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7:44am on Friday, 19th June, 2009:



All these years I've been coming to Portsmouth, I've never been aboard HMS Victory. As this was my last chance (I have one more visit, but won't have time then), I paid my £12.50 and had a look round.

What a stirring experience.

There's a tendency these days to look back on our ancestors as if they were less intelligent than we are. They were not. HMS Victory is a wondrous piece of 1759 high tech. The use of space, the anti-fire precautions, the anti-rat precautions, the amazing intricacy of the cables ... everything is where it is and the way it is for a reason, and that reason was known when the ship was designed. Everything is subserviant to its function as a vessel of war; even the captain's and admiral's cabins convert swiftly into just another part of a gun deck. It's breathtaking.

The history of HMS Victory is itself tears-to-the-eyes stuff, whether on the social side (the lives lived by the crew, the separation of officers and men, the punishment system, the onboard economy, the presence of an Italian and an American midshipman at Trafalgar) or on the political side (Nelson + HMS Victory + Trafalgar = bye bye French and Spanish navies). It's the intelligence behind the ship's construction and operation that impressed me, though. The detail is astonishing: as more of it was unveiled, the greater my sense of the whole vessel as a working machine became. These are people who knew what they were doing (and as far as I could tell, this included deliberate exclusion of any place specifically for worship).

In years to come, people will look back at our time and think we were ignorant and stupid. Well, we may be ignorant by their standards — but we're not stupid either.

I picked a good time to look around HMS Victory, as it was quiet and almost empty. There was only one school party aboard.

Ironically, it was French.

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).