Surprising Portsmouth

Portsmouth's signature Spinnaker Tower, and the masts of HMS Warrior.

When I left Dublin, I was feeling pretty travel-weary, and I was starting to get concerned. This was the first time I'd taken a whole two weeks off for travel. Prior to this trip, my longest vacation had been a 9-day cruise, and there's a big difference between being shuttled around on a cruise ship and an itinerary that totaled out at six airports and 15 train stations in those two weeks. I wasn't really homesick — just cranky, tired of transit and other tourists — but I was starting to wonder if the second week was such a good idea.

London, so well sign-posted.

Getting back in to London, with its easy-to-understand Tube map and plethora of sign posts, helped a lot. I dropped my luggage at mammoth Waterloo station, and headed over to the Tate Britain, one of the museums I still hadn't seen in London. I was there, mostly, for the museum's large collection of J.M.W. Turner's work. Turner's paintings originally interested me because of the subject matter (he painted a lot of naval scenes from the Napoleonic Wars), but that's not what I've come to love best about his work. Turner's work is never quite concrete enough for you to feel like you're there, when you look at a painting. But occasionally, looking at the best of them, you feel instead like your soul was there. It was soothing, shuffling from painting to painting, and it was a great way to recharge.

After retrieving my bag at Waterloo, I took a crowded train out to Portsmouth. I won't go back into my previously documented obsession with sailing warships; suffice to say I'd run out to Portsmouth on a day trip during my last time in London to see HMS Victory, and wanted to go again and have a more leisurely trip. It's not a common destination for American tourists, the sort of place that merits a page or two in a UK guidebook, a place I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to fill my two days and three nights.

As it turned out, Portsmouth surprised me, charmed me, fed me amazingly well, and wiped out any remaining traces of travel weariness in some of my favorite travel days ever. Tourists, especially Americans, were few and far between, and for all the talk of the friendliness of Irish people, it was the people of Portsmouth I found most willing to strike up a conversation, curious about a rare American. It's a city where the past is everywhere, waiting for you to discover — the old fortifications along the water you can wander along and through, the fort built by Henry VIII, the tunnel Admiral Lord Nelson went through en route to HMS Victory before the battle of Trafalgar, the cobblestone streets and warm old pubs. It's still the home of the British fleet, but in places it's easy enough to imagine it as it was when Britannia ruled the waves, drunken sailors and officers in their best uniforms walking the cobblestone streets, the masts of dozens of ships filling the sky.

The beach, and some of the old fortifications.

By the time I got to Portsmouth, I was feeling back up to eating full pub meals, and I'm so glad I recovered in time, because Portsmouth has a ridiculous collection of beautiful historic pubs. Many offered bed and breakfast accommodations, and it was above one of these, The Duke of Buckingham, that I stayed, in a tiny little room. It was in another, The Ship Anson, that I confirmed the best fish and chips ever are to be found in Portsmouth. I'd eaten there for lunch on my previous trip to Portsmouth, and remembered the fish and chips as having been completely mind-blowing. Two years later, and many other plates of fish and chips at many other establishments later, I couldn't help but wonder — The Ship Anson's still stood out, but was I artificially inflating the meal in my mind?

Fish and chips at The Ship Anson.

So I ate there again, and ordered the fish and chips. Unlike other pubs, The Ship Anson is quiet about its fish and chips. There are no signs outside claiming their fish and chips superiority, nothing about them being "famous" in the menu. They're listed there among everything else, and it was by sheer chance that I'd ordered them the first time. My fish and chips came, looking pretty magnificent on the plate. Then I took my first bite, and confirmed that there had been absolutely no artificial inflation — the batter is perfectly crispy, just slightly sweet, and coating a mammoth piece of perfect cod. The chips were as good as chips get, but believe me, this is all about the fish, the fish so gigantic I thought I'd never eat the whole thing, and so good I actually did. I took a picture midway through, to try to capture how good the fish itself was, and a concerned waitress asked me if something was wrong. No, I told her, these were the best fish and chips I'd ever had. She looked totally surprised. Ship Anson, don't be so surprised — you do indeed have the best fish and chips ever. You should toot your own horn a little more. And open an outpost in Silver Spring.

HMS Victory.

Not surprisingly, when I wasn't wandering along the water or consuming fish and chips and hand-pulled cask ale, I was usually at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Much of it I'd already seen (and thoroughly photographed), but that didn't stop me from working my way through HMS Victory at a snail's pace, taking more pictures and video, and breathing in that unique scent of a historic ship, some combination of tar, wood, and maybe a trace of old spiced rum. I've visited both the USS Constitution and HMS Victory, and while I greatly appreciate that Constitution is still kept in floating shape (Victory is permanently dry-docked), I've felt rushed on the ship's tours. Victory, if you visit during busier times, is on a free-flow system, where you can go through the ship — all the way down into the hold — at your own pace. Unfortunately, busier times also meant that the ship was overrun with obnoxious French students, which I didn't quite understand — Victory pretty much represents the downfall of the French empire, and doesn't seem like the greatest choice for a French field trip. But they weren't enough to ruin my enjoyment of the ship and dockyard.

I also saw the D-Day Museum, after a long walk through the heaviest wind I've ever encountered in my life. There were times where I struggled to just to stay standing, and yet, instead of being frustrated, I was grinning, amused by it all, completely refreshed. The D-Day Museum itself felt a little small, but it did give more context on the history of Portsmouth; I realized that many historic buildings that might otherwise have been preserved, and could have fleshed out the Old Portsmouth area, were flattened by bombs during World War II.

Spice Island Inn and Still & West in Old Portsmouth.

There's still more than enough history to go around, though, more than enough brilliant pubs, more than enough museum exhibits to look at and old ships to climb through, more than enough lovely walkways along the water. Part of me wants to trumpet the charms of Portsmouth to anyone willing to listen. Another part of me wants to keep it secret, to never let American tourists know about it, to remain a place I can go back to again in the future, when I once again feel the desire to take a break from all things American. But then, in this age when undiscovered places have been discovered, overrun, and abused, perhaps the simple truth is that Americans aren't interested in going to Portsmouth. They should be, and yet I'm glad they're not.

My Portsmouth city and Historic Dockyard photos and video are in two different sets, because I took a whole lot of pictures.

No comments: