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The wind caught her sails so strongly as to heel her over

August 27, 2018

The angry, water-filled clouds sit low.  They release their contents in strong, steady sheets. Our car is parked around the corner due to a shortage of parking this weekend. This time we are in Portsmouth in the south of England, and we've arrived during a music festival.


We hadn't planned to come to Portsmouth, but two nights ago, we had seen a documentary about The Mary Rose, the ship launched by King Henry VIII in 1511. On 19th July, 1545 she sank whilst leading an attack on a French invasion in the Solent, just north of the Isle of Wight. The documentary had covered the rediscovery of the ship in 1971, and the difficult and expensive excavation and eventual raising of the surviving section of the hull in 1982, after being submerged in mud and water for 437 years.


Purchasing our tickets, we are fortunate to catch a lift to the museum in a golf cart. The torrential rain forms tiny lakes and fast-flowing riverlets along the kerbside. I'm glad I'm not outside, as the golf cart with its passengers dodges and swerves around puddles and raincoat-clad tourists.


The antechamber of the museum provides a timeline of the ship's service during the period of the Tudor king, Henry VIII. Here I get a glimpse of the arrogance of a King who had, despite his infidelity and break with the Catholic church, still declared himself King of England, France, and Ireland, as well as the head of the church. His declaration of King of France is perhaps the reason why the two countries had been constantly at war. 


We walk through an airlock, and into a darkened room. The story of the Battle of the Solent continues, whilst the cases dotted in the space are filled with items excavated from the ship. I enter a corridor and realise that I am now standing in the centre of the Mary Rose. To my right is the salvaged hull; its huge timber beams, twisted and splintered from its lengthy period lying in mud. The Perspex wall allows me to see at close range this archaeological wonder. To my left, are items, some reconstructed, that would typically be in that section of the ship. I realise that I am effectively walking through the centre of the Mary Rose. The lights dim and as the sounds of the wind rushing through the draughty boards, I hear voices. Inside the ship, at my second level, images are projected on the sides of the ship, showing me the activity of the crew. I can almost feel the ship moving as I walk through the space, watching the crew go about their jobs. The sounds gradually abate as the lights are switched on and I am back to the present day. I walk through the automatic doors to the continuing exhibits. 

Each level of the interactive museum brings to life each section of the ship. On the lowest level, the cooks, and labourers toil away. Perhaps they rarely come out of their darkened surroundings. On the highest level, I wait patiently for the double doors to open. There is an airlock between the museum and the the ship and despite the strict temperature controls in place, it allows me to view the ship without peering through Perspex.


On the far end, I see King Henry VIII talk to some small children about 'his' ship below.


Despite the excitement of the find, it had been a long process of conservation and highly specialised treatment before it was able to be displayed as it is today. Since the mid-1980s, it has been housed in a covered dry-dock whilst being sprayed first with fresh water then with polyethylene glycol.


This museum has been built over the original dry-dock, where the conservation work has taken place. During the construction, the restoration of the hull section continued. In 2003, the polyethylene glycol sprays were switched off, and the final process of air-drying the timber began. The monitors in the hull ensure that the air is at a constant temperature; any variation may damage the timbers.


I emerge from the semi-darkness of the museum, blinking at the sudden brightness of the obligatory giftshop. For a couple of hours I have immersed myself in Tudor England, and the lives and occupations of the crew members of the Mary Rose. Most importantly, I've been able to witness the results of fine-tuned maritime archaeology and conservation methods, which have meticulously restored this piece of history. Forward planning and creative minds have turned this historical marvel into an interactive and wonderfully attractive full-time exhibit.





Title Quote: attributed to Francis van der Delft, ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire

Accommodation: Premier Inn, 2 Southernhay Gardens, Exeter, England,

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