12 July 2006, Portsmouth

Wednesday, Tristan went off to London by himself, but Kathy and I stayed in Southampton so as to be here for the afternoon mid-meeting outing. I wrote until noon or so, then walked up to the conference center. Box lunches were distributed at 12:30 p.m., and we repaired to the park across the street to eat them. Several sandwich choices were available—David chose roast beef and coleslaw; I went for "coronation chicken," which turns out to be chicken salad flavored with curry powder and mango chutney. I got "cheese and onion" potato chips and a banana. Others got, e.g., vinegar-and-salt or bbq-sauce chips and apples or oranges.

Portsmouth spinnaker tower After lunch, we boarded a fleet of seven huge buses (it's a biggish meeting) for the 45-minute ride to Portsmouth (east of Southampton) to spend the afternoon and evening in the historic-dockyards park. As we arrived, we had a beautiful view of the upper part of the "Spinnaker Tower," Portsmouth Harbor's new control tower. The park encompasses a number of historic museum ships, several shops and restaurants, a monument to Robert Falcon Scott (of the ill-fated South Pole Expedition), and the Mary Rose and its museum. We first saw the Mary Rose exhibits when the road show came to the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. She was Henry VIII's favorite warship, a three-master with at least two rows of gun ports on each side. She had proved herself serviceable and seaworthy for 34 years. In the mid-16th century, while she lay in Portsmouth harbor, together with a large number of other British warships, Henry VIII came aboard to present her command to a favorite captain of his, then went ashore to watch the maneuvers. She was carrying almost 700 people, more than usual but not an overload in terms of weight. Just then, a French fleet was sighted, approaching to attack the harbor, so all the ships weighed anchor and set about sailing forth to meet them. The Mary Rose was hoisting sail, still in the harbor and in plain sight of the king and the new captain's wife, when a freak wind gust made her heel over particularly far, water poured in through the open lower gunports, and she capsized and sank, just like that, right there. Almost everyone aboard drowned, many of them trapped within the wreck. She was in relatively shallow water, so a little salvage work was done in the next few years, but plans to refloat her were abandoned. At one point, changes in the local topography actually raised part of her port side above water for a few years. Most of the port side decayed and eroded away over the years. Finally, though, the bottom and entire starboard side of her hull were silted over and their location lost.

Only in the early 1970's was she relocated, and she has become the largest and most detailed underwater archeological dig of all time. Hundreds of thousands of items have been excavated, everything from cannons to dice to fleas to the complete fire-brick galley stove with two built-in cauldrons to skeletons of the crew to a "quiet shawm," an extinct musical instrument that musicologists had apparently argued for years over the shape and sound of (only one rat—rats apparently swim a lot better than 16th-century sailors). Finally, when the hull had been complete dug out, they raised it in one piece. When we last visited Portsmouth (some years ago now), we saw a small museum and the hull, which was lying flat and being continuously sprayed with a dilute solution of polyethylene glycol. Now the museum has doubled or tripled in size, as more items have been stabilized, studied, classified, etc., and the hull has gradually been raised to the upright position in which it would have been when afloat. They've raised the concentration of the PEG, and in another 3-4 years, they'll raise it again, then start gradually drying the timbers. (Now, you stand on a walkway and look through windows at the intertior of the huge plastic tent-like structure that shelters the hull, which you see through a steady, day-and-night PEG spray). A truly cool take-in. Now, a new ship channel may be dredged that would pass through the site where the forecastle (which broke away from the hull) may still be buried, so plans are afoot for a renewed excavation effort—the exhibits should change and expand accordingly in the next few years.

Portsmouth VictoryWhile we were touring the Mary Rose, others of our party were touring the Victory, Nelson's flagship. We'd toured both before, so we chose the Mary Rose, because it's exhibits would have changed more. We had a little time afterward to walk around the Victory; I got this nice shot of her stern.

Portsmouth Warrior Come the appointed hour, though, we all converged on the Warrior, the first iron-clad in the British navy (I think I have that right), where we had the meeting banquet on the gun-deck, on tables right between the cannons! Actually some of us spilled over into the "gun room" (where the rifles and hand-guns were kept); the meeting was so large and interest in the banquet so great that in the end the number of people who signed up was within 3 of the total number that could be seated aboard! The dinner was preceded by mimosas (called "Bucks fizz" in England) on the upper deck, accompanied by a six-piece brass combo (Sousa, Battle Hymn of the Republic segueing into Dixie, theme from Fawlty Towers); the group picture (cast of thousands, squinting into the sun at the photographer on the flying bridge); and a fabulous lecture by retired deep-sea biologist Tony Rice (who's also an expert on the history of oceanographic vessels), comparing the Warrior to the smaller but very similar Challenger, a hugely influential early oceanographic ship. Both Warrior and Challenger were basically sailing ships but both had stern screws that could be lowered into the water and smoke-stacks that could be raised amidships when their engines were fired up for maneuvering within the harbor and for holding station at sea.

First course: Stilton rarebit tart with leeks, served with red onion chutney and sweet pepper coulis. Excellent; best course of the whole dinner.

Second course: Baked chicken breast stuffed with herbs, carrots, zucchini (or "courgettes" as they are called in England), rather undercooked green beans, roasted potatoes, "rich jus." Tarragon bread pudding on the side.

Dessert: Individual summer puddings with clotted cream (so stiff it was like butter). To make a summer pudding, you line a mold with white bread, then (over)fill it with sweetened, slightly crushed red fruits (in this case, blackberries, raspberries, currants, strawberries, cherries, blueberries). Cover the top with more white bread, a plate, and a weight. Chill it for a few hours, then turn it over and unmold it.

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