A Portsmouth Expedition: Day 2


HMS Warrior

I wake up in Portsmouth, after a soothing, warm night’s sleep, to a sky that couldn’t be bettered if I could afford to order it from the most exclusive Harrods catalogue. It’s a  clear blue, with trace amounts of cloud around the edges, and that sharpness of sight that only comes in the cold. If I were in the Lakes, I’d be looking to get up Scafell Pike and strain my eyes for the Irish mountains.

But I’m not in Cumbria, I’m in Hampshire, where breakfast is a continental affair of fresh crusty baguettes, ham, soft cheese and orange juice, and there’s a bus stop round the corner to take me to the Harbour in fifteen minutes. The route number is 1: I’m 64 years and two days old and this is the first time I’ve ridden on a number 1 bus.

It’s a single decker which means that from my lowly position I don’t get to see much, and what I can see is mostly meaningless to me, even when we’re going through the City Centre. Later, maybe. At least I know how to get back, not to mention how close Fratton Station is for tomorrow morning.

I get off the bus under the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower, which defintely wasn’t here in Dad’s day and would have scared the seagulls if it was. Near at hand is HMS Warrior, the Navy’s first steel-plated ship according to its plaque, and it is the subject of the first photo I take with a camera loaned to me by my mate Andy after my own digital compact packed up on me.

The entrance to the Dockard is near at hand. After I’ve had my bag searched – Alan Moore doesn’t appear to be contraband, though the Counter-Terrorism Status – Heightened signs are prominent – I’m free to wander the public areas as I will, though some attractions, such as HMS Warrior, or the mock-up of HMS Victory – yes, that Victory – cost an additional fee to board and explore, the latter in guided tour parties only.

HMS Victory
And again

I’ve paid for two Attractions and the most importnt one is at hand, the Harbour Tour. First trip is 12.00, which is the best part of two hours away, so I take a leisurely stroll along old buildings that have manifestly not changed since my Dad was here, inspect the Victory from outside (without, sadly, feeling the least breath of History) and step into the Royal Navy National Museum.

Strangely, or perhaps not strangely at all, I find I cannot take ny interest in any modern history, that is, anything post 1949. It strikes me that what is missing is one man I came here hoping to see in some sense. I would give the world to have him here beside me, to see these souvenirs and relics through his eyes, to have him lead me around, making everything come alive for a boy who wishes to be ten years old again. You can never have the things you want most.

I come outside and stroll back towards the Harbour Tours wharf. It’s still more than early, but this is me, hey? I buy a Diet Coke from Costa Coffee and sit myself on a three-stone bench that’s like a shortarse trilithon from Stonehenge to drink it and draft some of this piece. I’m under the sun, unexpectedly warm for mid-November, and the tide is washing in, a constant surge that’s a backdrop to my thoughts. Near at hand are buildings my Dad must have known, yet the wider sky-line screams of the modern age. I find the past invisible.

Old buildings in the Dockyard

That is until I board the Solent Cat. There’s a closed saloon below, with hot and cold drinks available, and an open deck above, and I am up those steps to where the real views will be available. And this is where I start to feel something more. I’m on the water, and this is where I will find that link.

And that’s before we back out of the wharf and into the Harbour proper, and I can see the sheer expaanse of it, from the prominent harbour mouth close by on our left, backed by a low skyline of green hills and wooded slopes that I surmise (correctly) is the Isle of Wight, to the immense spread to our right.

We turn in that direction, leisurely following the east shore, the Naval side, diverting around a Police Boat with flashing blue lights that’s supervising divers. There are yards and wharfs and steel-coloured destroyers, with docks and bays beyond, identified by a commentary from the nearby cabin. It should be cold up here, on the water, and yes I’m got a thick maroon pullover on under a big coat, but I feel no cold.

The Naval Side

I’m not usually good on water. On the last day of our honeymoon on Madeira, my wife and I went on a Dolphin Watch cruise off the south of the island, in the more placid waters below Funchal. As soon as I sat down, I grabbed hold of a thick coil of rope and would not let it go the whole time we were on the ocean. I didn’t relinquish my life-line until we were once again docked at the Marina, at which point my sympathetic wife said that she wasn’t going to say this whilst we were sailing but she didn’tthink the rope was attached to anything. To which I replied, “I didn’t think it was either but I damned well wasn’t going to check!”

Portsmouth Harbour’s a long stretch from the Atlantic Ocean but today I’m my father’s son, without the slightest concern for what we’re floating upon, up the Naval side and back down the Commercial side, the Gosport shore, and I am taking photograph after photograph.

A forest of masts – Gosport

Is this why he joined the Navy? To be on the water? How much was he influenced by Uncle Arthur, who served in the Navy in the War, in the South China Seas? Could he choose that freely? Questions coming too late to be answered, but in a way my pilgrimage has fulfilled some of its purpose. I will not be frightened on the water again.

As we turn to cross the Harbour entrance, and again as we lie ‘at anchor’ at Gunwharf Quay, there’s a gentle swell rocking the boat evenly.Though the cloud has the sky more or less surrounded by now, there’s a broad shaft of sun beaming down on me, and I’d be content to sit here the rest of the afternoon, on the edge of this vast, circumscribed expanse.

Gunwharf Quay

The last lap to the Dockyard Quay is just a crossing from one side of the Spinnaker Tower to the other. After that, there’s nothing more the Dockyard can do for me so I stroll out in search of somewhere quiet and convenient for a spot of lunch. The Ship Anson qualifies on the first two counts but its food is a bit on the pricey side, given its setting, so I take my time over a pint and a bit more of Jerusalem (I have outrun what I managed before by now).

The signpost tells me it’s only three-quarters of a mile to the City Centre and I’ve got the afternoon to play with, so I walk it. It seems I wasn’t as unobservant as I thought on the bus as I remember shopfronts and the splendid gates of the HMS Nelson, but the Centre was a bit disappointing. I definitely fancied a bit of Pizza Hut so strolled round looking for the familiar frontage, without any luck. Another KFC, a Burger King, yes. Also a Waterstones, and I never pass those. For a mad moment, I considered buying a book they had, a souvenir of my visit, but I couldn’t find a price on it anywhere, and when that happens, you know that the price is Too Fucking Expensive.

The need for food was now getting important. I enquired of a nearby newsseller who told me there is no Pizza Hut in the centre now, since it’s dead there after 5.00pm, except over Xmas, they only do online deliveries now. He points me to Debenhams restaurant where they do hot food, except not after 2.30pm, so I say a loud internal “Soddit!” and spring for a double burger with onions from a well set-up cart: pretty bloody good too.

So. I’ve got a lot of writing to do, and nightfall’s visible down the other end of the block so I grab a bus back and get off at the Pompey Centre. I know I’m in the vicinity of Fratton Park, Portsmouth FC’s ground, but it’s not until I walk up to the Tesco Centre, for sandwiches for tea, that I realise, in daylight, the ground’s right behind it!

It all makes for a long evening but this is not the only piece of writing I shall be working on tonight, and an early bed is on the cards. The photos attached to this piece are all my own work (if not my camera!).

An attractive fellow watergoer – and where they unload the weapons

A Portsmouth Expedition: Day 1


Portsmouth Harbour

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.

Going to Portsmouth


My Dad was too young to serve in World War 2, unlike his older brother, who served in the Navy in the Pacific. When it was his time to do National Service, Dad entered the Navy himself, and was stationed at Portsmouth for at least some of his Service. I don’t know where he went or what he did: he fell ill and died before I was of an age to have intelligent conversations with him. All I have is an old photo of him in his uniform. Nor is there anyone left who could tell me things he had told them about these times.

For a couple of years, I’ve been considering a trip to Portsmouth, to see the Naval Dockyard, to see what Dad saw, even if filtered through the prism of seventy years, to make one more attempt to gain even a degree more insight into what he thought and felt. I usually take off to the Lakes for a day each November, as part off the week I take off for my birthday, but this time I decided it was right for a more complicated and longer-lasting expedition.

And now two legs have been put in place. Firstly, I booked two nights in Portsmouth, Tuesday and Wednesday, for a very low price. That came out of last month’s salary. Today, I have booked my train travel, Stockport to Portsmouth Harbour Tuesday lunchtime, returning to Stockport Thursday morning, paid for out of this month’s salary. I am going to Portsmouth, I am going to see the Harbour, I will be visiting Hampshire for the first time, reducing to four the number of English counties I have never yet visited or at least traversed.

All that remains is to choose, and book, the one or more tours etc. available at the Naval Dockyard. I am going to Portsmouth, I’m following in Father’s footsteps, I’m following the Dear old Dad.