Did you know that in the golden age of sail, a seaman in the Royal Navy was entitled to a ration of 6.5 pints of beer per day? OK, pretty poor quality beer in all likelihood. When the beer supplies ran out, sailors would depend upon an alcoholic cocktail known as grog which comprised rum, water and lime juice; the latter being added not for flavour, but to ward of the dreaded disease known as scurvy.
I’ve always had a fascination with the age of sail and for this reason, decided to pay a visit to what is arguably the most famous harbour of that era, Portsmouth. You won’t come across a story about Admiral Horatio Nelson or (the fictional) Horatio Hornblower without hearing Portsmouth mentioned at least a dozen times. While the town has of course changed considerably from that remarkable era, it has nevertheless preserved much of its built heritage impeccably, from Admiral Nelson’s famous flagship the HMS Victory to the only surviving gunship of the First World War.
I decided to purchase the ‘Portsmouth Historic Dockyard All Attractions’ ticket which costs £24 but is well worth the price given the huge amount to see.
Have you heard of the HMS Warrior? Perhaps not. Launched in 1859, Warrior hasn’t gone down in the annals of history with more famous ships like the Victory, the Titanic or the Bismarck. HMS Warrior didn’t fight in any glorious battles or sink in tragic circumstances, but she does hold the distinction of being the first iron-clad warship and therefore in many respects, the template for the modern naval vessel.
Above decks she seems like any ordinary sailing vessel from the era, but below decks she is quite opulent; well, for those of loftier rank anyway!
HMS Victory – 6 pints a day!
Having long had a particular fascination with the swashbuckling era of Nelson and Napoleon, I was very eager to visit the HMS Victory. Notwithstanding her age, Victory is still in fact a serving naval vessel, being the flagship for the First Sea Lord, the head of the Royal Navy.
Despite the hardships experienced by the men aboard, from brutal discipline to horrific battle-inflicted injuries to rotten food, there were apparently a few perks of the job. According to http://www.hms-victory.com: “The men’s daily ration included 6 ½ pints of beer, though if they were serving away from home waters this might be replaced by a pint of wine, or a half-pint of rum”. Not too shabby as bonus schemes go really. Though you must also remember that being drunk aboard was an extremely serious offence which could lead to a flogging or worse……
HMS M.33 – Last surviving gunship from the First World War
One of the more fascinating exhibits you’ll find in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is a peculiar ship by the very uninspiring name of M.33. Small and not particularly striking as ships go, M.33 nonetheless played a very important role during the First World War as a ‘monitor class ship’ – essentially a floating gun platform. Built in only six weeks, M.33 and her sister ships saw plenty of action, including at the gruesome Gallipoli Campaign. As with all other vessels in the Dockyard, M.33 is faithfully restored and fascinating to visit.
Conditions aboard were very basic; apparently men were not intended to remain aboard for more than a few weeks but ended up doing so for several years owing to the outbreak of war which of course was expected to be over in a matter of months.
To give you an idea of just how much detail has gone into restoring the vessel, her hold is all stocked up with provisions authentic to the early 1900s.
After spending most of the day at the Dockyard, I decided to sample the local pub grub. I had an excellent lunch of bangers and mash with a pint of Oakham Ale in the lively Ship Anson pub which is located about five minutes walk from the entrance to the Dockyard and very close to the train station.
Of course, before leaving Portsmouth to return to London, I picked up a souvenir….