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England’s Maritime Capital, Portsmouth

Portsmouth, England

When Britain ruled the waves, it was from here: the busy port of Portsmouth. Museums display historic warships: the Mary Rose, HMS Warrior, and HMS Victory, on which Admiral Nelson died, after defeating the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Complete Video Script

A major city on England’s south coast is the busy port of Portsmouth — long the home of the Royal Navy. For centuries, Britain, a maritime superpower, relied on the fleets based here to maintain and expand its vast empire.

As an obvious military target, Portsmouth was nearly flattened by WWII bombs, but it’s been rebuilt since 1945. Its cathedral survived only because the Nazis used it as a beacon to help guide their bombs. With postwar reconstruction hasty and poorly planned, the city became infamous for its bad architecture.

But an impressive gentrification is under way. As the navy shrinks, and tourism grows, Portsmouth is enjoying new life. Underneath a sail-like tower, its formerly gritty industrial waterfront has been transformed into a vital shopping and restaurant complex.

The once-formidable ramparts are now a park-like promenade lined with historic points of interest…mostly ignored by those simply enjoying a refreshing stroll.

With the notoriously blustery weather, local kids gather at the base of the wall. Nicknamed the “Hot Walls,” it’s out of the wind and retains warmth from the unreliable English sun.

At the tip of the ramparts, formerly salty old pubs now serve not sailors but a trendy crowd. Their conversation is punctuated by the passage of massive ships and ferries artfully powering through the narrow mouth of the harbor.

Back when Britannia ruled the waves, it did so with its mighty navy, based here in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. This sprawling museum highlights England’s storied maritime heritage — both very old and relatively new, like this gunboat from World War I that saw action at the Battle of Gallipoli.

In a modern building just steps away is the oldest ship in the collection: the Mary Rose…or what’s left of her. This awe-inspiring-in-its-day warship, King Henry VIII’s favorite, sank in 1545 while fighting the French just off the coast. The ship and its doomed crew of 500 sank and settled into the mud, where it rested for about 450 years. The surviving bits of the ship, with a rich trove of artifacts, have been preserved and are beautifully displayed.

All sorts of Tudor-era items were found: personal belongings, weaponry, a backgammon board, and even the skeleton of Hatch, the ship’s dog. These artifacts humanize the everyday life of English sailors from five centuries ago.

Three centuries later, another state-of-the-art war ship was the HMS Warrior. Built in 1860, it never saw a day of battle. That’s because the Warrior was so formidable it was considered unbeatable. Its very existence was sufficient to keep the peace. The Warrior was the first ironclad warship, a huge technological advance. It had about a 10-year window of invincibility. But, after 1870, with the advent of guns on turrets and stronger steam engines replacing sails altogether, the Warrior was mothballed.

About 200 years ago, the most important British ship ever, the HMS Victory, changed the course of world history.

The French emperor Napoleon had been terrorizing the Continent. By 1805, he had amassed a huge fleet and was preparing to invade England. Admiral Horatio Nelson, who commanded the British fleet from this ship, cornered the French fleet at the Cape of Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain. The huge Battle of Trafalgar ensued. While Nelson was killed, the British emerged victorious.

Today, the dry-docked Victory feels ready to haul anchor and set sail at any moment. For the British, this ship is more a shrine than a museum.

The Victory bristles with cannon lining several gun decks. It took well-trained British sailors only two minutes to ready a cannon for firing, aim, and shoot, compared to eight minutes for the French.

Inside, on the gun decks, you can imagine the noise, smoke, and confusion of battle — as cannons fired in unison, recoiled, and were reloaded. All the while, enemy fire crashed into and splintered the ship around the men. Climbing through the ship, with its low ceilings, you can feel how cramped the living conditions were. There was no such thing as privacy, and the tight quarters created a forest of hammocks. Often, sailors slept right where they fought. When not in battle, they ate at tables wedged between their guns.

The Great Cabin was Admiral Nelson’s quarters. Imagine Nelson and his officers hunched over charts to plan an attack. While it looks like an officer’s living quarters, everything was designed for action. In minutes the furniture could be folded and stowed, turning this space into a fully functional cannon deck.

During that fateful Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson was shot by a sniper. A golden plaque on the deck marks the spot where Nelson fell. The crew rushed him below deck to care for their leader in his dying hours.

It’s on this spot that Nelson died.

Docent: So this spot here was — so when Lord Nelson was mortally wounded on the upper deck, he was taken down here; just before he was about to die, Captain Hardy come down and said to him, “Sir, we’ve won the battle.” And he said, “Thank God, I’ve done my duty.”

Romantic paintings show the admiral lifted to heaven by angels, like a saint.