12 March 2015
There is much rivalry between the two big port cities on Southampton Water, some of it good natured. Less than thirty miles apart, the gap between them often seems unbreachable and many think the animosity is football based. Certainly there is no love lost between the two sets of fans but it is far older than football. What began in medieval times as rivalry between Portsmouth, the fishing village turned small port, and the thriving port of Southampton, worsened after the sinking of the Titanic. Southampton sailors deemed sister ship, Olympic, unsafe due to a lack of lifeboats and refused to crew her. Portsmouth dockers took their place, travelling in the dead of night to avoid being attacked by angry Southampton mobs.
Portsmouth sailors may have been the first strike breakers but, during a dock strike in the 1930’s, it was the Southampton Company of Union Men who broke the strike. The rivalry grew. The Royal Navy seamen of Portsmouth felt themselves above the Merchant Navy men of Southampton and the fortunes of the two football teams fanned centuries old flames. Being a Sotonian, it’s no surprise that Portsmouth is not on my list of top ten places to visit but, on Thursday, I decided it was about time I did. Just to be safe I took a body guard in the form of Commando Junior and, with promises to keep an open mind, we set off for Bitterne train station. The last time I caught a train from Bitterne I was in my teens and on my way to work. Then there was a chubby, cheery station master to say “good morning,” as I passed through the station house. Sadly those days are gone and the station is now unmanned, the building borded up and neglected. Fancy ticket machines and boards cannot make up for the personal touch in my opinion.
Despite our ‘open minds,’Portsmouth Station felt vaguely threatening. Perhaps it was the tales of fish loving sailors that don’t bear repeating in polite company, or the years of football chants. We found a large open square and stopped a little nervously to get our bearings. The satelite map said this was Guildhall square, once home to an old brewery, now dominated by the Town Hall. In the 1880’s the Town Hall was moved from Old Portsmouth bringing it closer to the railway station. The new building, designed by Leeds architect William Hill, was opened in 1890. It was almost destroyed by incendiary bombs on 10 January 1941 but, despite terrible damage, was restored as an act of defiance and reopened on 8 June 1959.
The imposing building, fronted with marble pillars and topped by a beautiful clock, is certainly impressive but, as I was peering up at the freise above the door, loud music made me jump out of my skin. At intervals a huge screen blasted out adverts at an ear splitting volume. For me it spoiled what should have been a peaceful place to sit and gather our thoughts. With a quick photograph of the 1903 statue of Queen Victoria behind us, we set off in what we hoped was the direction of the historic dockyard. Walking through the narrow, windy alley we were jostled by crowds of students from the nearby university. It may have been paranoia but we both agreed we felt like foreigners, lost in a dangerous place.
Eventually we found ourselves outside a large gateway with two towers, one larger than the other. Each tower had a door and the gate was built of red brick with stone trimmings. It looked old, almost castle like, but was dwarfed by the two modern towers behind it, one with a slanted top that reminded CJ of a lipstick. Could this be the entrance to the historic dockyard we’d been looking for?
Inside, we very soon realised we’d actually found Gunwharf Quay, Portsmouth’s huge shopping centre opened in 2001. This was once an ordnance yard for the naval dockyard, used to store the heavy guns from ships going into dry dock. Like Southampton Docks, this is land reclaimed from the sea, in this case in about 1706. The gate we had walked through was the North gate to the quay, known locally as Vernon Gate after the Royal Navy shore establishment HMS Vernon which was behind it between 1923 and 1995. From the inside the structure looks better without the modern backdrop and the wrought iron gates, which I imagine are closed when the shops shut, are beautifully topped with golden scrolls.
There was a Costa close to the gate so we checked out the map over a coffee and found we needed to head north west to Portsmouth Hard. Luckily, it’s difficult to miss a massive sailing ship right on the water’s edge so we didn’t get lost. The ship was HMS Warrior, the first armour plated, iron hulled warship built for the Royal Navy in 1859. At first glance it’s hard to tell she’s not a wooden ship and, with her three tall masts and elegant web of rigging she looks far older than her years. My body guard, suddenly morphed into a tour guide. He knew all about Warrior and was more than happy to fill the gaps in my own woefully inadequate nautical knowledge as we walked. Typically, I snapped far too many photos of her dwarfing all the little ships around her and dwarfed in turn by the huge Spinaker Tower in Gunwharf.
Isaac Watts and Thomas Loyd based Warrior’s design on the wooden frigate HMS Mersey, with a single gun deck, protected by an armoured box. This explains why she looks so much like a wooden ship. Most of her short seagoing career was spent with the Channel Squadron. In 1871 a mastless ship, HMS Devastation, was launched and Warrior was placed in reserve just four years later. From 1883 she became a storeship and, in 1904, was used by the Royal Navy torpedo training school. Her final working years, between 1927 and 1979 were spent as an oil jetty, which seems an undignified end for such a groundbreaking vessel. After an eight year restoration she is now a museum ship and a very beautiful one at that.
A statue of two children on the waterfront piqued my interest and a sign told me this commemorated the Mudlarks. These were local children who would dive into the mud below to retrieve coins thrown by passersby to supplement the meagre income of their parents. Behind it we spotted two armed guards beside a gate that looked like it might lead to the historic dockyard. Firearms are not something you see every day on an English street and I couldn’t help wondering what they were guarding if this was the historic dockyard. Just to be sure I asked one of them, feeling a touch nervous of the guns. It was indeed Victory Gate.
Inside we were a little unsure where to go but another handy statue, this one of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, led us to the Porter’s Garden. From 1739 to 1800 porters lived in the lodge by the gate to the dockyard, acting as guards. They also rang the muster bell to mark the beginning and end of the working day and made sure none of the dock workers left with anything that didn’t belong to them. During the twentieth century the little garden had been used as police cells, an office and an air riad shelter but was redesigned for the millennium by landscape architects Camlin Lonsdale and a friend’s committee was set up. As the garden was small and, being spring, there wasn’t too much to see, CJ graciously allowed me to have a little look round. In summer it will be beautiful.
We did find a golden statue of William III, apparently a keen gardener, who expanded Portsmouth dockyard in the 1690’s. He looked a little camp to me. To CJ’s horror we also found a local man who, despite guessing our origins within seconds, happily pointed out a boulder which, unbelievably, was used to plug a hole in the hull of HMS Pique when she ran aground in Labrador in 1835. With the rock in place she safely crossed the Atlantic. CJ found the massive sedimentary rock more interesting than the garden. Our new friend also pointed us in the direction of the nearby International Boatbuilding Training College.
Not only was the college free to visit but it was a veritable treasure house of boat related memorabilia. Even before we got inside we’d seen a marvellous old truck and a beautifully dilapidated old boat, I do love a crumbling old boat, unless I have to sail in it obviously. We spent far longer than we’d intended wandering around looking at things while the trainees worked away in a corner restoring boats. CJ was very taken with a tiny cannon and I fell in love with a serene looking figure head part waiting to be painted. Everywhere there were boats in various states of repair.
We bypassed the gift and antiques shops where you could buy anything from a tiny model ship to a decommissioned cannon or a full sized Doctor Who style police box. Instead we made right for the main attraction, The Victory.
Both of us have been onboard for the tour more than once so we contented ourselves with a walk around this beautiful old ship. For those who don”t know, Victory is a 104 gun first rate Royal Navy ship of the line, preserved since 1922 as a museum ship. In 2012, she was made the flagship of the First Sea Lord, the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission. With her black and yellow naval colours she is a stunning example of eighteenth century craftsmanship, from the ranks of gunports, to the intricate carvings. We walked around her admiring her wide curving lines and the rows of windows on her ample stern. We gawped up at the gigantic anchors and peeked voyeristically into the dry dock at her underside.
Her launch in 1765, very nearly didn’t happen. Hartly Larking, the foreman, noticed that the Chatham dockyard gates looked a little small for the huge ship. Hasty measurements confirmed his fears and every shipwright in the docks set to work removing wood from the gates until she could fit through.
Victory was Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. She was to be his final ship. On 21 October 1805 he ordered his fleet to attack the enemy broadside in two parallel lines. This close quarter battle soon became a melee and Nelson watched from the quarter deck as Victory became entangled with the French ship Redoutable. Each blasted the other at point blank range. A French sniper saw Nelson on the deck, unmistakeable with all his glittering medals, and shot him through the left shoulder. It was a fatal wound.
Next to Victory is the Mary Rose Exhibition but we’d missed the chance to buy tickets so, feeling hungry, we made our way back to Gunwharf, thinking we might combine lunch with a trip to the restaurant atop the 560ft Spinaker Tower. Up close, it looked a little scruffy. From the outset the sail shaped landmark was dogged by controversy and disaster. Originally intended as a Lottery funded millennium tower, problems during construction delayed the opening until October 2005. It also ran massively over budget, leaving the taxpayers of Portsmouth to pick up the excess £11.1 million.
We paid our money, got a stamp on the backs of our hands so we could come back later if we wanted and were directed to the lift. I don’t much care for lifts and couldn’t help thinking of the problems that continued after Spinaker was opened. The catalogue of disaster included a malfunctioning lift that left VIP’s trapped on the opening day. It took over an hour for abseiling engineers to rescue them. The offending external glass lift was never reliable and was removed in 2012.
Thankfully, our lift worked and the views from stage one were wonderful although the tinted glass made photography pointless. There was also a glass panel in the floor in case of any doubt about how high up you were. The boats below looked like toys. The small cafe on the next stage was crowded so we made our way expectantly to the top which we’d been told was open air. Actually, only the top was open and that was covered by wire mesh so the views were still through tinted glass which was a shame. The Eifel Tower need not worry about the competition.
Feeling slightly disappointed, especially given the cost, and wondering about the usefulness of the stamp on the back of my hand, we caught the lift back to the ground. The downstairs restaurant was also crowded so, after a little wandering around Gunwharf looking at the outside of upmarket shops and restaurants, we found somewhere to eat. Actually, Roosters Piri Piri turned out to be a real find and we had wonderfully healthy wraps, served quickly and with a smile.
Historically there has been much rivalry between the two big port cities on Southampton Water and, being a Sotonian, I am bound to feel my own city is better. It is, however, worth remembering that there has also been a history of the two cities working together. The Mary Rose takes pride of place in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard but Sir John Daltrey, Henry VIII’s shipbuilder was a Sotonian, living in Tudor House. In 1940, when German bombers blitzed Southampton, it was Portsmouth fire fighters who extinguished the flames. More recently, our two councils submittd a joint bid to become the UK’s first City of Culture. Would I go back for another visit? You bet I Would.