British Travels: The Echoes of the Battle of Trafalgar at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

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Because of his towering height, Captain Hardy had to crouch below the beams in the lower deck of HMS Victory. It was quite a scene. Gunpowder still thick in the air. A legend lay dying. It was Hardy’s task to inform Nelson that they were victorious that day in the Battle of Trafalgar. And then Nelson passed into history and the scene was immortalized in paintings and drawings.

The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was a history changing day for Britain – it marked Britain’s supremacy at sea and ended Napoleon’s global ambitions. But it was just a day in the long history of HMS victory which has over two hundred and fifty years of history.

It’s the oldest commissioned ship in the Royal Navy. It still has a commander. It’s still used for functions and it’s a living symbol for the Royal Navy, even as it sits in a dry dock at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

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The keel for the Victory was lain down in 1759 when the Royal Navy ordered 12 new ‘first rate’ battleships to challenge French aggression. The ship would cost £63,176 – a monumental sum of money that would be the equivalent to the billions needed to build an aircraft carrier today. And the Victory was very much the aircraft carrier to it’s day.

The ship was massive. It’s intention from the moment it was built was to be a flagship, projecting British power around the globe. When it was complete, it was essentially a small city. It had a crew of 820 spread over 8 decks. It was an engine of British life and culture that could operate anywhere in the world.

In battle it was a formidable foe – it had over 100 guns. This was not a ship you wanted to come up against in battle!

In 1799, the Victory was widely regarded to be past her prime but the need for a flagship meant she was refitted, at great expense, and brought back into service. She was heavily damaged in the Battle of Trafalgar and had to be towed into port but she was restored to her former glory. Very few ships survive from the age of sail – but the Victory was an exception that was saved for history (though she was not always treated so well and was almost sent to the breakers).

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Today, HMS Victory sits in dry dock in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, a working Royal Navy dockyard that has been turned turned into a popular tourist attraction, which features several ships you can tour, The National Museum of the Royal Navy and an excellent museum dedicated to the entire history of the HMS Victory.

The ship is currently undergoing a long-term restoration so she is not currently displayed in her full glory. Her full masts and riggings are not up right now – so the ship looks rather sad in its current state. That said, it’s very much still worth visiting. While the masts are the pretty face of the ship, the inside of the ship was its soul and that is very much on display.

As the Victory is a working ship – you can’t just go up to it and wander around. You can only go on board the ship on a guided tour (at least during the winter – in the summer it’s different), which has to be booked and scheduled in advance. Do this right when you enter the historic dockyard or book online in advance before getting there. The tours start on time so don’t be late!

Nelson's Stateroom

Nelson’s Stateroom

Inside the ship, it’s simply amazing. Part of what strikes you about the ship in person is how vast yet how cramped the ship was. It’s difficult to imagine it heaving with over 800 men or imagine the massive ship stove cooking for them all.

You will spend a lot of the tour crouching if you’re tall like me (Mrs Anglotopia didn’t have to as she’s rather short, so Nelson’s Navy was the perfect scale for her!). You’re taken around the ship by a tour guide who is very knowledgeable and was very accommodating to us (we did the tour carrying two young children). He does a very good job showing you the important bits of the ship but also giving you an excellent idea of what life was like on a sailing ship. The tour lasts about an hour. Throughout the tour, you’re given a chance to wander around the ship but you’re heavily supervised.

I’m a huge fan of the film Master & Commander, so it’s great to actually experience and feel what an old sailing ship was like – though Victory is a much bigger ship than the HMS Surprise!

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Mind your head while walking around the Victory – and also be prepared to climb steep staircases and ladders (all the more challenging if you’re holding a baby like I was).

You enter the ship at a mid-level and then you’re taken to the main decks and then back down all the way to the hold. It’s so surprising to see that the ship essentially is an eight story building, built entirely from wood. And that brings up the lovely smell in the whole ship – the rich smell of the wood is magnificent – though it probably smells a lot better than it did in Nelson’s day!

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The Mary Rose

Next to Victory is the new Mary Rose Museum. For those that don’t know, the Mary Rose was a ship in King Henry VIII’s navy that sank in  the nearby Solent Channel. It was rediscovered a few years ago and was raised to the surface. To preserve it for future generations, it’s been undergoing a process to remove the water from the wood and replace is with a chemical that will preserve it permanently in its current state.

The new state of the art museum allows you to see the Mary Rose in scale – while also watching the restoration work still going on. The museum guides you through what life was like in Henry VIII’s navy as well as displaying the artifacts that been discovered. While it’s certainly an amazing exhibit and very interesting it kind of rubbed us the wrong way. The Mary Rose was essentially a grave – so it feels rather strange to gawk at it now in a museum. As interesting as it is to learn about the Mary Rose and its history, it probably should have been left at the bottom of the Solent.

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When you’re done exploring the Victory and the Mary Rose, the HMS Victory Museum next to the ship is worth a visit. It explores the entire history of the ship – not just it’s role in Trafalgar. It’s a very interesting multi-media exhibition and worth exploring if you want to know even more about the ship. Next to the Victory museum is The National Royal Navy Museum but we ran out of time and could not explore it.

We very much enjoyed our visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards and it was very much a life goal for me to be able to see the Victory in person, so it’s an experience that meant a lot to me (which is why I’m writing about it first). Some have remarked that it’s not worth visiting while it’s being restored – but I disagree – it’s still very much worth visiting and I can’t wait until it’s done to see her again in her full glory.

Quick Info

  • Tours of the Victory are timed and must be booked in advance – you can’t just show up at the ship. They offer the guided tours in the winter months and from 28th March – to November its ‘free-flow – where you can wander the ship and the guides are stationed to answer your questions.
  • Tours of the Victory last approximately 1 hour
  • It’s a secure military installation so try not to be alarmed by the armed guards about.
  • The HMS Victory museum is worth popping in.
  • There’s a great gift shop across from the Victory in The National Museum of the Royal Navy (it’s better than the gift shop in the Mary Rose museum).
  • Plan to spend all day here – if you want to see everything on offer – consider spreading it across two days.

Cost: While you can buy tickets for just the Victory, we recommend the All Site Package which gives you access to the entire Dockyard for up to 1 year. Adult Ticket: £26.00, Child Ticket: £19.75, Senior Ticket: £24.25  , Family Ticket: £72.00,  Student Ticket: £24.25 (Prices current as of February 2014). Children under 5 are free but still need to be ticketed.

Kid Friendliness: They do not allow strollers on the ship, there’s no way to get them around. There’s ample narrow and steep staircases on board that are difficult to climb with a child in your arms. You are required to leave your strollers outside the ship in a parking area. Be sure to put your rain covers on, we didn’t think to and when we finished the tour (which is an hour long) it had rained and our strollers were soaked. Honestly, we would not recommend visiting this attraction with very young children. But older children will love it and I can’t wait to take ours back when they’re older. There an excellent children’s play area in the HMS Victory Museum, which is a great place to park the kids if parents want to take turns taking the Victory Tour.

The rest of the Dockyard is more kid-friendly. You can stroller your way through the new Mary Rose exhibit and the on site museums. But if you want to explore any of the ships, you’ll have to park the stroller.

Further Afield: Within walking distance of the Dockyard is Gun Wharf Quay which is a modern shopping/eating/entertainment development. Walk down the main street and go under the railway bridge and you’re there (just follow the people). There’s plenty of places to eat (more variety than what’s on offer at the Dockyard) and there’s also plenty of shopping, if that appeals to you. The Spinnaker Tower is also a popular attraction now but we did not have time to visit it. I hear it’s great and has expansive views of Portsmouth Harbour.

How to Get There:

Portsmouth is located on England’s Southern Coast. Here is a map of the city and it’s environs.

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By Car: We drove to Portsmouth from Dorset, where we were staying. It was an easy drive and Portsmouth is an easy to navigate smallish city. The route to the Dockyard is well sign-posted the entire way so you can get there without a map. There’s a car park for the dockyard right before you get to it – it’s within walking distance but it’s not free (you will struggle to find anywhere to park for free in most British cities). The dockyard is 5 miles from the M27.

By Rail: You can take trains from all directions into Portsmouth Harbour rail station and it’s not a far walk from there to the Dockyard (it’s 200 yards from the entrance). If you’re in London, it’s only a 90 minute direct train ride so it’s definitely something you can do on a day out from London. Check timetables and fares with Southwest Trains.

Disclosure – Our admission tickets were provided to us for free by Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.


Comments

  1. avatar says

    Good to read an American anglophile’s perspective, Jonathan. I got to see the victory three times in the first 27 years of my life in the UK (I now live in Virginia), and it’s always been one of my favourite and our proudest monuments/attractions.

  2. avatarCherry says

    My grandfather took me on the Victory when I was three in 1951 & I have been several times in adulthood. As a “Pompey” girl I am proud of the history of my home town & especially of the Victory. Thank you for your impressions, which I enjoyed reading. I now live in Massachusetts.

  3. avatarSharon says

    I took a tour of the Victory in 2005 and I had to duck a few times below decks. You didn’t mentioned how they transported Lord Nelson’s body back to England!

  4. avatarSteve Clark says

    Hi Jonathan – great to read about your visit to my city of birth. You do need to amend the place where the Mary Rose sank – it was not Portsmouth Harbour – but the Solent – the stretch of water between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

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