I’m rather ashamed to say that I’d never been to Portsmouth before, so the opening of the new Mary Rose Museum was a great excuse to head to the south coast on a day trip out of London. I found lots to see and do and plenty to appeal to all kinds of visitors, not just for lovers of naval history.
The train journey from London took about an hour and a half to Portsmouth Harbour station, where you arrive right in the heart of all the things that you would want to see – in fact you’re still in the station when you catch sight of the huge HMS Warrior. Britain’s first iron hulled ship, she is a warship that was launched in 1860 and was the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet – the fastest ship of her day.
Exiting the station, you can choose to turn right to the Gun Wharf or left to the Historic Dockyards. I started with the right side of the station as my eye was taken by the striking white Spinnaker Tower rising 170 metres above the harbour. Entry costs £8.55, which gives you access to 3 different levels with the top one taking you to 110 metres and a lovely looking cafe on the middle level. The views are really wonderful out to sea, over old Portsmouth and across the Historic Dockyards including a glimpse of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose Museum. On the first level there is plenty of panorama information if you are new to the area and audio guides for each vista. One added bit of fun is the glass floor on the top level for the very brave to stand on!
Passing the cafes on the water front and the handsome yachts in the marina, I walked through old Portsmouth to the Round Tower. This landmark fortification has watched over Portsmouth Harbour since the early 1400s and is close to the site of the sinking of the Mary Rose herself. I was keen to see the Square Tower, the cathedral and the D-Day Museum but was running short of time so had to head off to the Historic Dockyards.
The Mary Rose Museum opens tomorrow, 31st May and is an amazing museum which is well worth a day trip out from London on its own. It sits in the heart of the Historic Dockyards which is packed full of other museums and displays of naval goods – on the way to see the Mary Rose you even pass HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship during his victorious battle at Trafalgar, which sadly cost his life. It’s a wonderful ship and I’ll have to visit again to have enough time to do justice to a tour of this beautiful ship.
I was getting excited as I approached the Mary Rose Museum, as I remembered the news of this Tudor warship from Henry V111’s fleet being raised from the sea floor back in 1982. Since then she has been undergoing intensive restoration ready for display alongside the thousands of artefacts found in and around the vessel.
She was built here in the historic dockyards and sank in the harbour entrance on 19th July 1545 in full view of Henry during a battle against the French. Mary Rose is the only sixteenth century warship on display anywhere, and has been an extraordinary gift for historians as everything about her can be dated to the exact day and the artefacts are not simply ‘tudor’ but from 19th July 1545. She is so well-preserved because she rolled over on her side as she sank, so half the ship settled into the mud which covered and protected her timbers and her contents.
In the museum you will learn all about the ship and her history and the incredible restoration process, but what you really want to see is the ship and that soon happens. As restoration is still continuing the remaining half of the ship is in an air sealed room as they carry on the careful drying of timbers that have been in preservatives for decades. Excitement builds as you get to see the original ship through a series of windows to one side of the walkways and on the other you see, laid out as they would have been on the decks, the guns , ropes and artefacts. The ship is huge and the items are so well-preserved it is hard to believe it is all real after nearly 468 years below the waves. There are 3 decks worth of ship and, although it still had machinery and drying equipment on it, the timbers are absolutely wonderful to see and our group stopped and stared for some time at each window. I was amazed by the size of the ship – I apologise that the photos do not do it justice as you can’t easily capture it top to bottom, but hopefully they will give you an idea of its scale.
There were over 19,000 artefacts in the ship and they are displayed in an interesting way – by cabin and by owner. You can see for example, the cook’s knives and utensils – one of the few people whose names we know, he was called Ny Coep and you can see his chart of the weekly rations and learn about what they ate and drank – there does seem to have been a lot of beer! The carpenter’s chest of tools is also there as are officers’ personal effects and musical instruments. Displays of bows and arrows, bowls and many wooden chests with their contents give an insight into everyday life on board, including the many nit combs as it was none to clean below decks! It is extraordinary to see shoes and so many items made of wood, particularly the large chests, which were preserved by the mud and are rarely in existence from this age are they normally decay in the air and water. Even the skeleton of the ship’s dog has been preserved…
We finally tore ourselves away and passed through the excellent shop offering all kinds of mementos, from models to soft toy dogs and specially commissioned English Mary Rose wine. Once outside we saw the wooden exterior of the museum, looking like a boat itself and there was also another special treat – the sight of the enormous and famous Ark Royal aircraft carrier just a few days before she headed off to a scrap yard!
I just had time for one more stop at the Gunwharf outlet shopping centre just around the corner – it’s full of great bargains with over ninety designer shops offering everything from Nike, to M&S, to Adidas, Calvin Klein, Gap, White Stuff, Hobbs etc.
A quick dash back to the railway station and I was back home in London in time for a late dinner. It’s a great day out and there’s plenty to see for more than one day in Portsmouth, but if you just have the one then make sure you that see the Mary Rose museum and go up the Spinnaker at the very least…