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Steampunk Days Out

This series of blog posts will highlight places that offer a steampunk traveller an interesting, educational or inspirational experience

Steampunk Days Out-St Charles Main Street

We hadn’t done one of these in a long time and the weather today seemed perfect. St Charles is just a few miles down Highway 70 from us so off we went. http://www.historicstcharles.com/about-us/history/main-street/

The area dates originally from the mid 1700s. It was the first capital of the State of Missouri. There were many buildings that date from the nineteenth century. The architecture includes many widow walks, towers, a lot of decorative ironwork. The streets are brick as is much of sidewalk. One block down flows the Missouri River. Ignore the casino and take a look at the old train station and the rebuilt boat hose. The Lewis and Clark expedition set off from this location and replicas of their boats are in the boat house.

Old Mainstreet has a number of shops, some trendy and others that deal in a variety of things, such as antiques. There are a number of really decent antique stores and vintage clothing stores which can supply a lot of garb and accessories to costumers.

The buildings are worth seeing. The street is a historic preservation district. No buildings can be changed. For a period a computer consulting company was purchasing properties on the street. Although there was some dissatisfaction with a computer firm displacing the more normal residents but they did an excellent job in restoring and preserving buildings.

It could take several hours to walk the street and look at all the buildings. Some were originally riverside warehouses, homes to wealthy boat owners or served a variety of industrial and service functions. Some are small cottages others are fairly large structures. Most  are brick, while others are local limestone. Wood was also used in many of them. A number of tall towers gave their owners excellent views up and down the river.

The area has been used for numerous period photograph sessions as well as at least one made for TV Movie (Standing in for Mark Twain’s Hannibal).

One of the greatest things about St Charles Mainstreet is the food. I’ll recommend several places Eros is a wonderful Greek restuarant. We had a remarkable lunch there. My lamb chili was amazing and our appetizers were great.

We weren’t down there for dinner but we can suggest Mother-in-Law House http://www.motherinlawhouse.com/. The food is great and the Victorian surroundings are lovely. The period house is decorated with exactly the type of wall paper and fixtures one would expect. When you have dinner there make certain you try the carrots that the hostess will bring to your table. The steaks are good but the fried chicken has never failed to reach the highest standards!

The building is alleged to be haunted, as are many of the buildings on the street. A good friend of ours Michael Henry runs a very entertaining Ghost Tour after dark. http://www.stcharlesghosts.com/ His tour comes highly recommended. As a long time area resident he has a vast knowledge of the history of the district. His book is available in the tourist center

We spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the street. http://www.figueros.com/ is a shop that sells coffee and all the hot sauces known to man. We also dropped into The English Shop, which has a wide range of products from the UK http://www.theenglishshoponline.com/home.html. Finally we stopped for dessert at The Little O Soda Shop. This is a new place on the Street, a traditional old fashion soda fountain. The picture below is my wife’s orange marshmallow soda. We tried their cream soda, the soda pictured below and two of their malts. I had a wonderful caramel malt and Shannon had a strawberry marshmallow one. Both were perfect!

 

 

 

 

Fort Hancock New Jersey-Steampunk Days Out

Fork Hancock was the original United States Army proving ground and an important coastal defense fortress protecting New York City http://www.nyharborparks.org/visit/foha.html. The site is huge and offers a number of attractions. The scenery is amazing, the ocean views and beaches wonderful. Birds and other wildlife are present in profusion.

Sandy Hook is on the southern shore of the lower bay of New York. It juts approximately five miles from the northern shore of New Jersey. The park is an easy ferry ride from Manhattan http://www.seastreak.com/. During the summer season the ferry goes right to the park. I had the misfortune of finding out that if there aren’t enough riders the ferry might instead go to Highland New Jersey. I can say without a trace of doubt that it is a very, very long walk from Highland to the end of Sandyhook. Luckily the weather was dry, although when I went it was quite warm. I had an excellent meal at a eatery (although this was about five years ago, so I can’t recall where or what)

The reservation consists of over 100 buildings. The batteries date from the 1890s on and are some of the technologically most interesting in the United States. The up side from walking all the way in from Highland was getting to see the entire post. Again I had to walk quite a ways just to get to the initial Victorian period sites. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2O4qLmqRwk

Fort Hancock saw a wide variety of batteries. One of the most interesting is Battery Potter. This is a unique emplacement called a Gun Lift Battery. A large artificial hill was constructed and the battery built inside it. The guns were each mounted on an elevator. They were loaded in the large underground chamber and elevated upwards to their firing position. Once fired the weapon was lowered to its protected loading position http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYxqTGxXybA&feature=related.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUyRF6TmHMo&NR=1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRzDVkYdSAc&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=QH62TGY9oHk&noredirect=1

The various animations describe the complex nature of the battery and its functions. The guns are long gone but the massive battery structure is still an amazing piece of Victorian engineering. Battery Potter has a defensible entrance that looks like a castle gate. Instead of archers provisions were made for Gatling Guns in the towers.

One battery that does have guns is much smaller and more simple. Battery Gunnison has a pair of 6 inch Model 1900 pedestal mounted guns. This is my personal favorite US 6 inch gun models. The carriage is simple and the lines of the shield are elegant. The US Coast Artillery used comparatively few pedestal mounted weapons preferring the more complex and expensive but better protected disappearing carriages. Re-enactors make the best use oft hes these two weapons possible http://coastalforts.home.mindspring.com/10-25-03-Hancock.htm. I did not see them in action but their activities are well known in the restoration community and if possible I plan on getting out to the Fort again when they are in action!

Mortars also played a critical role in US Coastal Defenses and Fort Hancock had two 12 inch mortar batteries Batteries McCook and Reynolds. These batteries were a complex series of gun pits and tunnels designed to protect the 16 weapons from direct naval fire. These weapons are also long gone, having been removed for field service in France during WW1. However this battery was a prototype for the many 12 inch mortar batteries constructed from Manila Bay to Key West Florida.

Hancock also had a large group of heavy batteries facing the main shipping channel. Called Nine Gun Battery but actually a series of four continuous batteries mounting disappearing guns of up to 12 inch caliber this series of structures provided the main armament in the fortress until after the First World War. The strategic location of the military reservation meant that it served as a defensive installation until well into the missile age. During WW2 a number of more modern batteries, mounting 12 inch long range guns in heavily protected concrete casemates. After WW2 the land was used for Nike missile batteries.

After many hours of exhausting exploration and miles of walking I was darned lucky to find a troop of boy scouts willing to let me hitch a ride back to the Ferry dock in their van.

I really enjoyed the time on the post. This is probably one of the most exciting Endicott period forts to explore. The massive changes in technology that occurred between 1880 and 1910 are well illustrated by the various battery structures. The Post is huge. I recommend getting a good set of maps before visiting and ensuring that you give an entire day for exploration. If possible ensure that you either have a car for the visit or that the ferry will actually land you at the Sandy Hook Dock. Bring plenty of water. Watch out for poison ivy, they had huge thickets of that noxious weed growing all over the area. I’m used to the low vine version we usually see in the Midwest but these were gigantic bushes with what looked like dense woody stems. There are a few cafes scattered around the park. Highland offers a number of excellent eateries. There are snacks available on the ferry as well.

This is a day out requires careful planning (which I did not do) to fully explore the site. I was lucky to get there on a day that Battery Potter was open to the public. Again I highly recommend a visit to this site, but caution that it is huge and requires some logistical foresight to avoid some level of discomfort. (I was sore for a week after all the walking, but my legs were well defined from all the miles I hiked through the sand dunes!)

 

 

 

 

Back to Bristol-Steampunk Days Out

The restored bow of S.S. Great Britain

I wrote for several weeks about the joys of Clifton, a suburb of Bristol. Now let me talk some of that great city itself. This was the heart of Brunel’s Great Britain. He built two of his three ships here. The S.S. Great Britain http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/ has been returned here for restoration and display!

If you want to spend a glorious day steeped in the shadow of the Great Engineer this will be one of the best places to do so.

In the 1970s after decades of service and then more decades of neglect in the Falkland Islands the ship was recovered and towed back to the port and the very drydock in which she had been built. Now she rests in that dock being restored by talented and loving craftspersons.

On one trip we stayed at the Holiday Inn http://www.hiexpress.com/hotels/us/en/bristol/brsct/hoteldetail?destination=BRISTOL%2CUnited+Kingdom&numberOfRooms=1&numberOfAdults=1&numberOfChildren=0&ratePreference=6CBARC right across the street from Bristol Temple Meads Station, which was part of the GWR and designed by Brunel. It is still an amazing station and well worth visiting even if you are not coming into the city via rail.  The hotel is a standard Holiday Inn. It has no character and the only things that recommend it are location and a car park. Although there are a number of eateries in the Temple Meads area the first time Shannon and I came to Bristol we had a terrible time finding food. There was a football match that day and many places were out of food. It also appears that Bristol has a strange tradition of not serving food between 2 in the afternoon and maybe 6 PM. We did finally find a tapis place on a barge. The food there was excellent, or maybe we just hadn’t eaten in 24 hours (long story, having to do with an “adventure” on Britrail!)

Bristol is close enough to Clifton to either walk down or take a cab. I’ve done both. I’ll remind readers that Clifton has many great restaurants as well as a wonderful hotel.

Now back to Great Britain herself, and the museum and new Brunel Institute. Tickets are 12.50 and are good for an entire year. The gates open at 10:00 AM and close at 5:30 PM in the summer and 4:30 PM in the winter. Getting there is easy. It takes 30 minutes to walk from the Temple Meads Station, and maybe 45 down from Clifton. There are a number of buses and ferry boats that stop at or near the ship as well. Additionally there is car parking in the vicinity.

I’ve been to the UK five times and I’ve been onboard Great Britain every time, some trips more than one day. Every time the ship is in better shape, more of it is open and I learn new things about the vessel, her designer and the times which bred them both. Since the early 1990s when I first saw her she the Museum has opened and then been relocated to a new building. Now the Brunel Institute and archives is open as well. It was almost too much for a VSF fan to handle!

The Museum has a huge number of excellent exhibits. Many are interactive. There are excellent photos of the ship at various times in her life and a great short film dealing with her salvage and return to Bristol. Many artifacts from the years of service are well interpreted.

The ship itself is the main attraction. An audio tour takes visitors around the vessel. There is a huge amount to see. The tour starts on the deck and goes deep into the hull. Passenger and crew quarters are fully restored. The first class dining area is amazing. At some point I’d love to go to one of the events hosted aboard. They have holiday dinners and the vessel can be rented for weddings and such. They sound like amazing fun!

The engine spaces have been rebuilt with reproduction engines. The engines don’t power anything any longer but the mechanical parts move. Especially interesting is the huge chain drive. The moving parts are immense and watching their interaction is a joy.

Finally there is the Brunel Institute. All of the Great Engineer’s notebooks are here, as well as an excellent naval and maritime history and technology library. All of the historic documents are digitized which is very nice, but even better was getting to handle the ORIGINALS! Yes I touched the very note books in which I. K. Brunel had drawn the sketches of so many of his amazing projects. The staff there was very helpful. They assisted in locating the specific books needed for the research I was doing (on Brunel’s little known ordnance work) and retrieved them from the secure storage. I put on my archival gloves on and turned the pages. It took all my willpower not to put bare skin on the notebooks, but I was able to suppress the urge (just barely!)

The archives are free with admission to the Museum. To do research you need to email ahead, but the staff is wonderful and extremely helpful.

To round things out the Museum houses both a cafe and a great shop. The shop is one of the most dangerous one I’ve been in. I ended up dropping a large amount of hard earned money and could easily have bought more. The selection of books was wonderful. I also picked up some reprints of period ship rules and menus. Very, very nice but again be warned, visiting the shop can damage a bank account quickly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steampunk Days Out-Steamcon III

I apologize for having taken a few weeks off. In those days I have attended two conventions. Let me review the second I went to first, Steamcon III in the Seattle area.

Steamcon III http://www.steamcon.org/indexIII.php is in a new venue for the convention the Hyatt Regency Hotel and convention center http://www.hyattregencybellevue.com/ in Bellevue, just South of Seattle proper. Room rates were extremely reasonable at around 109.00 per night. The hotel was very nice and the staff was simply perfect. They were polite and helpful at all times. The area was flocking with restaurants. Our first meal (lunch) was very good but resulted in a near cardiac emergency when the bill arrived! After that we sought far less dear fare. We had three meals at a passable Irish pub called Paddy Coyne’s http://paddycoynes.net/. Food there was very reasonably priced and quite tasty. I had lamb skewers with peanut sauce and they were excellent. Shannon had fries with gravy and Irish beef stew. Their beer and cider selections were a bit weak but the Jamison ice cream was everything it should have been! The music was actually very good. Service was a bit variable, twice we had great service but once our waiter was a bit confused. The pub is just across the street from the convention center. For best results go at happy hour. Prices are very low and what they call a “small plate” is not at all small. The pub is small though so go early or be prepared to wait.

We enjoyed the hotel’s brunch on Saturday at The Twisted Cork http://www.hyattregencybellevue.com/restaurants. The brunch there was very good as well. They make a darned fine fruit compote. The bacon was thick cut, the sausages firm and with just the right amount of spice and of course the smoked salmon was excellent. Shannon spoke very highly of the corned beef sliders. Sadly the coffee had the nasty burned flavor with which Starbucks has cursed the entire world and most specifically the Puget Sound region.

 

We registered late for the convention but the price was still reasonable at 55.00 per adult. There were a number of add on events such as various concerts and dinners. These ranged up to 45.00 per person for the Airship Awards Dinner. Other events had lesser fees. We did not attend any of these events, so cannot comment upon them directly. We did hear really good things about them though and everyone we talked to had a great time. Shannon  went to Unwoman’s concert on Friday night. The sound quality was great and the show rocked. Her recollection of these events might be a bit clouded by the after party which featured the la Fae Verte serving the green muse.

As with any event there were a few hiccups. One was gaming. The game department manager position was switched out just a few weeks before the convention and the result was a bit of disorganization. The various game masters made the best of it, although Friday was a bit of a lose. My demo that day didn’t go off although several interested parties came by and chatted about Stars of Empire. I was able to play a demo of Leviathan and watched a couple of other ones. I was impressed and will be posting a separate review of the game itself later.

Steamcon has a great identity, it’s staff know very well what they want the con to be about. This showed in the dealer’s room, the art show and artists’ alley. All three areas had participants clearly selected as being core to Steampunk/VSF. The dealer’s room had a large number of costume and gear vendors. It had a good game merchant but I would have been happy to see a better selection of book sellers. The art show was small but has some evocative works. I think I was most impressed with Artists’ Alley. There were some very nice items for sale and display there.

The panel track was excellent. Due to a miscommunication I was not scheduled for any panels but the extremely forgiving and hard working staff were able to get me on three in the two days we were there!

The first panel was on Friday and I was able to participate with several gents from The Rise of the Aester http://www.riseofaester.com/ LARP group. These fine fellows welcomed me as one of their own and we quickly became boon companions. Although the world they have created is very different in alternative history and MAcGuffins from Hive, Queen and Country their process has been very similar to the one that has brought forth Stars of Empire. One of their leaders Marshall used the word “sandbox” to describe the cooperative nature of their group. That is exactly how I’ve described the HQC Yahoo! Group. Their world is extremely detailed and textured and I was tremendously impressed! They were running a weekend long LARP. It was obvious from the level of participation they received that their games are tremendously popular. The level of costuming from the LARPers was amazing. Even more stunning was that even though The Rise of Aester group had really done a great job the general run of dress at the convention was of such a high quality that it was impossible to tell the organized players from the other attendees. Just getting to watch the cavalcade of finely made garb was worth the price of admission!

The theme of Steamcon III was 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. A great many of the costumes were of a nautical bent and again they were fabulous!

The other two panels I got to be part of were both about airships. In the first one I got to speak at the same table as the legendary Mike Pondsmith http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Falkenstein_(role-playing_game)! He was very kind to let me participate and both airship panels seemed to go very well.

We had very nice feedback from all three panels and all were well attended. It was a total blast and some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a panelist!

The staff of Steamcon deserves major praise! I’ve been staff at Archon for over 20 years and I’ve been to a number of other conventions, including two World Cons and other regional events. The staff at Steamcon is the second best I’ve ever seen (after Archon of course). To have put together an event this well organized after only three years is simply amazing. They had great programing tracks, registration seemed to go smoothly, the number of musical acts was impressive. I didn’t see anyone having a bad time. There were a few glitches and problems but they were handled quickly and efficiently by the staff. They did a great job and deserve a big bravo zulu!

 

I look forward to going back next year, we’ve already reserved our hotel room!

 

 

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 http://www.builtstlouis.net/watertowers/watertowers1.html. 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 Calfhttp://www.fattedcalfburgers.com/. 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 http://www.watertowerfoundation.org/home.asp. 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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’
ships?

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
here.

Let’s start with HMS Warrior http://www.hmswarrior.org/. 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
copper.

 

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
indeed.

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!

Steampunk Days Out, Riding an Airship!

Eureka on her Morring Mast

What is more Steampunk than riding on an airship? Riding on an airship as it travels over some of the most historic Victorian buildings in the United States, that’s what! I had that experience this weekend as New Technology met old dreams over St Louis, Missouri.

Rebirth of the Zeppelin Airship
In middle school I wrote a research paper on rigid airships. It was the beginning of a lifelong love for, and interest in, Lighter than Air (LTA) craft and technologies.

This is the house in which I wrote my middle school paper. I never dreamed all those years ago I would see it from a real Zeppelin!

For decades I followed the trials and tribulations of the various proponents of the technology as they tried to renew interest in LTA and produce designs that would be economically viable in the realities of the late twentieth century and now into the twenty-first. It was a long and uphill road. Ten years ago the Zeppelin was reborn in Germany. Zeppelin began building NT (for New Technology) ships http://www.zeppelinflug.de/seiten/E/default.htm. They have so far produced three vessel. One flies out of Germany, the second flew out of Japan for several years and in 2008 the third ship was built and sold to Airship Ventures http://www.airshipventures.com/ out of California. It was loaded aboard a ship and sailed to Texas and then flown to Sunnyvale California to be based out of Moffet Field. This was the USS Macon’s homeport before she crashed off Point Sur. Named Eureka to honor her home state’s motto she is a marvel of modern technologies mated to the most venerable of all human flight methods.

Eureka was built by ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co KG a modern day descendant of Count Zeppelin’s original company. For many decades a trust fund set aside for Lighter than Air craft had been slowly growing. By 1988 it was large enough to provide funding for a research craft and initial studies on the technological feasibility of rigid framed airships using advanced methods and materials was begun. By 1991 proof of concept models were showing great promise and work begins in earnest for development of 75 meter (246 feet) long craft. In 1997 the first of the Zeppelin NT craft has its maiden flight before a crowd of 30,000 onlookers. It has been almost 60 years since Friedrichshafen has seen a new airship take to the sky. Since then the company has begun serial production of these 246 foot long craft. Three have been built and additional ships are on order. This spring Goodyear has rejuvenated its long standing relationship with companies bearing the Zeppelin name and heritage by ordering three Zeppelin NT ships to replace its aging fleet of blimps.

Technological Advances
These new craft make use of the great technological advances during that time. The frame is of carbon fiber and aluminum, the envelope serves as both external skin and gas cell, using a three layer sandwich of advanced materials. The cockpit is ultramodern, looking like something from a jet fighter, with almost all instruments being computer displays. Controls are fly by wire and the pilot uses a joystick rather than wheels or yokes. The use of computers, improved instrumentation and fly by wire controls allows a single pilot to operate the airship, rather than the larger number of crewmen needed during the classical age of airships. The use of a single pilot did rob me of one thing I had particularly looked forward to. Lars, a highly skilled Zeppelin pilot from Germany, did not give the traditional command of Up Ship! This was my single disappointed of the entire experience though, so I can well live with it.

Complex tail rotor assemply aids in Eureka's amazing agility

One of the greatest improvements is in propulsion. The last classical Zeppelins LZ 130 and 131 both used diesel engines mounted in external pods. The propellers were fixed bladed and the pods could only apply thrust directly forwards or backwards. The US Navy’s two largest rigids ZRS4 Akron and ZRS 5 Macon had both been fitted with engines housed within the hull and propellers on outriggers that allowed for the airscrews to be swiveled. Macon was also fitted with variable pitch propellers as well. Variable pitch propellers allow the angle the propleeor blades “bite” the air to be changed. If the pitch is totally reversed the engine can continue to run in the same direction and so can the spinning propeller blade but the force is now directed in the opposite direction. This allows much more rapid deceleration. The combination of swiveling propellers and variable pitch blades allowed tremendous flexibility in how the thrust was directed and how quickly an engine could change from forward to reverse thrust. The 784 foot long Macon was able to rise vertically, like a helicopter. The new ships are even more capable in this ability. They have three engines. The two forward engines each drive a single airscrew capable of 120 degrees of play, and fully variable pitch to the propellers. The aft engine drives a propeller on the centerline axis of the ship and a side thrusting rotor as well. The ship can use vertical thrust to take off even when in a somewhat heavy condition. The variable pitch allows the props to push a light ship down towards the ground for a landing. This allows the engines to do the work that previously had to be done by dropping ballast or valving precious lifting gas.

Finding a Flight
As I said I had watched Airship Ventures success in California with great enjoyment. While looking ov er their web page I found that the usually west coast based airship was making a national tour of the U.S. and would be flying out of St. Louis Downtown Airport. I was lucky enough to get a reservation for a flight on Friday August 19th. After a week of anticipation, which I shared with my coworkers and anyone else that couldn’t escape from me in the few second it took me to bring up the subject I drove from work to Cahokia, Illinois. This small town is the location of the airport hosting Airship Ventures flights while in St Louis. As I took the small side streets that led to the airport gate I turned a corner and there it was! The first time in my life I saw a real honest to gosh Zeppelin! I had seen a blimp before but Oh-My-God a Zeppelin! It was amazing. I stopped and shot a couple of pictures of the ship on her mobile mast.

Eureka as I first saw her!

St Louis Downtown Airport is small but has a big history http://www.stlouisdowntownairport.com/history.htm. First opened in 1929 the field was once the home to some of Curtiss Wright’s operations. Now it serves as home to a number of charter services. There is also a small air museum, the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum http://www.airandspacemuseum.org/.

Reminders of the airports history

This highlights the varied aviation history of St. Louis. Curtiss-Wright, McDonnell, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Ozark Airlines and TWA were all part of the aviation heritage of St. Louis. The museum is small but has some very nice exhibits. It is located in one of the old Curtiss Wright hangers. I found the museum while I waited for my preflight check-in time (I had arrived very early). This also gave me a chance to look over the Farmers Airship. She was there by the fence and I shot a number of pictures of her graceful shape as she windsocked around her truck-mounted mast. Several other enthusiasts were there as well looking Eureka over as she gently rotated with the changing breeze. Her very simple ground handling arrangements contrast with the so much more complex methods used in the 1920s and 30s with such things as high masts, vast ground crews, railcars to hold down tail fins and huge mooring out circles located near enormous hangers. The Eureka travels around the country light, a ground crew of twenty or so and a handful of vehicles. The most important is the truck mounted mast system. This allows mooring in any grass field large enough to allow the 246 foot long ship to get in and out and to swing with the wind. Compared to the efforts to ground handle the big ships during the airships’ first heyday it is simplicity itself.

A very disappointing Friday!
After looking over the ship from afar (thanks to TSA’s regulations against being out on the field) and a visit to the museum I drove around the fence to the Jet Aviation terminal. If this is any indication of the facilities used by Airship Ventures I can only say bravo. The lounge was really comfortable. The ground crewmembers could not have been more enthusiastic. They were amazingly friendly and they knew they are part of the coolest aerial endeavor in decades. The two flight attendants Karen and Jen were very knowledgeable and both exhibited real interest in Eureka and LTA history. Jen’s favorite ship was Graf Zeppelin LZ 127. Her discussion of the differences between Graf Zeppelin’s around the world flight in 1929 and the current tour of Eureka was detailed and insightful.

Friday afternoon was hot with about 2/10 cloud cover. I was slated for the second flight of the day. The first set of passengers got their preflight briefing and the van took them off to the ship. We stood and watched them from the windows. We watched them sit in the van for a long time. We watched the van come back. The hydraulic sensor in the tail propeller unit failed and needed to be replaced. This required accessing the assembly, which was over twenty feet above the ground. This necessitated the cancelation of several flights, including mine. The ground crews were extremely capable in rescheduling us on to flights later. I was rescheduled for Sunday morning.

A Dinner to restore my spirits
To drown my disappointment I met my wife at The Scottish Arms http://www.thescottisharms.com/ in St Louis City. This establishment serves excellent food and has a huge selection of single malt scotches. We selected a meal of all appetizers, scotch eggs, haggis fritters, puff pastries, a cheese plate and a very nice lamb terrine. Since we were both driving we skipped the scotch (so maybe drown is the wrong word). As always the food was excellent. We’ve been going to this restaurant since it first opened and have enjoyed many of the great items off their menu. The tin ceiling, vast amounts of polished wood and Scottish décor give a Victorian and Old World charge to the place. Service is good and prices are reasonable, although not cheap.

Sunday, Sunday! SUNDAY!
Saturday seemed to go on forever. Because I had waited since I was but a wee lad one more day shouldn’t have been more than I could handle. I was almost too excited to sleep. I woke well before the alarm. Off we went, again arriving well before the time we were required to be there. Good thing to. It turned out my flight was at 10AM rather than 11. Even better the 10 AM flight was 1 hour instead of 30 minutes. We got our preflight briefing and the van took us out to the ship. This time we lifted without a hitch. Eureka seemed to jump upwards with a smooth and pleasant acceleration. It wasn’t anything like any other aircraft I’ve ever been in. Not the powerful takeoff of a jet or the laborious thrashing of a helicopter. It seemed effortless, if it was like anything it was like an elevator, an amazing glass elevator that offered stunning and changing views as it climbed skyward. In less than two minutes Jen told us we were free to move about the cabin. If the previous day had moved with glacial slowness the next hour was one of the fastest I have ever experienced. We flew north and west making for the St Louis downtown area. We quickly reached our cruising altitude of between 1000 and 1400 feet and cross the Mississippi. I’ve flown over the area many times approaching Lambert in commercial jets and in a helicopter (piloted by the late Alan Barklage, one of the greatest aviators to ever fly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsBv5SIICIY). None of those experiences can hold a candle to riding in a Zeppelin.

The ship is nearly without vibration and even with its windows open (try THAT in a jet airliner) is extremely quiet. I wondered if the passengers moving about the cabin would affect the trim but it didn’t appear to. The ride was smooth and steady. Stately would be a good term. There were a couple of bumps, but they seemed so less annoying than turbulence in a fixed wing aircraft does. We rushed around the cabin enjoying my home town from an entirely new vantage. Lars, the pilot, guided his ship and its excited cargo of eager site seers all across the bright August sky.

Right on Target

With great precision he flew us in front of the Gateway Arch http://www.stlouisarch.com/experience/the-gateway-arch/ so that our shadow was within the arch and the shadow of the arch. This made for a great photo opportunity. The path was perfect and he centered the ships shadow right between the legs of the arch.

Eads Bridge

Eads Bridge http://bridgepros.com/projects/eads/ the first bridge to cross the Mississippi below its confluence with the Missouri River was right below us. Its graceful steel arches still span the “Father of Waters” More than 135 years after they were completed. This is one of the most famous bridges in the United States and holds a place equal to some of Brunel’s greatest works. Its three arches each span more than 500 feet and the total length of 6,442 feet was the longest in the world at the time of completion. The great piers were driven all the way to bedrock at a terrible toll to the workers as they faced “caisson disease”, which we now know as decompression sickness. Fifteen workers died and numerous others were injured by the then poorly understood condition. The bridge still stands as a lasting tribute to its designer and to the men who labored under such dangerous conditions to complete his vision.

The reflecting basin located below the Art Museum

From there we drove north and west. Below the whole city was laid out like an amazing scale model. The huge water works, originally dating from just before the 1904 World’s Fair glittered bright blue in the late morning sunlight http://www.stlwater.com/history2.php.

The Bissell and the White Water Towers

Also part of the St Louis City water system were a number of water towers. Three of them still stand http://www.builtstlouis.net/watertowers/watertowers1.html and we passed over the two most northern ones, the Bissell and the White Towers. We got excellent view of these structures, which encase standpipes used to regulate water pressure in the steam driven system of the late 19th century. Only seven such towers still exist in the United States and three of them are in St Louis! The view from above is stunning.

Union Station's Clock Tower

Union Station completed in 1894 was at one time the largest railway station in the world http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Station_(St._Louis). Its tower and red tile roof still dominate Market Street. After a period of decay and abandonment (during which time it served at a set for Escape from New York). Now a shopping and entertainment center with an attached hotel the vast train sheds no longer see the daily arrivals and departures. The station was enlarged to handle the massive influx of passengers for the 1904 World’s Fair.

There are many relics of the Fair visible from the Zeppelin. Recently refurbished is the main reflecting basin. Located at the base of “Art Hill” http://www.forestparkforever.org/ this is one of the largest bodies water in the park. It shone brightly in the summer sun as we flew over it.

We landed safely but all too soon. Debarking was interesting. We didn’t moor to the mast but were in flight with the wheels touching the ground. Two new passengers would embark, making the ship heavier and two of us that had completed their flight would debark. In this way the ship never became lighter or more buoyant than she had been when we touched down, so no gas had to be valved. I do not believe that any of the ships from the 20’s or 30’s could have achieved this level of control so close to the ground. It was absolutely stunning when compared to the many stories of ships being damaged while being walked out a hanger or before they could be fully moored in a mooring out circle. It just shows the amazing progress that has been made in airship technology. It seems like a small thing but vastly increases the safety and usefulness of these new ships. It will prevent damage during landings and preserve valuable helium, which will not need to be valved off for landings.

Airship Ventures Company and Crew
I have only great things to say about the experience and in particular about the wonderful people who work for Airship Ventures. Their handling of the flight cancellation on Friday was polite and pleasant. Almost every commercial airline could learn a valuable lesson in customer service from how they dealt with the issue. I was rebooked on the Sunday flight rapidly. The employees all truly believe in what they are doing and the technology they represent and it is obvious from the moment you meet them. Their excitement is visible and contagious.

The flights cost from $299.00 plus tax for half an hour and go up from there. Longer flights are more expensive. When flying out of their home State they offer flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. These are 6 to 10 hours long and include catering. The price tag of $1500.00 per seat is certainly not inexpensive but for what would be a once in a lifetime experience has more than a little appeal to any Zeppelin enthusiast. It might take us a long time to save up that sort of money for a vacation but I can see that as the perfect tenth anniversary gift (isn’t the tenth one the Helium anniversary?).

Conclusion
In summing up my experience I think the most telling thing I can write is this. I waited 36 years to ride on a Zeppelin. The experience was everything I had dreamed it would be and more. Years of built up expectations were exceeded in every way. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. If you get the chance take a flight.

Eureka in her element!

Steampunk Days Out-Gosport and Explosion!

Gatling Gun on naval mounting

The greater Portsmouth area has a wealth of sites to visit in terms of great Victorian history and technology. I’ve already mentioned both Fort Nelson and various sites in Southsea. Let’s deal with Gosport now. Gosport is on the western side of the Solent and is reached from Portsmouth by a water taxi http://www.explosion.org.uk/visitor-info/waterbus-service.html. For hundreds of years the area served as a major supply base for the Royal navy and as such has been heavily fortified as well. These centuries of occupation and activities have left a huge amount of buildings used during the Victorian and before across the landscape. Some of these have been converted into museums.

There are at least three sites worth visiting in Gosport. I have been to two of them, sadly one wasn’t open. I’ll cover the third most quickly. The submarine service of the Royal navy has its own museum, just as the Fleet Air Arm does. That museum is in Gosport http://www.submarine-museum.co.uk. Of particular interest to VSF is the Royal Navy’s first submarine Holland 1. This vessel was built in 1901 and after many years of service sank while being towed to the breaker in 1913. The wreck was found in 1981 and she was raised in 1982. Since then she has undergone a number of chemical treatments to preserve and restore her metal hull and is currently on display at the museum. I am not a fan of submarines in general so I have so far not gone to visit the museum, I do plan on breaking my prohibition when next I am in the south of England. The price for admittance is 10 pounds. A dual ticket for the submarine museum and Explosion! is 12.50 and are good for 60 days.

The second museum was sadly closed when I attempted to visit, Fort Brockhurst. It is open only on select days and unfortunately I wasn’t there on such a day. It is open on the second Saturday of every month. Admission is free. This is owned by English Heritage. The image of me on the drawbridge across the moat into the keep, with my face pressed against the bars of the gate was certainly one the cabby found amusing.

11 inch anti submarine howitzer

OK, let us discuss a place I’ve actually been, Explosion! Explosion! Is the Museum of Naval Firepower http://www.explosion.org.uk/. Admission for the museum is 10 pounds, but package deals are available with the other museums around Portsmouth. The public areas of the museum are excellent. Exhibits trace not only British naval ordnance history, from the beginning of gunpowder cannons to nuclear weapons and modern guided missiles but also Priddy’s Hard the Royal Navy ordnance facility, whose buildings now how the museum. Many of those buildings are Victorian in date and are excellent examples of structures constructed to support the operations of the Royal Navy. Priddy’s Hard was a critical facility during the Victorian era (as well as before and after). The museum gift shop has a number of excellent books on that history. Not only was Priddy’s Hard a base that stored ammunition and refilled the magazines of H.M.’s warship but it also developed important technologies and served as a testing facility as well.

Minesweeping pravane-Which I have used at the image for the Brennan Aerial Torpedo

One of the exhibits traces the daily lives of ordnance plant workers during wartime. It shows their lockers and describes their occupations. From there are a number of galleries with a vast array of British naval ordnance. Everthing from the guns of Henry VIII to the most modern guided weapons are here to be viewed. The level of interpretation is excellent as well.

Nordenfelt multi-barrel machine gun being restored to prime condition in Explosion's! workshop

Some of things of particular interest to the Steampunk visitor include weapons from the Victorian period. Many of the weapons from more modern eras have a Victorian look about them. I use a picture of a 20th century mine sweeping pravane as a Brennan Aerial Torpedo. Its basic shape and brass construction make it a perfect image for such a device.

Light Quick firing Ordnance, typical of smaller ordance on many Victorian warships

I’ve been to the museum twice and both times was lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look into their restoration shop. This includes some very Victorian weapons, such as small 6 pdr quick firing guns first introduced in the 1880s. One of the most remarkable weapons is an 11 inch anti submarine howitzer. Although from the First World War this would also be a weapon that was within Victorian technologies. It is a strange weapon and the example at Explosion! Is almost certainly the last in existence. It was used as a test device, which explains both its survival and the excellent condition it currently exhibits. For some reason this peice of ordnancxe has really caught my attention. Perhaps because one of them formed part of the armament of HMS Vindictive when she was part of the force that attacked Zeebrugge on St George’s Day in 1918. I have never determined if the weapon was able to fire any rounds during the attack. Still the howitzer is an interesting weapon and seeing one in what must be close to operational condition is an absoulte treat.

Gosport Itself offers a large number of places to eat and shop on the walk from the water-taxi to the museum. John Roberts and I stopped in one to get a late breakfast and dry out from the pouring rain when I was there last. I can’t recall the name of the little shop but without a doubt most tastes can be catered to in the area. Again we stayed at Gunwharf Quays at the Holiday Inn there. Not the greatest spot but well located and clean.

Steampunk Days Out-Southsea

Spinnakar Tower at Gunwharf Quays

I’ll be keeping to the county of Hampshire, and to the greater Portsmouth area in particular for the next few weeks. We’ve already talked about Fort Nelson, but the area around the Solent has a lot of other interesting places for the Steampunker to visit. Southsea is on the south coast of England and is just to the east of the Solent. It has been an area of military importance since the earliest times.

There are two museums with direct Victorian connections in Southsea and another, that although not Victorian is still a lot of fun. The Royal marines Museum and Southsea castle both have numerous exhibits from the period and the Blue Reef Aquarium is just a great place to spend some time.

Again, when in Portsmouth we stay at the Gunwharf Quays Holiday Inn http://www.holidayinn-expressportsmouth.co.uk/. Even though the hotel is what you would expect from an international chain (clean, comfortable but without any individual style or personality) it is well positioned to the many attractions of Portsmouth. It is also right in the Gunwharf Quays shopping and dining area. This area, formerly part of the Royal Navy’s base, has been converted to a commercial center. There are numerous shops and restaurants. Indian Palace http://www.gunwharf-quays.com/store_profile-4523.htm has been quite serviceable the several times we have gone there, although the vindaloo proved too hot for one of our friends!

HMS Vernon's crest now is above a very congenial restuarant The Custom's House

The Old Custom’s House is an excellent place to get traditional English food http://www.gunwharf-quays.com/store_profile-4572.htm. Even better the building is the former headquarters of HMS Vernon. It is amazing to eat in the building that housed Jackie Fisher’s office! We hoisted several pints of beer and cider there in his memory.

Now in terms of places in Southsea that entice the Victorian scholar the Royal Marines Museum should be the first place to go http://www.royalmarinesmuseum.co.uk/. It is on an active military post so be prepared for a bit of security to get in. Parking was free when we visited. Admission is 7.50 for adults. The exhibits date from the founding of the Royal marines to current actions in Afghanistan and other troubled parts of the world. The many engagements of the Victorian period, when Gunboat Diplomacy was the order of the day are well represented. Weapons, decorations and uniforms of the period are all showcased as are the campaigns and the men involved. I was lucky to be accompanied by John Roberts on the trip (he also went with me to Explosion! In Gosport, more on that later). The museum had a serviceable tea room and a very nice gift shop.

We did make the mistake of being in the area during the annual marathon. Traffic was badly disrupted. To make matters worse it was pouring down rain. My lovely wife had decided to explore the area on her own and was nearly trampled or drowned while trying to cross the streets. Luckily she survived to meet me at the aquarium after John and I parted company after the Royal Marines Museum.

The Blue Reef Aquarium http://www.gunwharf-quays.com/store_profile-4523.htm has no specific Victorian or Steampunk appeal but is well worth a visit. Adult admission is 9.40. We walked there but it appears that plenty of parking is available in nearby pay and display lots. The undersea tunnel is great and they have a large otter display. It was feeding time for these frisky mammals and they were extremely excited. The Victorians certainly enjoyed watching animals and sea-life. The museum has a nice gift shop with numerous aquatic related toys and books available.

Field Gun at Southsea Castle

Finally right near the aquarium is Southsea Castle http://www.southseacastle.co.uk/. Admission is free and there are a number of large pay and display car parks within an easy walk (even in a howling gale). This was originally a Henrician coastal defense artillery fort. Henry the VIII stood in this fortress and watched as Mary Rose, his flagship, sank with huge loss of life. The fort was partly destroyed and rebuilt several times. During the Victorian it served as a military prison and was not declared surplus until 1960. The artillery collection has several Victorian guns, from field guns to large muzzle loading rifles used in coastal defense. Off period but still very well done is the Tudor gun room, showing dress of the era and service of the piece from that time. It is an excellent exhibit. Views for the battlements are good as well, when we could see between the periods of heavy rain. Since our visit the museum has changed services for their café and now it is a company that highlights local produce and foods. This sounds excellent and we look forward to going back and trying their fare.

Steampunk Days Out-Fort Nelson

By popular request I will now describe another excellent museum in the United Kingdom.

Fort Nelson (http://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/fort-nelson) is located near Portsmouth and is part of the landward defenses of that Naval Base. The ring of fortresses, built in the 1860s under the direction of the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston consisted of a number of large permanent works. Fort Nelson has been preserved and converted into an artillery museum. It contains the Royal Armourie’s artillery collection. Both naval and military weapons are on display here. The weapons represent ancient pre gun powder engines to weapons of the 21st century. The museum and its car park are both free of charge, although certain special events or exhibits require the purchase of a ticket.

The fort can be a little tough to get to. It is located a good drive from Portsmouth itself, but can be reached by bus. There is little in the way of hotels or eaters nearby. When we are in Portsmouth we generally stay at the Holiday Inn on Gunwarf Quay. This is a modern soulless edifice without any character or charm. The continental breakfast is not terribly exciting. Rooms are adequate. The sole two redeeming features of the hotel are it huge car park and it location within walking distance of many of the great things in Portsmouth. I’ll talk more about the other Steampunk joys of Portsmouth and Gosport later.

We drove from the Holiday Inn to Fort Nelson. We’ve been to the fort twice. Both times we got there either before the museum opened or just as they opened. The car park is located across a B road from the museum entrance. Be careful crossing but the car park itself has an excellent view of Portsmouth Habour. The ring of forts were on the ridge of high ground around the port, facing outwards, defending the Royal Navy’s most important facilities from land attack by an Army. When built the threat was France or Russia. The forts were, of course, never tested by combat and have been called Palmerston’s Follies. They were built to protect several naval bases, Chatham, Plymouth and most specifically Portsmouth and Gosport. Several of the forts have become museums, Nelson at Portsmouth Brockhurst at Gosport and Crownhill at Plymouth are open for visitors.

Fort Nelson is not only a showplace of the period military architecture but also has a huge number of exhibits in the art of the artillerist and gun founder.

Outside the entrance to the fort are two large pieces of ordnance. One is a 20th century 14 inch gun, as used aboard battleships of the King George V class and as counter-bombardment weapons at Dover (guns Winnie and Pooh). Of much more interest to the Victorian historian is one of two of Mallet’s great mortars. These 36 inch weapons were built to reduce the Russian fortress of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. They were not completed in time for action and somehow both have managed to survive into the 21st century (the other is at Woolwich). The amazing size of the ball fired by these is driven home by the pyramid of shot sitting next to the weapon. In the alternate history of Hive, Queen and Country these weapons were used during the Chritsmas Day Assault on the Devon Hive and their massive shells collapsed many of the galleries in the alien nest.

The fort is entered through the original gate and visitors are directed into a gift shop. The Palmerston Forts Society (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/) produces a number of interpretive documents including a series call “The Solent Papers” (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/publications.php) that detail forts in the Portsmouth/Gosport area. In addition some of their other small booklets are on ordnance (including very useful ones on Brennan Torpedoes and Mallet Mortars. I’ve picked up most of the society’s publications and have not been unhappy with any of them. In terms of British Victorian era fortifications and ordnance these are well worth adding to your personal library.

The artillery collection includes a large number of really interesting guns. They date from the beginning of gunpowder artillery to the Gulf War. There are a number of weapons of particular interest to VSF fans. These include a number of decorative guns cast in the shape of dragons or other animals. These are from nations that fought against the British Empire in the 19th century. Also from such a country is the Bira machine gun from Nepal. This is a local version of the Gardner Gun.

Also used in the Victorian are several period field guns displayed in the main gun hall. A Hotchkiss Rotating cannon on a field carriage is there (see picture above)They also have a few sections of something much more modern but still with a Victorian bent. Verne would have understood the Iraqi Super Gun. A far lesser weapon served to inspire his novel about shooting men to the moon.

The fort itself has a number of weapons from the era, including a 110 pdr Armstrong Breech Loading Rifle. This weapon was one of the first generation of breech-loading weapons developed in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The Armstrong breech system was a failure. It was complex and fragile. The 110 pdr at Fort Nelson is on a garrison carriage in a Haxo Casemate. The carriage is an excellent reproduction. The knowledgeable staff was able to fully explain this interesting weapon and the casemate designed to protect it. The Portsdown Artillery Volunteers provide a cadre of talented re-enactors to the forts (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/arming.htm).

There are a number of 64 pdr Rifled Muzzle Loaders which were converted from smoothbore 32 pdrs. These tend to be mounted on open barbettes. All these weapons are designed to fire across the outside surfaces of the fortified areas and sweep the cleared slopes.


Another type of defensive structure called a caponier contains a number of 32 pdr smoothbores that have been drilled out to make them into breechloaders. These are mounted to cover the ditch with rapid close range fire using large canister rounds.
The museum, like so many in the UK has a serviceable tea shop.
Fort Nelson is good for at least half a day. If there are special events in progress it may require far longer. Enjoy the views of Portsmouth, enjoy the history of the fort but mostly revel in the ancient traditions of the artillerist and the art of the gun founders.