The hotel in Portsmouth was right on the waterfront with a view of the sea, which was great – and of a tired-looking amusement centre (with the appropriate number of those small domed towers, of course) fronting the pier, which was less so!
Saturday 26th November 2005
Saturday was Historic Dockyards visit day – and I made a full day of it. It started with a 45-minute harbour cruise during which we passed what seemed a never-ending array of Royal Navy destroyers, frigates and patrol boats, most of which we were told were either mothballed or being prepared for sale to foreign navies. Similarly, it appeared that many of the former RN dockyards themselves had been – or were in the process of being – disposed of for redevelopment for office, retail, residential purposes. If nothing else, however, it gave me a better perspective of the harbour itself and some idea of the scale of the RN’s presence in Portsmouth in times past.
Then, after a much-needed cup of coffee – to warm the hands as much as to re-caffeinate – on to “HMS Victory” before it became too crowded.
Unlike “SS Great Britain”, it was all very professional – which, given how long “HMS Victory” has been “on show”, I guess it should be. While the audio-guide commentary was excellent, having knowledgeable RN guides on hand to supplement this was a bonus, particularly as they also communicated a real sense of pride in their oldest commissioned warship.
Then to the “Mary Rose” Ship Hall, where the recovered portion of her hull is still undergoing the long – and patently expensive process of conservation by “waxing” before it can be safely dried.
This view of the hull – albeit somewhat hazy because of the fine wax spray that surrounded it in its glass-sided chamber – served as a great introduction to the visit to the “Mary Rose” Museum, built to house the thousands of items that have been recovered from the site of the wreck. If my memory serves me correctly – and that has already proved to be suspect – there have been a number of documentaries on the history of the “Mary Rose”, the story of her raising and the “treasures” found, so I won’t bore you all to sobs with a re-run here! Suffice it to say, I found it fascinating.
And finally, after what was probably an unjustifiably cursory look at what the Royal Naval Museum had to offer, my last ship visit: “HMS Warrior”. When she was launched in 1860 she was the largest, fastest and most powerful warship in the world, a far cry from the undignified role as an oil-jetty from which she was rescued for restoration in 1979. Again, the presentation and audio-guide were excellent. For anyone with an interest in matters maritime – or perhaps more accurately – matters naval, a day here is a veritable feast. I certainly found it so!
Kathy kindly rescued me from another “hotel” dinner on the Saturday evening by inviting me to join her, Hayley and Rachael for a home-cooked meal – a treat indeed.
Sunday 27th November 2005
On Sunday, Kathy gave up some more of her weekend so that we could visit the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum about 25 miles NE of Portsmouth. Now nearly 40 years old, the museum was set up to save threatened buildings and exhibit them in such a way as to preserve them; and to show how the building materials and practices have changed over time. Although there are over forty examples on the site including a medieval shop, market hall, working watermill and toll cottage, we restricted ourselves to a few only, not so much for lack of interest as lack of warmth. Hayley and Rachael enjoyed the challenges of the “Getting to Grips” hands-on activities of brick-laying, tiling, building arches and the like, in the joiner’s shop, Kathy and I enjoyed the warmth of the open fire there as well! Thanks again, Kathy.
Monday 28th November 2005
On Monday morning I set off for Exeter where I hope to be able to find some church records and, perhaps, some churchyard evidence of earlier Butlers, courtesy the Devon Family History Society who maintain a centre there. On the way I deviated to Winchester to re-visit one of my favourite cities and favourite cathedrals – and they still are. On my earlier visit I don’t recall visiting the vaulted Norman crypt, perhaps because it is only accessible when it is not flooded. In any event it now features a simple, modern lead statue by Anthony Gormley, called “Sound II”. Standing as it was knee-deep in water, I agree with the comment that it adds a “thought-provoking and haunting quality”, but I have yet to discover its religious significance. Having said that, I thought it was just beautiful!
This and the relatively sympathetically designed visitors’ centre were new since my last visit, but the vaulted ceiling of the nave and the magnificent wood carving in the quire would, on their own, have been sufficient reason for the return visit.
On the last stretch of the A30 about 15 miles from Exeter there were still traces of the snow on the hillsides and on the roofs of some houses, barns and sheds – remnants of the heavy snow storms in the area last week. Needless to say it was cold!
My dallying in Winchester resulted in my arriving in Exeter just as it was getting dark, but on this occasion I was able to get a parking spot and, more by guess and by god than the convoluted directions of a helpful traffic warden, found my “Georgian Townhouse” B&B. All chintz, frills, canopy over the bed and obligatory pot-pourri, but more than compensated for by complimentary bottles of both wine and water, chocolates and a real shower! Now, while it’s so small that you have to shower with your arms clamped to your sides (no mean feat, I can tell you), it’s still just great to have.
Tuesday 29th November 2005
On Tuesday morning I called on the Devon Family History Centre in the belief – now found to be mistaken – that they had, or would be able to access, burial records for my early Devon forebears. That’s not to say that they weren’t friendly or, to the extent possible, helpful – it’s just that they didn’t have records for the period I had been led to believe they might have. From the information they did have, however, it seems possible that Catholic Cathedral in Plymouth (which I had planned to visit early next week anyway) may be able to help – although the DFHC volunteers were cautious not to raise my hopes too much, primarily because so many records were destroyed and churches and churchyards demolished in the air-raids on Plymouth. Before I visit I’ll see if the Cathedral has a website and, if so, whether it contains any reference to what records are held. Here’s hoping!
I spent a couple of hours in the afternoon at Exeter Cathedral – one which I had not visited before. The Minstrels’ Gallery high on the North side of the nave is an unusual and attractive feature, but I pity the choristers and the difficulty they must have retaining breath control after the climb up there!
Elsewhere, the Lady Chapel had – for me – the most appeal and the large modern sculptures in the Chapter House, far and away, the least.
Wednesday 30th November 2005
With the genealogical quest on hold until I get to Plymouth, I thought that while the weather held, I’d put my touring hat on again and, see if I could get some more value out of my English Heritage card. I really should have known better. While it was a balmy 6° and merely grey and drizzly in Exeter when I left to explore the coast to the east, it got wetter, foggier and colder the further I went. After what proved to be ill-founded optimism that the weather would improve, I finally gave in and, after a four and a half hour drive, was back where I started! And, wouldn’t you know it – it had scarcely rained at all in my absence!!
Perhaps, in a fit of rationality, I might check the weather forecast before deciding what I should do tomorrow, my last day in Exeter. I’ll be heading to Salisbury on Friday for the weekend before moving on to Plymouth on Monday. Regrettably this does involve some back-tracking which was made necessary because the DFHC is only open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – and is a deviation about which I’d have been a lot more comfortable if the visit there had been a lot more fruitful. But, there you go!
Thursday 1st December 2005
Well, I did check the weather forecast and it did say “rain at times”, so I took that to mean something other than continuous! They got that bit right! What wasn’t said – and perhaps I should have assumed – was that those periods of rain might be quite heavy, and they were!
Visiting attractions of one sort or another (which would almost certainly have involved being blustered from an uncovered car-park with the risk of getting soaked on the way) didn’t have a lot of appeal, nor in fact did staying indoors for the day.
So, methought, it might be a good day to soak up the atmosphere of the moors of Dartmoor, which I could do without leaving the shelter and warmth of the car. And that’s what I did – a round trip via Okehampton and Tavistock and then on one of those narrow B roads NE across the centre of the Dartmoor National Park before returning to Exeter via Bovey Tracey.
Fortunately, the rain eased for the drive across the moors and, although it was not a day for photographs, I stopped any number of times just to admire the view – made all the more atmospheric by the mist. It really was great – and something I’d like to do again in kinder weather.