12 April 2007

Nauticalia in Portsmouth

England’s Easter weather was ship-shape and in rare good form as I boarded the train bound for Portsmouth on Friday. As it happens, this was my first journey outside London since my arrival in February. Waterloo Station was buzzing with the bustle of hundreds of cris-crossing travellers, but as the long train nosed out into the open air and picked up speed, the noise of crowds was replaced with the steady drone of air-conditioned comfort and the smooth rocking of the carriages. The journey was a quick hour-and-a-half, with pleasant sunshine and gentle Hampshire scenery to enjoy out the window.

The station in Portsmouth is right by the harbour. The appearance of the immediate vicinity is not particularly encouraging, and the bus interchange is rather decrepit in a post-war slapdash concrete sort of way. Across the way, the fading sign for the Lady Hamilton Hotel is missing a large proportion of its letters (“THE ADY HAM”) as it peeps over the drab concrete of the bus station.

Before my journey I had noted the minor hubbub caused by Tory MP and media personality Boris Johnson, who recently said of Portsmouth:

"Here we are, in one of the most depressed towns in Southern England, a place that is arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs."

As I eagerly scanned the denizens, I concluded that he just might’ve had a point, as there seemed to be a larger than usual proportion of more amply-girthed individuals. But then again, Boris Johnson is in no position to point the finger in that regard. And I wasn’t too fussed about wilful displays of drugs, underachievement and Labour MPs either – after all, I’ve seen plenty of that in Parliament. (Boom boom!) Even less flattering was the analysis of English website Chavtowns.co.uk, which details the naffest of the UK’s boroughs. But none of it’s that repeatable.

Anyway. Eager to get rid of my backpack, I took a bus to Southsea, where Portsmouth’s only hostel is located. It’s about 2.75km back to the centre of town, so I did a fair bit of walking. Portsmouth is a round peninsula, and if you imagine it shaped like a clock-face, the base of the peninsula is at 12 o’clock, the main port and historic docklands are at 9 o’clock, and Southsea is located at 6 o’clock.

The hostel itself is a modest but reasonable affair – nothing flash, but seemingly well-run by the Chinese couple in charge of things. It was quite nostalgic to return to an independent hostel for the first time in a couple of years. Hectoring notices tacked to every spare surface issued firm edicts about acceptable behaviour. (But when I remembered certain types of backpackers, I guess a little clear explanation of civil behaviour doesn’t go amiss). Here's a shot of the kitchen wall to bring back fond memories of hostelling:

Eager to acclimatise and take the airs on a sunny afternoon, I walked along the seafront promenade, past the squat defences of Southsea Castle (built 1544). Further towards the harbour, the path passes through Clarence Pier’s boldly-lit funfair, where the locals can ride a mini-rollercoaster or lurk in darkened halls to shell their coins into umpteen flashing slot machines. Not my cup of tea, but I have to admit being intrigued by the faded banner outside one establishment that read, “American Simulator – It’s Great!” I wondered if it simulated places in America, or if it actually simulated the condition of being an American. It’d certainly wreak havoc with my diet, for one thing.

In the centre of town on the site of an old naval wharf, Portsmouth now sports the shiny new development of outlet stores, restaurants and marina facilities known as Gunwharf Quays. (One of the shops is called ‘Fat Face’: have they been talking to Boris Johnson?). The centrepiece of the precinct is the striking Spinnaker Tower (pic), a 170m sail-shaped structure with glass-enclosed viewing decks near its summit.

In the evening I took the chance to see A Prairie Home Companion at a local cinema. Director Robert Altman’s last feature film, the movie is a warm and funny snapshot of a real (and barely-disguised) radio variety programme. While it’s likely to appeal most to people like me, who have enjoyed the radio show for years, APHC also features a quality supporting cast (Streep, Tomlin, Harrelson, Kline, and yes, even Lohan) to work with the genial host, the writer and performer Garrison Keillor. And the top-notch musical numbers are a real treat too.

The next morning I set off along the waterfront again with the aim of reaching the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, the main objective of my visit, by the 10am opening time. As I legged it to the middle of town, squadrons of ferries roared out into the even waters of the Solent, bound for the Isle of Wight or the nearby ports of France, and a heavy naval support vessel, HMS Cardigan Bay, edged its way to the docks with the help of two tenders.

The dockyards proved to be every bit as interesting as I’d hoped, and by the time I’d finished seeing everything it was nearly 4.30pm. (It was expensive, mind – I wanted to get my money’s worth!).

It was a real highlight to finally tread the boards on HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s famous flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The spot he was fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet is marked with a small plaque. Down below decks the ceiling timbers and crossbeams make for a lot of stooping, but it’s all fitted out in an authentic recreation of its appearance during the Napoleonic Wars, 24-pounder guns and all.

In a part of the Navy Museum devoted to Nelson, I noticed an eerie plaster cast that initially appeared to be Nelson’s deathmask from 1805 (pic). Recent research has revealed that it’s more likely to be a mask taken from Nelson’s features during his lifetime, probably in Vienna in 1800.

In a giant climate-controlled shed nearby I saw the remains of the Mary Rose (pic), the massive galleon that was the pride of Henry VIII’s navy until it capsized and sank with great loss of life in 1545, not far from Southsea Castle. Since the remains of the hull and decks were raised from the Solent silt in 1982, scientists have been endeavouring to restore the ship to something of its former glory. For the past several years the hull has been living behind glass in a strange, Venusian mist, as it's being sprayed with a waxy solution to thicken the fragile timbers. After several more years of this procedure, the vessel will be able to withstand normal air and temperature conditions, and will emerge from its murky holding pen. A nearby museum holds many relics found onboard or nearby the wreck, including cannons, dozens of longbows, and even a crewman’s backgammon set.

A 40-minute harbour cruise was included as part of the ticket, which took in all of the Royal Navy warships in port that day. All three of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers were in port: HMS Ark Royal, HMS Illustrious, and the reserve carrier HMS Invincible. Amongst the smaller vessels present was the destroyer HMS Nottingham, which notoriously ran aground near Lord Howe Island in 2002 and caused the Navy no end of embarrassment.

Back on dry land, the last stop in the docklands visit was HMS Warrior, the world's first ocean-going iron-hulled armoured battleship. Built in 1860, Warrior was only in service for 14 years, and later acted as a reserve vessel, storage hulk, depot ship and oil jetty until it was rescued from scrapping in 1979. Its clean lines and spacious decks are an interesting counterpoint to the cramped conditions aboard the historic Victory, and its brass-plated ship's wheel bore the pleasingly peculiar inscription 'Princess Is Much Pleased'.

Later that evening in the hostel I heard some backpackers talking about a football match that day, and then I realised why I’d heard so many TVs tuned to football while I walked through town. Portsmouth FC was playing a home game at Fratton Park against the evil behemoth Manchester United, and against all odds pulled off a stunning 2-1 win. Aside from listening to the backpackers (including one genuinely named Waverley) rabbit on about New Zealand all the time, and wondering if I’d been as much of a bore about it when I first started traveling, I devoted my evening to starting Nevil Shute’s chilling nuclear war potboiler from 1957, On The Beach.

Having seen the docklands, I decided to head back to London in the morning, to get back in time for lunch. As the 0932 service to Waterloo sped back through Hampshire to the big city, passing through thin woodlands and gentle streams, the only distractions from the view were the exploits of Noisy Crisp Man behind me (chew with your mouth closed please, you’re not four years old) and Sniff Kid who joined us at Woking. Handkerchiefs are obviously not mandatory equipment these days. He’ll regret not bringing one when he gets the Black Death, won’t he now?

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