Britain became a world power thanks to its domination of the seas in the 18th and 19th centuries. Visit the historic dockyard in Portsmouth, where you can see some of the ships that helped put Britain on the map. Then discover some of the less well-known but equally impressive ports and ships, plus some of Britain’s many coastal lighthouses.
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Britannia Rules the Waves
Britain became a world power through its domination of the seas. One of its much-loved songs, unfortunately no longer true, is “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves.” According to legend, King Alfred the Great founded the Royal Navy, maybe, but it was victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 that really began Britain’s ascent as a colonial and naval power.Drake had already circumnavigated the world by then, between 1577 and 1580, in a ship called the Pelican, attacking Spanish freighters in the Pacific and returning home with his holds full of treasure, enough to pay off the national debt, in addition to giving a handy return of 4,700 percent to all investors. On the strength of this exploit, he was knighted by a grateful Queen Elizabeth I, who had covertly supported the mission. Along the way, Drake renamed his ship the Golden Hind, and it became the first museum ship in English history, standing on display at Deptford, downriver from London, until it finally fell to pieces in the 1650s. Golden Hinde is also the name of a full-size replica, now standing in a side-dock of the River Thames, in London, near the Tate Modern art gallery and the Shakespeare Globe Theatre.
At Portsmouth Historic Dockyard on the south coast of England, you can see the remains of a Tudor warship, the remains of a Tudor warship the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, and was preserved in the oxygen-free mud. Raising the Mary Rose in 1982 was a brilliant accomplishment in marine archaeology, and the sheer volume of material goods recovered from it has taught us a great deal about life in the Tudor navy. Today, visitors to the Mary Rose can see many of these artifacts on display.
Horatio Nelson’s Victory in Britain
Jumping forward more than 200 years, HMS Victory is probably the most famous ship in British history. It shares pride of place with the Mary Rose at Portsmouth and is the oldest ship in the world still under the military commission. A 104-gun fighting ship, the HMS Victory was the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. On its quarterdeck, he was killed by an enemy sharpshooter just at the moment of his triumph over a combined French and Spanish fleet. He had carried out a daringly unconventional maneuver to break the enemy’s line, and it worked.
The HMS Victory has immensely strong sides, designed to withstand enemy broadsides at short range. It required the wood of 6,000 trees, mostly oaks. It served in five major battles between 1778 and 1805. The tour of the HMS Victory—everyone should do it—gives you a vivid sense of what British sailors had to endure in the era of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. HMS Victory’s upper masts and spars have been removed, but the complicated arrangement of blocks, pulleys, rope-ladders, and shrouds still show what a sophisticated instrument it was.
The HMS Victory survived because of its association with Nelson. After the battle, too badly damaged to sail unaided, it was towed into Gibraltar for repairs. Then it was able to make its own way back to England, carrying Nelson’s body for the state funeral on January 9, 1806, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The ship itself was almost broken up in 1831—a fate nostalgically captured in Joseph Turner’s painting of another such ship, The Fighting Temeraire, being towed by a steam tug to the breakers’ yard. The Victory, however, avoided that fate. According to legend, Admiral Hardy, who had been Captain of the Victory at Trafalgar, told his wife in 1831 that it was about to be destroyed. She burst into tears, ordered him back to the admiralty, and told him to make sure it didn’t happen. Her view prevailed and Victory survived as a training ship. After the centenary of Trafalgar in 1905, a movement to restore and preserve Victory got underway and succeeded. And, so we still have it, a magnificent spectacle, now more than 250 years old.
The Seafaring Tradition in Britain
Portsmouth is only one of many places where you can explore Britain’s seafaring tradition. London, the capital city, was also the greatest port in the world in the 19th century, hub of a vast maritime empire.
Most of the working dockyards have gone from London now, replaced by container terminals, but no tour of seafaring Britain would be complete without a visit to Greenwich. The way to approach it, and to get into the right mood, is by taking one of the tour boats that leave from Westminster Bridge, and then sailing downriver to disembark at Greenwich. There you will find the beautifully restored Cutty Sark, an iron-framed and wooden-hulled “clipper” ship, launched in 1869 to bring tea from China and wool from Australia. Twice damaged by fire, she is now in immaculate condition at Greenwich.
Also at Greenwich is the Royal Observatory. This was the traditional headquarters of the Astronomer Royal, and was designed by Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Through its back yard runs the prime meridian, the zero point for the world’s lines of longitude. Join the line of people waiting to be photographed standing astride the line, which is entirely imaginary and yet has wielded a powerful influence on the history of navigation.
Just down the hill from the Observatory is the National Maritime Museum. It contains high-quality models of ships from many eras; several preserved and repainted boats; a library of plans, charts, photographs, and flags; and a collection of the imaginative figureheads that decorated the prows of sailing warships.
Lonely Sentinels: Lighthouses in Britain
A visit to seafaring Britain should include lighthouses as well as ships. Many parts of the nation’s broken coastline are guarded by lighthouses. Useful as aids to navigators and as warnings about dangerous reefs, these lonely sentinels have an instant romantic appeal. The oldest surviving lighthouse in Britain was built by the Romans in about AD 45 or 50. It’s now just a stone shell, standing on a hilltop inside the perimeter of Dover Castle in Kent. Dozens more were built between the late 1600s and the early 18th century, often at sites where difficult tides and currents caused shipwrecks.
Not surprisingly, there are dozens of tales of haunted lighthouses. At South Stack in Anglesey, an island off northwestern Wales, for example, a persistent ghost bangs on the door and scratches at the windows on rough and stormy nights. It’s the ghost of Jack Jones, who was heading to the lighthouse during a horrendous storm on October 26, 1859, to help his friend and fellow lighthouse-man, Henry Bowen. His own father had died at the same lighthouse 31 years before, so it was an ill-omened place for the Joneses. As he approached, a rock fell from the adjacent cliffs and struck him on the head. He staggered a few more paces, fell, was not discovered until the next morning, and died a few weeks later. Meanwhile, nearly 200 ships and boats were damaged or sunk in the area that night. One of them, the Royal Charter, a luxurious clipper ship that had sailed all the way from Australia and was close to its destination, Liverpool, sank in the storm, killing all but 39 of the 500 people aboard. Many of them were returning from the Australian gold rush, flush with new wealth. Some tales say that men who could have survived were so frantic to save their gold that they were dragged to the bottom by its weight. If true, it’s a salutary tale about the hazards of cupidity.
Now that most lighthouses are automatic, the buildings around some of them have been converted into holiday accommodation. At St. Catherine’s Lighthouse on the Isle of Wight, and at the Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall, it’s now possible to rent cottages that really take you away from the crowd, and give you the alternative of a few nights beside crashing waves and crying seagulls. There is also a lighthouse museum at Fraserburgh in Scotland, near Aberdeen, sited at Kinnaird Head. In addition to old lamps, lenses, letters, and paraphernalia, you can climb the tight spiral staircase inside the Kinnaird Head lighthouse itself. The best name for a lighthouse, I think, is also Scottish, Muckle Flugga. It is one of many lighthouses built by Thomas and David Stevenson, the father and uncle of the famous Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture