Portsmouth: Gloom, Doom, and Bloom
a ‘sally port’ in old Portsmouth*
May 8, 2019, Portsmouth, England — Until last week, we didn’t know we’d have to skip a stop at Casablanca to avoid an approaching storm in the Bay of Biscay, and add a stop in Portsmouth en route to Greenwich and disembarkation on Saturday. The mood on the ship has been gloomy this past week — which matched the gloomy weather in the morning. I don’t know of an app to remove raindrops on windows from photos.
I’d been to Portsmouth many years ago, so I’d seen where Admiral Nelson died below decks on the Victory (like the U.S.S. Constitution, it is still commissioned), and I’d seen Henry VIII’s only-recently-resurfaced Tudor flagship, the Mary Rose. My only other memory is of the parking garage, with the narrowest parking space we had ever seen. Funny the things you remember from a trip — and the things you don’t.
Portsmouth has been a naval base since 1497, when Henry VIII started building his Royal Navy. Today 2/3 of it is based here. Consequently the security at the terminal was the most thorough we’d been through, à la TSA, but without pre-check. The port where we docked was built in 1976 and handles a lot of passenger and commercial traffic. E.g., 100% of the isle of Jersey’s potatoes come in through here.
There are also public ferries to the Channel Islands, France and Spain. And a hovercraft, which my vocalist friends took so Shaun could show everybody his homeisle of Wight, just across the strait called the Solent. We watched it hover across the strait and dock.
The city of Portsmouth (population 205,000) is on the island called ‘Portsy.’ It is the only island-city in the U.K.
Rome tried to conquer England in 55B.C., then in 53 B.C. and finally did so in 43 A.D. and controlled Britain for around 400 years. They built Hadrian’s Wall because they had no interest in tackling those wild Scots to the north. That worked.
Other countries tried to conquer England — Germany comes to mind. But the Brits were always wary of the French, as I was reminded on my first tour, a ‘panoramic’ bus ride with stops around the chalkland countryside on the mainland. This included visiting one of ‘Palmerston’s Follies.’ Queen Victoria’s First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Palmerston, was afraid England was going to be attacked — probably by Napoleon III, since the ‘entente cordial’ between the two countries was, he thought, dubious. In the 1850s and ’60s, he had forts (like the one below) and fortifications built first atop Portsdown Hill overlooking Portsmouth, the Solent, and the English Channel. Eventually little round forts were built in the Solent — a few are now 500-pound-per-night hotels you get to by boat or helicopter. None of them was ever used to defend England.
The one we visited, Fort Nelson, has been turned into an armory museum. I didn’t notice the green roof when I shot this. Moss? Grass? Could it be... Solent Green? (You have to be a Charlton Heston fan.)
The Wall Smasher cannon. Aptly named, don’t you think?
The local chalkland is good for agriculture and for flora and fauna including a rare orchid and a particular blue butterfly. Local birds of prey include buzzards, red kites, and kestrels. If the guide says it, I write it.
Our excellent guide also leads Titanic tours out of South Hampton. He asked if we were at the beginning or the end of our cruise before deciding if it was polite to tell us all the grisly details of the doom of that supposedly unsinkable liner. There were 20 lifeboats that could hold 1,178. The ship was built to hold 3,000 but wasn’t full: there were 2,200 on board. The ship ignored radioed ice field warnings from other ships in the vicinity, hit the iceberg, and took two hours to go own. They followed Birkenhead Protocol in abandoning the ship: Women and children first, then male passengers, then crew and finally, the captain, who went down with the ship. That was handy: The courts later found him the responsible party, but he was already dead. Case closed. The first lifeboats left the ship with only a few people in each. In the end, 700 people — and 3 dogs, smuggled off inside ladies’ fur coats — made it into the lifeboats. The Titanic had radioed a distress signal that was answered first by the Carpathia, which pulled 13 people alive from the 28F degree water, and collected those in the lifeboats. Other ships that responded found a total of 330 dead bodies in the water, but their combined capacity was only 200 bodies. How do you decide which bodies to ‘rescue’? Pick the richest-looking
— the ones wearing furs and jewels, carrying money — because their families might pay to reclaim the bodies and the loot — if there still was any. The double doom of the people who looked poor was to drown and to be left in the sea.
All right, enough of that.
We passed through the charming and quintessentially English village of Southwick. I was on the wrong side of the bus to shoot the thatched cottages, so you’ll have to settle for this stone house made of rock and flint. Btw: Iron Age people fashioned flint in kilns.
Half-timbered houses were built in the 1500s of oaken beams in-filled with wattle and daub, which was replaced in the 1700s with brick.
Southwick is famous because here General Eisenhower and British commanders planned the D-Day offensive, Operation Overlord. We passed the building where they did their planning and the pubs where they ate and drank when they left the war room. One such pub was called Land of Hop and Glory.
Why are so many U.K. pubs named the Red Lion and the Royal Oak? The red lion symbolizes Scotland, and followers of Scottish King James VI — who became James I of England and Ireland in 1603 — honored him by naming their pubs that. Monarchists who favored Charles II over Oliver Cromwell named theirs the Royal Oak because Charles escaped the rebels by hiding at the top of an oak tree — and lived to be restored to the throne.
If it’s not a pub... it’s a fish & chips joint.
How about some bloom? Clematis (a type I’ve only seen in England, probably ‘Montana’), wisteria, rape seed (used to make canola oil), daisies, lilac, valerian. I saw apple trees, crabapples, willows, horse chestnuts — and palm trees! And hedges of hawthorne and blackthorn. Who lives in a hedge? Lots of fauna but specifically, the hedgehog. How do you cook a hedgehog? Local gypsies (or tinkers, to use the British expression) wrap one in clay and cook it in the coals. When it’s done, crack the clay — and the quills come out with the clay. Clever, what?
Headed back towards the city, we passed this church where Charles II married Portuguese Catherine Berganza in 1662, when he had regained the throne following the English Civi Wars and the period called the English interregnum, when the monarchy was ‘on hold.’
Entering Southsea (birthplace of Peter ‘Pink Panther’ Sellers), we passed the South Parade Pier, restored in 2017 as a ‘pleasure pier,’ aka amusement arcade. It reminds me of so many English movies!
While practicing medicine in Southsea, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (1887), the first of his 60 Sherlock Holmes stories. Locals also claim that Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, but that has been disputed.
In Portsea, we passed the Emirates Spinnaker observation tower** near Gunwharf Quays. Another passenger learned on his tour that w-h-a-r-f stands for ‘ware house at the river front.’ Truth or urban myth? I’ve also read it’s from Old English hwearf, meaning ‘heap.’ Your choice.
We stopped briefly in Old Portsmouth to see assorted fortifications, including the Round Tower. In olden days, from the 16th century, a chain attached to the capstan in the yard was stretched across the water to the other side — a simple and effective deterrent to enemy ships trying to enter the harbor.
*About the ‘sally port’ photo at the very top, which is very near the Round
Tower: A sally port is ‘a gate or passage in a fortified place for use by troops making a sortie.’ Soldiers left through here to cross the shingle and board ships for France — to fight in whichever war Britain was having with France at the time.
Second excursion: In the afternoon I went out to the New Forest and the estate of Beaulieu, French for ‘beautiful place,’ but pronounced by the Brits like so: ‘Byue-lee.’ Not quite so beautiful.
Our guide was Richard, author of The Great British Bucket List, published by the National Trust.
National parks were established in the U.K. by law in 1949. The first was the Peaks District (been there, in 1982), followed by the New Forest in 2005 and more recently the South Downs in 2009, noted for its chalk downs.
The New Forest has trees of course, but also open fields of heather and gorse, which grow on the acid soil. Fortunately, the famous New Forest ponies like to eat the prickly gorse. Saw sheep, cattle… and some wild ponies. Only 500 commoners are allowed to live in the Forest, and some have very specific jobs: 10 Verderers administer the Forest’s laws and look after the environment. They in turn employ 4-6 Agisters, who oversee all aspects of the ponies, which belong to the Commoners.
During WWII there were 12 airfields in the New Forest, and in the lead-up to D-Day, troops were bivouacked under the trees, invisible to German planes flying overhead. It was also a ‘starfish site’ where inflatable fake airplanes and tanks were deployed to fool the Germans flying reconnaissance.
Some Vikings took an excursion to Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. That cathedral was one of two places that the Luftwaffe was not allowed to bomb — because the spire was a landmark for German aircraft. And Elizabethan Longford Castle, crammed with Rubens, Raphaels and other masterpieces — Germany was undoubtedly thinking those chef d’oeuvres would eventually be theirs.
We were headed to Brockenhurst in Hampshire to visit Beaulieu, a 7,000-acre family estate built on the grounds of the ruins of a 13th-century Cistercian Abbey destroyed during Henry VIII’s reign.
Between 1536 and 1541, Henry VIII managed to shut down Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Scotland. Popular thought is, he did it to abolish Catholicism and replace it with Protestantism, so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, which the Catholic church would have forbidden. But was that the reason — or did he do it for the money, seizing control of the Catholic lands and wealth because he had spent his inheritance? Whichever theory you support (perhaps it’s a combo), the Brits call what he achieved in 5 years the ‘dissolution of the monasteries.’ The abbeys were literally destroyed.
Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I had enemies among the British Catholics (who favored her cousin, the good Catholic Mary of Scots) and feared they were plotting against her. This led to her persecution of Catholics. Faithful Catholic families would create ‘priest holes’
in their houses, secret chambers where a priest might be hidden.
I wanted to visit an English ‘great house, ’ so I picked Beaulieu. As is the case with many big family homes that cost an arm and a leg to maintain, the Montagu family — who set up house here in1538, during Henry’s reign (1509-1547) — needed money to maintain their vast estate, and decided to turn their father’s vast collection of antique cars, motorcycles and memorabilia into a world-renowned, money-making asset: the National Motor Museum, opened in 1952. That’s why most of the people on my bus had come. I understand it’s terrific — but I went the house-and-garden route instead.
The Beaulieu grounds were first occupied by a Cistercian abbey built in 1204 under King John (of Magna Carta fame), who liked to hunt in the surrounding New Forest. The Cistercian order, which originated in France, was known for its farming and wool production and as savvy herbalists. The Kitchen Garden is still filled with herbs (all properly labeled, always a bonus).
Only two or the original buildings remain. One is the Domus, where the lay brothers lived... door detail below...
The Domus is rentable for conferences or weddings... don’t you expect Hedwig to flap in at any moment?
On to the gardens, starting with this spectacular wisteria tunnel...
What’s the Red Queen doing here? The real Alice of Alice in Wonderland was from the nearby village of Lyndhurst, where Lewis Carroll first met her. She fell down the rabbit hole in the New Forest. Alice-abilia abounds in the town and on the estate, and there’s an entire Mad Hatter’s tea party in topiary!
Palace House is a modest — by British standards — great house, an expansion of what had been the abbey’s gatehouse, which remained standing after the dissolution. The view from upstairs... on the left is the only other extant original building, the monks’ refectory, which is now the village parish church.
Stained glass in the upstairs foyer, behind a pheasant under glass. That is not a ghost: it is a reflection of a facing window.
In the Kitchen and Scullery, fake food was displayed... along with a copy of the Victorian era housekeeping and culinary bible known simply as ‘Mrs. Beeton.’ Full title: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). I should know, my mother-in-la gave me a copy a thousand years ago. For all its fame as a how-to, the funny thing is, it was written by a 25-year-old newlywed. I used it as a recipe source when writing the history and rules booklet for the 50th anniversary edition of Clue.
Another oddity of the estate: During WWII it was HQ for Special Operations Executive (SOE)... spy school for 3,000 budding secret agents!
On the drive back to the ship. I love what’s called ‘vernacular architecture.’ You’ve probably figured that out by now.
Quintessential English street scenes...
**The sail-away from Portsmouth was well attended in the Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 7 that evening, as it would be our last. The odd spinnaker-y thing in the center is the aforementioned Spinnaker Tower, near Gunwharf Quays.
Next — and final stop: Greenwich. #