What is it between the English and the French? While the Scots had a civilised and peaceful relationship with the French, going back to the Auld Alliance of 1295 (although it was in part aimed at controlling English territorial ambitions), the English and the French have been fighting each other for centuries. The picturesque castle of Bodiam in Sussex was built around 1385 as protection against a potential French invasion and, to the visitor, the focus of the Historic Dockyard at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth, seems, albeit unintentionally, to be naval battles with France, which the dockyard faces across the English Channel.
The oldest naval dockyard in the Royal Navy, it is still operational today, with a core of historic buildings and docks open to the public along with historic ships including the Mary Rose built in 1509, HMS Victory, the flagship of Lord Nelson launched in 1765, and HMS Warrior from 1860. While of course the Navy, and Lord Nelson himself, protected England in war from other countries including Denmark and Spain, perhaps because of the fame of HMS Victory, and Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, the over-riding history here is that of war with the French.
The Museum does try and broaden its history and there are displays related to the artistic side of the navy – including painted figureheads and British tattoos -, along with a special exhibition on the Battle of Jutland which may well have turned the course of the First World War in 1918, with HMS M.33 being one of only three British warships remaining from the First World War and which saw service in the Mediterranean and later in Russia in 1919. You can get a flavour of what it was like to work at the Dockyard and to be a sailor in those days when your sleeping quarters would suddenly be transformed into fighting decks and of the technological changes across the years, for example in the century between the building of HMS Victory and of HMS Warrior: while some things were different in terms of new engineering and technology; some things were surprisingly similar in terms of the everyday life of the sailor. And, if you have time, you can take the boat to the Submarine Museum across the harbour – but that will be another day.
Only to be expected, there is quite a focus on Lord Nelson, including the oldest Royal barge in existence, built for King Charles II about 1670 and used at the Lord Nelson’s funeral in January 1806.
Behind the exhibitions you can see the fabric of the old historic dockyard buildings and climb the rough old stairs to see the only sail remaining from the Battle of Trafalgar. Conservation and development work continues. The masts of HMS Victory are about half their height: age and work done in the 1920′s to install the ship here have taken their toll and they are causing damage to the hull. In due course, as part of the conservation work, they will be replaced in a lightweight material and the hull repaired. There are also plans to move the Royal Marines Museum to Boatyard 6 in 2020 and to expand the Historic Dockyard to include adjacent historic areas if not needed for operational purposes. There is a huge story to be told here, including the role of the Dockyard in the Falklands conflict and in modern times.
The Dockyard remains active. Boathouse 4 is a huge 1930′S building with an internal dry dock located in one of the oldest and most historic areas, where wooden boats have been built for hundreds of years and still are being built/restored here with accredited courses available through the Boatbuilding Skills Training Centre.
PS: There is a link with Scotland after all. The sails for HMS Victory were woven by weavers in and around Dundee, by Baxters of Dundee in 1802-3. One of the sails, the fore topsail, which survives today, said to be the largest single textile in the world.