Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
I was recently asked which is the best historical site that I have visited this year. Without hesitation, I named Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, by far the most impressive and interesting place I’ve been to. The Royal Navy has an 800 year old history, and provided the clout, the romance and often the sinister side to many of the most famous episodes in British and world history. It’s all at Portsmouth, and you can see it from the decks of some of the ships that created history’s greatest maritime empire.
I expected the highlight of the day to be HMS Victory, and it is indeed a special experience to walk the decks of the world’s most famous ship, where Admiral Nelson simultaneously achieved his finest hour and fell to a French sniper at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
However, the real gem is HMS Warrior, the loudest and final word in the naval arms race with France that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. When completed in October 1861, Warrior was by far the largest, fastest, most heavily armed and most heavily armoured warship the world had seen. She was almost twice the size of La Gloire and thoroughly outclassed the French ship in speed, armour, and gunnery. Such was the brutal scale and unprecedented combination of steam engines, rifled breech-loading guns, iron construction and armour, Warrior never had to fire a shot in anger. No other navy would have dared to cross her, and Britain was able to re-assert the superiority that Nelson and his contemporaries had secured at the beginning of the century and ruthlessly exploit the resources of her ever-increasing maritime empire.
Musuem of London Docklands
With Mrs Woodall away for the weekend recently, I took the chance to get my pirate kicks at the Museum of London’s Captain Kidd exhibition at their Docklands site. As this exhibition closes on October 30th, I urge anyone that has been meaning to go to set sail immediately. If you’re not sure if you can be bothered to make your way down to Canary Wharf, I share with you the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, introducing Treasure Island…
To the Hesitating Purchaser
If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons
And Buccaneers and buried Gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of to-day:
—So be it, and fall on! If not,
If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Or Cooper of the wood and wave;
So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
Where these and their creations lie!
In other words, if you love adventure and romance, you’ll love this.
The exhibition focuses on how Captain Kidd went from privateer to pirate and how he was betrayed by men at the centre of the British government looking to save their own necks and fortunes. There are plenty of tales of derring-do, murder and betrayal, and plenty of dark and splendid characters to read about. Kidd is obviously at the centre of it all, firstly serving greedy merchants and politicians as a pirate chaser, then as an accused pirate himself. Finally, he is condemned by Parliament, abandoned by those he had served, and hung in a gibbet to swing at Tilbury Point for three years as a warning to future would-be pirates. Kidd himself said as he was being tried: “There is nothing in the world that can make it appear that I was guilty of piracy.” This may be stretching it a little, but he was a contemporary of some unscrupulous men, who saw him hang with a heavy sigh of relief.
Here are a few dodgy pictures of things I saw: