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Learning the ropes

A visit to Flagship Portsmouth will fire the imagination and give insight to the harsh realities of life at sea long ago. Gillian Thomas reports.

Disbelief mixed with horror spread over the faces of the 12 and 13-year-old girls from St Philomena's Catholic high school in Carshalton, Surrey, as they looked up at the towering masts of HMS Victory. A guide was telling them that apprentice midshipmen - who would have been younger than they are - had to climb up the masts to the crow's nest early every morning and perch there, come wind or rain, to "learn the ropes".

Their tour of Nelson's flagship left them in no doubt how tough life in the navy was in the early 1800s. Two-thirds of the crew were press-ganged into service - for a minimum four years - and any misbehaviour was punished by between 12 and 48 lashes with a cat-o'-nine-tails.

Moored permanently at Flagship Portsmouth in the Royal Navy's Historic Dockyard, HMS Victory, together with the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's flagship, and HMS Warrior, Britain's only ironclad warship, shows what life at sea was like from Tudor times onwards. Beside them, the Royal Naval Museum occupies various cavernous buildings, themselves of historic interest, in redundant areas of the dockyard. There is too much to absorb in a single visit.

Three of the museum's redesigned exhibitions are Sailing Ships, Nelson, and the Story of Victory. Across the cobbled quay from the ship, the Victory gallery includes Trafalgar!, a dramatic presentation of the famous battle. Visitors stand in semi-darkness on the gun deck at the height of the action as cannons fire at the massed French and Spanish fleets. The commentary explains Nelson's tactics. There are bangs, smoke, flashes of fire and loud crashings. Then Nelson is mortally wounded. The backdrop of the final scene is a panorama of the 1805 battle painted in 1930 by local maritime artist W L Wyllie.

Suspended in the gallery's central atrium is the ornate funeral barge that took Nelson's body up the Thames from Greenwich, where he lay in state, to his funeral at St Paul's Cathedral. A small pistol and other items belonging to Captain Hardy, Victory's captain at Trafalgar, are among the artefacts on show.

The balcony around the barge contains 24 brightly-painted figureheads saved from old warships, including many that came to Portsmouth to be broken up. Video screens provide interesting facts about the ships themselves.

The largest exhibit in the ictory Gallery is a model of HMS Vanguard, built in 1835 as a teaching aid for naval recruits. Children are attracted to the entertaining and informative hands-on gadgets. They can tie knots, heave pulleys, set sails and send flag signals, much as Nelson's men would have done.

In the Mary Rose Museum, some St Philomena's girls were working on a report about the relevance to the curriculum of a school visit to the historic dockyard. Visitors certainly learn a great deal about social, as well as naval, history. The dockyard also illustrates a range of technical subjects from shipbuilding to restoration.

As part of a project on the Tudors, other children were following a worksheet trail around the museum's collection of artefacts recovered from the Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent in 1545. Among the objects - all in incredibly good condition - are the only Tudor longbows still in existence, cooking utensils, medical equipment used by the barber-surgeon, games and musical instruments. Best of all, you can handle a piece of the ship's timbers and rope still smelling of tar.

It will be another 20 years before the ship's hull, lifted from the seabed in 1982, can be exposed to the air. Meanwhile visitors can see it, suspended in a cradle, through a haze of preservative spray.

HMS Warrior, the third historic ship on show, was the fastest and most threatening warship in the world when it was launched in 1860. It was powered by both steam and sail. "But technology moved on so quickly that it was virtually obsolete within 10 years," explained Jane Skinner, the business development manager. "Indeed, it never fired any of its 36 massive guns in anger."

* Flagship Portsmouth, Porter'sLodge, College Road, HMNaval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3LJ.

Tel: 01705 861533. e-mail: Education officer, tel: 01705 822034.

HMS Victory and the Royal Naval Museum: guided tour of HMS Victory and visit to the Story of Victory gallery pound;2.75.

Mary Rose: self-guided visits of the museum and Ship Hall pound;2.75, or three hours including gun drill pound;3.50. Teachers' pack, resource pack and a range of key stage 2 background materials available. Free resources list. Outreach pack of replica artefacts available on loan.

HMS Warrior: self-guided visits with activities pound;2.50.

Two ships pound;4.50, three pound;5.95.

Central booking and details of resources, tel: 01705 839766.

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