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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 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


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!

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.