I’m off on another Expedition, a longer one than any before, for I’ll be away three days and two nights and blogging each day’s experience. This Expedition is to a place I’ve never been before, in a County that’s one of the handful remaining that I’ve never visited before, and it’s less a break at an odd time of year for holidays than a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage wiithout religious significance, save only in my own head. I am going to Portsmouth, to HM Naval Dockyards. Seventy years ago, my father completed his post-War National Service, stationed here. As some of you already know, he died before my fifteenth birthday, after a long illness, before I could sitand talk to him about experiences I would never share, even vicariously. I am here to see what he saw, or what is left of it seventy years on. I am here to try to capture even a tiny fragment of what was taken way.
Most of today’s episode is going to be about travelling, and that means paranoia. I have now defined myself as a twitchy traveller. It comes from the independence and control I enjoyed as a car driver, until ten years ago, and from my experiences with the decaying public transport of this country. When you have to rely on the 203 to get to Stockport Rail Station, you set out early, which is how I ended up composing the first draft of this on Platform 2, a half hour before the London Euston train is due.
Counting the 203, this journey had five legs. I don’t get to relax this early. But the 11.43 is on time and, at risk of spoiling the dramatic tension, the whole journey goes off without a hitch.
The only thing resembling one is that I’m supposed to have a reserved seat in Coach F, the exact midpoint of the train, only it’s not reserved. It’s still free, mind you, but then so are nearly fifty percent of Coach F’s seats, so hardly had we set off but I transferred myself to a table-seat, though this meant the suitcase I’d struggled to lift into the luggage compartment opposite ‘my’ seat, was left a way down the coach. Twitch.
I’ve done this journey mny times, but never quite this lte in the morning, which I suppose explains the empty seats. Usually, London is a visit, back in a day, but this time it’s a way-station. So I don’t bother with the scenery, which is damp and dull under expectant clouds.
Having finally completed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I need another massive book to read on railways rides, and I have the perfect replcement in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, a 1,000 page hardback. This was a Xmas gift to myself back in 2016, but I only got about 200 pages through it then. Having no other reading material on me, I anticipate serious headway this time.
Between the music and the reading, the journey goes well. The next twitch starts on coming into Euston, five minutes late. I have forty-five minutes to get to London Waterloo, which is six stops on the Northern Line, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Can’t keep the boy from worrying but I’m at Waterloo with fifteen minutes to spare, which is positively last minute for me, panicking because I can’t see the teleboard to learn which platform I need, and then I can’t find the entrance which, in keeping with the pantomime I’m descending into is, yes, behind me. Platform 13. Good job I’m notsuperstitious.
I’m now in new country, South of the River for maybe only the third or fourth time in my life. I’ve only ever been to the South Coast once before, to Worthing, to deliver a letter.
But this is flat country. First there are London streets and skyline cranes, then nondescript hedges and fields that are not made any more appealing by the slowly fading light. There are no heights to look up to in wonder, looking for routes to ascend, not any to be crossed, providing no vistas to look across and upon. Everything is of a level.
We pass through Woking, Guildford, Godalming and lessr places. A gaggle of schoolchildren get on at Petersfield, including one tall, long-haired blonde with an appealing face who looked like it wouldn’t take much effort to make herself look sixteen, though she might be pushing it for eighteen. They depart at Fratton, which puzzled me slightly given Portsmouth FC play at Fratton Park. But the last few stations are thick and fast and, almost bang on time, I debouch at Portsmouth Harbour.
Crossing the bridge above the platforms, I see the first sign of ships, masts and riggings, and I emerge from the sttion overlooking a prt of the Harbour and queues for the Gosport Ferry to the Isle of Wight. Under my breath, I speak to someone who is not there: “I’m here, Dad. Took a long time, but I’m here.”
The entrance to the Dockyards is only a few minutes walk away. I head there to buy a two-attractions ticket for tomorrow but I cn’t bring my suitcase through the gate: security, it might contain a bomb (it doesn’t). I was allowed to leave it in charge of a helpful lady whilst I nipped inside for tickets.
I’m staying at the Ibis Budget Hotel on Fratton Way. The hotel sent me directions on how to get there, but after pretty near five hours of train travel, not to mention lugging a suitcase around with my laptop in it (as well as a shoulder bag with a 1,000 page hardback in it), I bottle out and get a taxi. Long before I get to the Hotel, I’m bloody glad I didn’t try walking. And along the way, I discover I’m only about five minutes walk from Fratton Station, so I know what I’m going to do on Thursday morning.
When I arrive, I get a choice of rooms on three floors. The Ground is good enough for my arthritic knee and hip and it’s real close to Reception. It’s a triple room, which means it could have slept three: someone to share the double with me and a voyeuristic third sleeping cross-wise in a bunk-bed single (or maybe sneaking down to join us if she’s a she… first night away from home in nearly two years and I’m already having erotic fantasies).
There isn’t a Pizza Hut within easy walking distance of the Hotel, but there’s a KFC opposite (there’s a MacDonalds too, but I’m talking food here) so that’s tonight’s evening meal sewn up.
I’m here. There are no photos to post because the light was bloody miserable by the time I got to the Harbour. But tomorrow’s the big day, and I hope it’ll do me a favour and be drive. This is where my Dad served his country, and I’m damned glad he never got to see what his country has become. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch a sight of a spectre, a face I’ve not seen in nearly fifty years. It’s what I’m here for.