There is…or was…until the Railway Authorities chose to raise the price by over a quarter, almost overnight…a good value railway touring ticket entitled Freedom of the Severn & Solent, FOSS for short, amongst the railway enthusiast fraternity. Covering an area from Worcester and Malvern in the North, right down to the South Coast of England from Weymouth to the Solent, it is just brilliant for me during the warmer months to do a bit of travelling around with my camera. Take the three day version of the ticket, and travel in that pretty huge area cost an average of about fifteen quid a day, until some bean counter in an unseen office somewhere decided that we were getting far too good a deal. Now is about twenty quid a day, but still not too bad if it’s Bristol to Portsmouth or Southampton that’s on the agenda. One really has to have an appetite for three days in a week of quite intense travelling to make it pay now. But that’s a topic for another day, perhaps…
Last May was rather a while ago now, but rifling through my photo archive recently reminded me that there had been a really decent spring day that month, and armed with my FOSS, I had, indeed, been out for a wander all the way down to Portsmouth.
There is a simple reason to visit Portsmouth as a starting point – the Britannia Fish Bar just outside Portsmouth Harbour Station and the Navy Yard gates serves really excellent fish & chips. But fortune did not favour me as a representative of the brave that day, and I found the Britannia well-and-truly CLOSED…for refurbishments. Bummer! Much gyrating on the pavement in front of the scaffolding ensued, the sudden frustration causing a hiatus in my train of thought. So, off I trotted (or perhaps I should say, marched in a rather grumpy fashion, ‘cos I was right hungry by that point) in search of an alternative supply of the said fish & chips.
Well, dear reader, it is rather fortuitous that the Britannia was closed that day, as I was forced to explore further afield, for the day was just gloriously clear and sunny, perfect for the amateur photographer to practice the art.
Southsea is an area of Greater Portsmouth which is very familiar to me from my earlier childhood. My father worked extensively in the building industry as a Quantity Surveyor for Costain Contruction, and for about half a decade, that sent him to the area for work. And he would often take us, the family, to the city for trips out during the summer holidays. I remember well taking the ferry over to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and indeed eating chips, and playing lots of pinball, at Clarence Pier in Southsea. Happy days! So, here I was nearly half a century later, and very much overdue for a retracing of my childhood steps all those decades ago. I’ve no idea if the Portsmouth city fathers have chosen to keep the building my father helped to build – things are always getting torn down and replaced at great cost – but I am certainly pleased that events took my father and me as part of his family to that place, to be a tiny microdot in its long history.
Portsmouth is very much a naval city, and an important base for the British Navy since time immemorial. Henry VIII set sail in his fleet to have yet another little scrap with his dear friends the French in the sixteenth century, only to have his flagship Mary Rose topple over and sink with huge loss of life on the way out. It looked very much as though dear Henry had simply overloaded his flagship with guns…but guns of that age do tend to be, well, bulky, and no-one had considered the basic schoolboy physics of something being a bit top-heavy and wobbly as a result. Ooops!
Naval history, however, has continued proudly and unabated since. Portsmouth was the last little bit of Good Ol’ Blighty that Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson was ever to see as he departed to join his flagship Victory in October 1805. Yet again, us Brits were off to have another scrap with our favourite friends the French; this time the French had the Spanish out with them, but that was an age when Britannia really did rule the waves, and we won. Poor Horatio, though, had had a french sniper take aim at him, and he died of his wound just before the British victory at Trafalgar was declared. For the 21st Century tourist, though, it is still possible to walk through the tiny gateway thought to be Nelson’s route as he left for his ship. I must say, I find the thought of all that naval scrapping in that day-and-age quite stomach churning – had the press gang arrived to take me out of the Britannia Fish Bar for service in His Majesty’s Navy, they would have had to carry me out feet first, and even once aboard, I think I would have preferred to walk the plank and take my chances with the little fishes. I like boats, but not ones like Victory in the 19th Century. Not at all nice.
Victory for its part is now a national monument, and can still be visited in Portsmouth’s Naval Yard, as can the remains of Mary Rose, which were raised from the seabed in the early 1980s.
During the 1940s, Portsmouth naturally received a good deal of attention from Hitler’s Luftwaffe: The nave of the Royal Garrison Church remains roofless to this day. But happily, much history has survived to be seen today. On my visit in May 2017, I still roamed happily around the Square and Round Towers, and in the grounds of Portsmouth’s Cathedral. Portsmouth Cathedral’s origins stretch back into medieval times, and, I think I am right in saying, was originally the parish Church of St Thomas of Canterbury. In 1927, the Diocese of Portsmouth split away from neighbouring Winchester, becoming a See in its own right, hence the elevation of the parish church to that of cathedral, the seat of the new bishop. It is a striking Romanesque building, well worth a visit.
History, fish & chips aside, there is plenty for the casual Portsmouth visitor to enjoy. Ships, lots of ships, and the famous hovercraft service to Ryde, leaving from right on the beach at Clarence Pier. The local gulls are up to their usual tricks, and sophisticated defences must be employed by the visitor to preserve his or her lunch. I generally employ the word Boo! quite loudly, then chase the gulls around flapping my arms wildly – it seems to work, and the chips remained all mine. One can also procure one’s own fish out of the ocean, of course, but that’s not something I generally do…I like to spend more time talking to the local pigeons…!