Whenever I think about docks, I am reminded of the Blackadder scene with Rowan Atkinson and Tony “Time Team” Robinson. There is always a slightly seedy, tawdry feel to it.
That is so not the case with Portsmouth Docks, they are a testament to the naval history of the UK.
It was an INSET day at school, so I took a day off and we headed to Portsmouth. The docks are a short walk from the Portsmouth Harbour train station, so it was easy to get there. Also it is a short walk to Gunwharf Quays, and on the way back TW was threatening a detour, but luckily that never materialised.
The entry ticket costs a fair bit, about £55, I think, but that gives you entry to the docks for a year, so we will be able to go back during the summer and do the bits we missed yesterday.
We first went onto the Warrior, a ship built in 1860, and the engineering and vision utilised in building such a ship was amazing. The ship was bristling with cannon, and some of those weighed six tonnes. The fact that the ship was still floating and not at the bottom of the ocean was quite remarkable. Of course, the living conditions “enjoyed” by the men onboard were horrific, but the things they achieved were awe-inspiring. The way they lived together, and relied on each other, was amazing. Certainly there would be no opportunity for introspection or “me” time. Even if they did get a moment to themselves, they would be assaulted by their own stench, or the worry that they would be punished for some reason by the officers or the bosun.
I was impressed by the many uses of the hammock; in addition to a sleeping-place, it could be used to protect from shrapnel (when wrapped up and stored in the splinter nets topside), it was also a bouyancy device, i.e., it could be used as a life-raft for 12-14 hours, and it would also, for those unlucky enough to die at sea, be used as their coffin. A cannonball would be set at the corpse’s feet, and the hammock would be sewn up around the body, and the last stitch, known as the “dead man’s stitch” would go through the corpse’s nose, to ensure a) that the corpse was indeed a corpse, and b) that the body didn’t float free once the hammock was pitched over the side. Because some of the crew were pressganged into service, they would take any opportunity to escape, even if that meant pretending to be dead. The dead man’s stitch would provoke a response from any body not already a corpse 🙂 .
As well as learning about the naval practices and living conditions of the day, we learned about the origins of sayings. For instance, “not enough room to swing a cat” refers to the basic punishment tool of the day, the cat o’ nine tails. That was the lash, basically. Apparently if someone was punished by the cat o’ nine tails, in a lot of instances they had to make their own cat, which would be particularly galling. “Let the cat out of the bag” is another relating to the same, the cat was always taken up in a bag, and when it was taken out, something bad was going to happen. I don’t think it means the same these days, I think now it means to reveal a secret, although not with dire consequences.
Later we also learned the origins of “cock-up” which isn’t rude as you might imagine. I was quite disappointed. It is from archery, and the fact that the “cock feather” is a different colour to the other two and should always be at a 90-degree angle pointing away from the bow. If the cock feather is pointing up, the arrow won’t fly properly, and so a mistake is referred to as a “cock-up”.
We had a picnic which we took with us, so we sat outside in the cold and the rain in the middle of February, eating our sandwiches. At that point I was ready to come home, but we were under a canvas outside the Mary Rose museum, so although it was raining around us, we weren’t actually getting wet.
The Mary Rose museum was brilliant, very well done. There was one point where I was looking at a skeleton, and they had an “artist’s impression” of what the archer might have looked like. I had quite a surprise as it looked as though the archer was looking at me – I’m not sure whether that was a little joke by the museum curators, but it put the wind up me for a minute or two.
Then we went to the Victory, and had a guided tour around that. The guide was very knowledgeable, but it seemed he was rushing through his presentation. To be fair though, I think there was a tour behind us as well, so he probably wanted to ensure he was keeping ahead. The majesty of Nelson’s quarters was impressive, and the noise and the hullabaloo that the sailors below decks must have suffered during battle was also equally impressive.
We didn’t have time to see the submarine, or the boats out to the submarine weren’t running, and there were several museums we didn’t go into. There is also a boat trip around the docks which we didn’t take, so there is still lots for us to do the next time we go back.
The girls really enjoyed it, and that’s the second time they’ve been. Maybe next time we’ll split the day between the Docks and Gunwharf Quays – at least, that might appeal to TW.

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