Although I have been following Nelson’s trail figuratively for decades, I began my 2014 Immortal Memory journey in Portsmouth, home base for the Royal Navy for the past few centuries. Portsmouth has famous nautical locales frequently referred to in naval history as well as the Hornblower and the Aubrey-Maturin sagas (“Spithead”, “The Solent”, “The Crown”). The Nelson Touch inspired those books, as well as animating the spirit that imbued the Royal Navy for the past two centuries. Aubrey’s fictional Ashgrove Cottage is located a few miles north of Portsmouth and I found an O’Brian-referenced village on the map, but decided that given O’Brian’s frequent tricks with history, time and geography, searching for an imaginary location didn’t hold much promise.
Driving over Portsmouth Hill on the M-27 I could see the impressive immensity of Portsmouth’s natural harbor complex. O’Brian has Jack Aubrey make this observation in Post Captain, “This morning, when I was walking beside the coach as it laboured up Ports Down Hill and I came to the top, with all Portsmouth harbour suddenly spread below me, and Gosport, Spithead and perhaps half the Channel fleet glittering there.”
I could still imagine the roadstead filled with wooden ships and a forest of masts. Portsmouth remains a working port with constant ferry traffic to the Isle of Wight and across the channel. Tankers, ocean freighters, and fishing boats fill the harbor. This is so despite spiffing up done for the 2012 Olympics, the yacht trade, tourism, and the upcoming 2017 America’s Cup challenge, And, notwithstanding the Royal Navy’s greatly reduced state, grey hulls also grace the harbor and the old town retains its character as a former seaside fortress. The tall Spinnaker Tower, intended as a Millennium project similar to the London “Eye” but not finished in time, is already an iconic symbol for the New Portsmouth, but I found that locals were divided on its merit. It certainly makes a statement and is noticeable for miles around, as you can see from this wide-angle shot taken from “Fortitude Cottage”, our B&B near Bath Square in the Old Port.
I had spent a few hours in Portsmouth in 1981, but didn’t have enough time to go on board HMS Victory, which is preserved in drydock there. My intent this time was to tour the Victory, look for evidence of Nelson’s presence in Portsmouth, and see if I could get a sense of whether the fictional spirits of Aubrey, Maturin and Hornblower still frequented the place. I’ll get to the Victory tour in a later blog.
Given my purpose, I picked a sad but auspicious time to visit Portsmouth. HMS Illustrious, namesake to a heroic predecessor from the WWII siege of Malta, had just paid off and was visible from our B&B window. The breaker’s yard may be in her future unless public subscription saves the “Lusty” as a museum ship. The decommissioning of the last of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers is also a commentary on its diminished fortunes, although Government has pledged to finish and commission two carriers currently under construction. Ironically, their aircraft will be a U.S. VTOL/STOL design.
My boat tour of the harbor gave a great view of the current Royal Navy base facilities. I counted about half of the UK’s active surface fleet docked there, along with a number of ships familiar from past Royal Navy exploits.