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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.

Steampunk Days Out-Crystal Palace Dinosaurs!

This Steampunk Day Out is less of a full day and more of an afternoon or morning. It is a trip back in time, either to the mid 1850s or to a time many millions of years before that. It all depends upon how one looks at it.

We find evidence of ancient creatures!

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are located in Crystal Palace Park in South London. It can be reached by the Overground’s East London Line branch. The train station is just a short walk from the park and a helpful sign gives easy directions to the sculptures. Admission is free and the park is open to dark. In addition to the dinosaurs the park has a café and a museum dedicated to the Crystal Palace. Due to the time of our visit we were unable to visit either of them. We did get to spend over an hour and a half with the concrete animals and their island homes.

Useful maps can be found around the park

Between 1852 and 1854 sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, under the technical direction of Richard Owens made a series of life-sized models of ancient animals. These were placed in what was believed to be an accurate landscape of small ponds and swamps in the shadow of the famous Crystal Palace at its new South London location at Sydenham Hill. Famously, Hawkins held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the Iguanodon, one of the largest animals. The animals themselves dated from three periods of prehistory. The most ancient fauna represented dates back to the Paleozoic. The more famous dinosaurs of the Mesozoic are the middle period and the giant mammals of the Cenozoic round out the collection.

Marine Reptile hunt in shallow water

Megatherium, the giant ground sloth. This is a beast that figures in my Hive, Queen and Country setting

That these sculptures have survived so long can only to attributed to a series of happy accidents. Although they were extremely well received both by scientists and the public when first unveiled (think of the reaction to the first Jurassic Park movie and you’ll have some idea of the frenzy around the sculptures) they were rapidly overtaken by events. By the 1890s the dinosaur sculptures had been overtaken by additional research and discovery. Scientists began to decry their inaccuracies. Around them London itself changed. The Crystal Palace itself was destroyed by fire in the 1930s. Brunel’s twin water towers were demolished to prevent their use by Nazi bombers in the Second World War. The dinosaurs weathered all those events over the years. However the petty pace of decay and corruption did not pass them by. By the end of the twentieth century the concrete creatures were in sad shape. Luckily the historical value of the sculptures was recognized and the remaining animals were saved. Some have disappeared in the intervening century and a half and have been replaced with fiberglass replicas.

One of the creatures is sighted

The restoration, completed for most of the animals by the early years of the 21st century was well done. By our visit in 2010 they animals were in need of a coat of paint. The photos on the BBC panoramic site (link included below) show the creatures in much brighter hues than our visit found. That being said the park is lovely and the paths clean and smooth. We were there in mid May but found very few people out and about. The winding of the trails further isolated us from the other visitors. They also allow for the “discovery” of the groups of sculptures. The animals are in various groups throughout the area of the ponds. There is a web based audio tour as well as a number of well written signs. The history of the sculptures is well documented.

Of the many places I’ve visited in the UK this is one of my favorites. If we go back there again it will be with picnic lunches and more than a couple of hours to spend. The rest of the park needs exploring! For folks in the area a promenade wearing Steampunk garb would be an amazing photo op!

The way back to the train station is clearly marked as well

For more information check the links below