Monday, 14 April 2014

Field trip

Until this weekend, I'd never been to Portsmouth.

The home of the Royal Navy is also the home of several naval museums and famous ships, including Nelson's Victory. As the Burke books are set around the Napoleonic wars and warships feature in them, I thought Portsmouth was well overdue a visit.

Most of the museums are set in the Historic Royal Dockyards, where ships from the 19th century sit close to very 21st century warships that are berthed in their home port. The juxtaposition brings home to you how much the Navy is a continuing thread in Britain's history. It's an amazing place and I'll definitely be visiting it again.

The Victory is probably the most famous vessel there. Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Victory is still technically a commissioned ship of Her Majesty's Royal Navy, being the flagship of the First Sea Lord, who uses it for formal entertaining. Mostly, though, it is a museum, still being lovingly restored back to the state that it was in when it led the British in their greatest naval victory against the French.

The sequel to His Majesty's Confidential Agent is being polished up and it includes a description of the Battle of the Nile (another of Nelson's victories) as viewed from the gun deck of a British man o'war. Being able to walk the gun deck of a ship of that period has helped me understand better what it must have been like, though a lovely sunny afternoon safe in dry dock can give only the faintest idea of the horrors of that same deck when filled with cannon smoke and hundreds of men serving the guns amid the noise of battle and the stench of death.

Warships then and now are both beautiful and terrible things. At least this weekend, we could admire the beauty knowing that, for now, the Navy's big guns are silent.

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