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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.