Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Southsea Castle, Southsea

The weekend before last I was telling at Tudor tales at Southsea Castle in Southsea by Portsmouth. Its one of a series of Tudor forts built along the Solent, both on the mainland and on the Isle of Wight. And like so many of the places I'm working this year its a a bit of a hidden gem, for as you drive into Portsmouth there are brown signs here there and everywhere directing you to many different museums. In fact I don't remember driving into a town with so many museums. And there is off course the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with the Victory, the iron war ship, the Warrior and also the remains of the Mary Rose and museum dedicated to all her finds. And so it was I kept driving and still no signs for Southsea Castle until I was right upon it and even then it wasn't easy to find; hidden as it was at the end of a great wave of heritage, but tucked neatly away behind a modern car park! But as soon as I entered I got a good feeling. Every one was very welcoming, the museum was free and there was clearly lots going on...

Southsea Castle Tudor Keep

There was the solid stone Tudor Keep housing its own museum and some excellent interpretation about how the early castle functioned. For this weekend it also housed some staff from the Mary Rose Trust who amongst other things were teaching the children how to stabilise a Tudor warship, which rose up high out of the water. Although both vehemently denied that the Mary Rose sank when all the sailors rushed from one side to the other to get a glimpse of King Henry VIII. Probably not true, but once again it has the makings of a good story!

Inside the Keep overseen by Henry VIII himself!

A window in the Keep showing the 10 feet thick walls

One of the 'vents' in the roof of the keep:
To allow for easy movement of canon balls up to the defences.

The contents of the excavated well in the Castle:
Includes stone canon balls and the broken pail for carrying water

Just to the side of the Keep the local archaeological group were showing all sorts of items found upon the seabed and also letting the kids have a go at facial reconstruction. It involved applying play dough to a resin skull to make a face. I really liked this activity although most of the kids couldn't resist adding horns and all sorts of other grotesque features to their faces. But then they had a go and its something that hopefully they will remember for a long time...
And from there all could explore one of the later additions to Southsea, a tunnel called a 'caponier' which was the last resort if attackers breached the outer defences. It was basically a tunnel with inward looking holes from which to shoot the enemy. Hope that makes sense, if not just read the sign below. I liked it because it was dark and cool, which was great because the weekend was very, very hot. I also liked it because I was in Tudor kit and gave quite a few already nervous people a bit of a shock, especially when i banged my drum in the darkness!

The entrance to the 'caponier'

The very dark 'caponier' tunnels

Looking out one of the 'caponier' windows

Southsea Castle was one of many forts built in Tudor times but even it has its unique points. It was for example built to a new angular design as opposed to the older round gun emplacements in order to increase the angle of fire by canon (You can see a reconstruction of the castle below) Thinking about it, that will do from my interesting fact about Southsea although there are many more. Indeed you can go on a tour of the castle with the ghost of John, Master Gunner at he castle in Henry VIIIs time. Not only do you get to meet Henry himself complaining about the time it took to build the various forts, but also stop and hear about the castles history during the time of the Civil War and even when in the 1800s part of the castle was accidentally blown up killing seventeen people including women and children. It seemed that some of the wives and children of the garrison were cooking supper when some of the embers from the fire fell through the floorboards onto gunpowder and up it all went. In the tour reconstruction it appears to be a homely scene (As homely as you can get in a castle) Then suddenly some flickering lights , a loud bang and some smoke are puffed out, although this was enough to make one young lad cling to his mothers leg! Some might not approve of this form of interpretation, but I enjoyed it and it helped get across the human story of what would otherwise have been a great mass of brick, stone and iron. And there were many tales to be told, such as how the castle was so poorly financed in the 1600s that the garrison was forced to sell the lead from its roof s and how at other times they were reduced to selling ale and cakes from the castle to make ends meet. These are the stories of the people that I think really bring the place to life even if it does require a ghost to tell them!

The outer defences with later eighteenth century modifications

Two views of the Castle: The first from a Tudor picture. The second a modern reconstruction

View looking down on the Keep from later brick defences.

What I liked about Southsea straight away was its honesty, meaning all the different periods of its use were there for all to see. And Southsea castle has a lot of history, because it didn't actually go out of active military service until c.1960! It just goes to show you how the whole history of Portsmouth is dominated by its vulnerability to attack, fear of invasion and need for defence. From the Remains of the Mary Rose built to fight off French attacks, to the Tudor castles, the nineteenth century forts built onto the seabed of the Solent and the various modifications to Southsea castle itself during the Napoleonic wars and later threats of invasion. Portsmouth is very much a town whose heritage even today is dominated by defense. Just outside the castle entrance is the D Day museum with a 2nd world war tank and anti aircraft gun standing outside. Just down the coast is the Royal Marines museum, whilst the other way there is the largest monument to the fallen of the two world wars that I've ever seen and also the remains of the 16th-17th century 'redoubts', the defences that are now crisscrossed by modern stainless steel bridges. They do in fact add a bit of mystery to the seafront, because every now and then they are pierced by short tunnels presumably built to access ships anchored off shore.

But although Portsmouth military history is so obvious it isn't by any means a place today racked by fear or inward looking in any way. In fact its precisely the opposite and there are few seaside resorts that I've been to where I've felt so relaxed. You can still park up anywhere along the seafront (For a price of course) and also on the great swathes of common that run along the opposite side of the beach roads. Great expanses of grass which seem to have their origins in Portsmouth's earlier military past; providing as they do space around the earlier gun emplacements and the town itself. But now for the price of a car park ticket you can set up an awning and barbecue and spend the day relaxing, which is what many people did. Watching from the castle I saw a French group who had spent the morning at Southsea, spend the afternoon playing a game where they all stood in a great circle and took turns at falling over. It looked fun although I still prefer British Bulldogs! They played whilst others flew kites, read books and slept; all in all a very chilled out scene. Although for the more energetic there are also volleyball and basket ball courts just opposite the beach. I don't play either, but still appreciated that both must be appreciated!

So laid back is Portsmouth I noticed that a lot of large camper vans were parking up at the seafront at night. I had planned to find a proper campsite, but seeing this and being the kind of person who likes to saver some money if he can, I drove out of the main beach front to where there were less lights and settled down for the night. And it was well worth it for not only did I save some money, but in the morning I was greeted by fantastic views of the Isle of Wight and the ever busy Solent. I sat on the edge of my camper watching all the joggers pounding the pavements, whilst thinking that they should stop a while and enjoy the view. Maybe they do, but I doubt it as the grass is always greener elsewhere.

Relaxing on the Sunday morning overlooking a very peaceful Portsmouth beach

That's certainly what i find, because although I love Norfolk especially its winter skies, the beaches aren't what I want from a beach, where as Portsmouth beaches are. Firstly there is a different smell to the sea and one I first smelt last year whilst traveling on the ferry over to the Isle of Wight to do some Discovery Visits for English Heritage. I'm not sure how to describe it, except that its enticing and smells of adventure! I also like the busyness of the place; In Norfolk you might get the odd glimpse of a tanker out on the horizon, but the Solent was heaving with craft... From small dinghy, to tugs, ferries looming out of the water and even Hovercraft. On Saturday night as I promenaded along the seafront one came hurtling out of the sea and pulled up right in front of me. I've never seen a real hovercraft before, it was huge and a number of people including myself waited for it to leave again. It suddenly swelled up to three times its normal size, swung round and was gone sending pebbles and foam everywhere. Some cheered whilst others (Presumably the locals) just kept on walking; but then the grass is always greener...

The Isle of Wight Ferry and hovercraft having a race!

All in all it was a great place to spend the Sunday morning and also the evening before. I had planned to spend the evening working on my new version of Beowulf, but the allure of the seafront was just too much for me.. As well as seeing the hovercraft, I explored the old redoubts, enjoyed an ice cream complete with flake and really tasty pie and chips, skulked about the amusements with its loud whizzes and bangs, and even louder music, it was an assault on all the senses, but one that always makes me feel oddly at peace. Probably because I spent my holidays as a child at a local seaside resort called Hemsby and spent most of my time in the amusements, even when I had no money to spend. Skulking about in the hope I would find the odd penny or if lucky 10 pence lying lost upon the floor just waiting for me to come and waste it in one of the whizzing and banging machines! I had a wasted childhood and loved every minute of it! And walking down Portsmouth seafront reminded me of it and how I had forgotten just how much fun the seaside can be!

In fact the only downside to my visit had been a run in with a local traffic warden. I had been given a ticket that you scratch off the date on to park for free on the carpark in front of the castle. I in my rush had thinking about stories had scratched off the wrong date and luckily was having a break in my van when the traffic warden noted my mistake and threatened me with a parking ticket. I pointed out that i was working in the castle and would get another ticket from them, but she did not believe me and was only willing to give me minutes to return. She was not the friendliest person I've ever met and even the fact that I was wearing full Tudor kit and carrying a drum did not sway her; as far as she was concerned it was all a con so that i could park for free on Portsmouth seafront. Hmmmm... I liked Portsmouth a lot, but not that much!

Many thanks to Andrew, Chrissy, Liz and all the other staff and volunteers who made me and the public feel so welcome at Southsea Castle....

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