feet above the park. The view from the top is amazing. Only the Gateway Arch (or a Zeppelin ride) has vistas that are better.

The tower was a major attraction during the 1904 World’s Fair. During the run of the event, located in nearby Forest Park the park and its tower drew an average of 5,000 visitors each Sunday. At the time it had a carefully landscaped area at the base. This was perhaps the high point of its existence. Over the decades technology first past it by, then the entire idea of functional systems being attractive, being objects of art and beauty and pride fell by the wayside. The tower fell into disrepair. The local activists kept the tower from being torn down during the post modern period (certainly the lowest point in design since mankind graduated from mud huts). They have managed to preserve and maintain the tower and to get it back to the point where it can safely be visited by the general public. They hope to restore rest of the park as well, giving visitors a feel of what it was like when times called for beauty in public spaces and when it was accepted, nay required for objects or structures to add to the general attractiveness of an area rather than simply be built as cheaply and quickly as possible.

To fund the operations the preservation group charges 5.00 for the experience of climbing the many, many, many steps to the top and getting the cooling breezes and stimulating views. The volunteers are from the neighborhood and really know the tower. Again it is always a positive experience to meet with people who are enthusiastic about what they are doing.

If you are looking for something to do the first Saturday of any month, or on the other days the tower is open head overt that way. You may want to go right when they open at noon and then take a late lunch at The Fatted Café (it might be easier to climb on a less full stomach and use the exercise to build up an appetite). This is a good and inexpensive way to spend an afternoon, and is well worth every minute, and every penny.



Steampunk Days Out-Historic Ships at Portsmouth


In the past few weeks I have posted several articles about
the sites to be seen near Portsmouth, but what of that fine city itself? The
VSF visitor will find that the Historic Dockyard offers an excellent way to
spend at least full day.

Portsmouth is home to the Royal Navy. For centuries this has
been the most important British naval base. Warships have left here to defeat
the Navys of Spain, France, The Dutch, Germany, Russia and more recently Argentina. In times of peace ships have sailed to explore the seas of the Earth, suppress piracy and the slave trade and generally support and expand
the Empire.

For the background details we stay at the Holiday Inn
Express on Gunwharf Quays. The adjacent shopping area provides nearly unlimited
choices as to meals. The hotel has a fairly standard free continental
breakfast, but for a full day of site seeing and adventure something much more
substantial is usually required.

The Historic Dockyard is a very short walk away from the
hotel. The walk itself is interesting, especially for those of us from
landlocked areas. The train station is right there, as is the ferry dock. The
seafront has survived for centuries in a recognizable format. It is humbling to
think that Nelson and his Band of Brothers, Fisher, Jellicoe and Cunningham have
walked those same cobbles and passed those same doors. How many generations of
Jack Tars have walked or marched down those streets? How many wives and
children have looked out over the Solent from this point for their loved-ones’

Since I first visited the Historic Dockyard in the early
1990s things have changed. The entranceway is now much nicer. A large glassed
building holds the ticket lines. Merchandizing starts here with some very nice
guide books for the historic ships and the museums within the dockyard. The Historic
Dockyard costs 21.50. This includes unlimited visits to HMS Warrior, Mary Rose,
The National Naval Museum and Action Stations, as well as one harbor tour and a
guided tour through HMS Victory. For an extra 2 two pounds you can get The Big
Ticket. In addition to the Historic Dockyard this includes the water taxi to
Gosport, and the two museums there, Explosion! And the Submarine Museum. There
are several car parks within walking distance of the dockyard. Both trains and
ferries are also within walking distance, so travelling to the dockyard could
not be much easier.

The Historic Dockyard has a lot to see and do. In addition
to Warrior and Victory, Mary Rose is also on site and so is the Great War
Monitor M33. There are also numerous small craft and boats, some from
the Victorian period. There are many exhibits in the preserved buildings and
the grounds. Food and shopping are also available on site. I recommend getting
to the gates just as they open and reserve an entire day. Easily half a day could
be spent on Warrior alone and Victory requires about 90 minutes. Although the
Mary Rose ship hall is closed for another year or so its museum is still open.
Add to this the various Royal Navy museum exhibits, including the Trafalgar
Experience and the M33 and it is easy to see how a whole day can slip away

Let’s start with HMS Warrior She
is the epitome of the Royal Navy in the mid Victorian.  She was built in answer to ironclads being
constructed in France, and she and her sister ship HMS Black Prince surpassed the French vessels in every way.
Built with an iron hull rather than using wooden construction with iron plating
bolted on the exterior she was the most advanced warship in the world when
launched. Her only failing was her battery of Armstrong breechloaders, which
were a poor design that caused no end of trouble in service. The failure of the
110 pounders was to cause the Royal Navy to abandon breech loading ordnance for
almost 20 years.

Warrior survived because of her strong construction and use
for many decades as an oiling pier. Between 1979 and 1987 she was rescued and
restored for use as a museum ship at Portsmouth. She currently is afloat and
looks amazing! She was the first of her kind and the last to exist. The care
and dedication of her restoration and subsequent upkeep are obvious on even a
cursory inspection. One of the first impressions is of size. Although rated as
a frigate Warrior appears to be huge, she is still long and sleek and looks
ready to steam out and use her shattering broadsides against the enemies of the
crown. The staff keeps her brightwork polished and the decks cleaned. For the
most part the guns are fiberglass reproductions but until you actually touch
them it is very hard to tell. The weather deck and gun deck are well restored
and it seems that every time we come onboard there is more of the ship open for
exploration. The senior officers’ cabins are a stark contrast to those of the
ordinary seamen. The galley for the crew is a study in black iron and bright


The life aboard ship is very well represented by both the
restored spaces and the interpreters. We watched a very interesting small arms
drill the last time we were aboard. While in the boiler room I had a long
discussion with the chief engineer and was fascinated with the things I hadn’t
heard before. The stoke hold was huge but must have been cramped and crowded
when a full black gang was working to feed all the boilers.

After spending a couple of hours touring warrior from keel
to masthead (well not all that range) it was on to Victory. I’ve been on
Victory 4 times. The first our tour guide was a gentleman named Terry (easy for
me to remember!). He was an active duty Royal Navy petty officer. At that time,
since Victory is still a commissioned warship, her crew was active duty sailors.
He was about to retire, but the manning was about to change to retirees. The
most recent time we had the same tour guide, and he was about to retire again.
He of course didn’t recall our previous meeting but I found it very strange

Victory herself is wonderful. I always wonder how much of
her is original and how much has been replaced over the centuries. She is not
afloat but is still in commission, making her the vessel in commission for the
longest time, as well as the world’s oldest. She survived the worst Napoleon
could throw at her, and Hitler’s airmen almost finished what the French Navy
had started, with bombs landing close aboard during the Second World War. One
of the most amazing things is to compare Warrior and Victory. The technology
that spawned Victory evolved fairly slowly over several centuries and
culminated in the great ships of the line of the 1820s. These were little
different from Victory. By 1860 Warrior arrives melding revolutionary
technologies of construction, protection, armament and propulsion into a fusion
that was radically different, and orders of magnitude more powerful, then what
had come only a few decades before. Had the two fleets existed at the same time it would not have been impossible for
Warrior and her sister ship Black Prince to have engaged the entire Franco
Spanish Fleet present at Trafalgar and done great destruction against that force,
perhaps with little risk to themselves (their only weakness would have been the
110 pdrs). I wonder if anyone has ever games this type of engagement., and if so what the results were.

Just how little the naval technology had changed in the
centuries prior to Warrior can been seen in the third historic ship preserved
at Portsmouth, Mary Rose. This was Henry the VIII’s great ship and sank within
sight of the harbor in 1545 after 33 years of hard service in several of the
Tudor period wars. She was located in 1971 and her salvage began in 1982. A
special building has been constructed to house the wreck in climate controlled
conditions, since if her ancient timbers dried out they would decay very
rapidly. Over the years they have been impregnated with special solutions to
preserve them. For a couple of our visits it was very hard to get any idea of
what the ship was like due to the thick fog of chemicals being sprayed over the
ship (and over the observation glass as well). When we last visited though
things were much more clear and the outlines of the hull had become clearly
visible. The Mary Rose Museum has excellent models and graphics of the ship
though, as well as many well interpreted artifacts found at the wreck site. I
admit that the first couple of times I viewed Mary Rose I wasn’t impressed but
last time I could see what all the hub bub was about. The ship is currently
undergoing an upgrade in her hall and will be closed for several more months.
Things should be even more clear after that is completed.

There is a fourth historic ship at the dockyards. She gets
very little attention, which is sad, as she was a hard fighting craft and is
also the last of her kind. In WW1 the Royal Navy needed cheap, expendable
shallow draft vessels that could carry heavy ordnance and offer fire support to
the shore operations. They built a large number of such vessels, which they
called Monitors. M33 is one of a series of “small monitors” Unlike their bigger
sisters, which mounted guns of between 12 inch and 18 inch caliber the small
monitors carried weapons of between 6 inch and 9.2 inch.  M33 iin particular mounts two 6 inch guns.
She served with honor off the Turkish coast supporting the ill fated operations
there by the ANZAC forces. After the war she also saw combat against the Reds
in Northern Russia.  After surviving in a
variety of role she was sold in 1984 and in time came to be owned by the
Hampshire County Council. They have worked hard on her restoration and she
currently sits in drydock, looking sharp in a dazzle camouflage scheme.

I believe this is long enough. I’ll cover the museums, food
and shops next week!