Special to The Post-Star
By Patricia and Robert Foulke
If you've been postponing a trip to Britain because of the unfavorable exchange rate, this is a good time to plan a fall or spring trip.
The dollar is getting stronger against the pound, and the shoulder seasons offer better prices. Just resolve to stay out of London this time, where prices are indeed daunting, and opt for the perennially attractive English countryside.
As academics in our first career, we lived in Britain every few years on research or sabbatical leaves. Our second career overlapped the teaching years as we became travel writers for the next 30 years. Last fall, we combined heritage travel with revisiting our favorite country inns in southern England and Wales. A rental car provided an easy way to explore our interests and renew our memories.
The entire trip was a delight as we searched for a little adventure and a lot of relaxation in beautiful settings.
We set out to trace a portion of Britain's rich and varied seafaring heritage. The mystique of voyaging dates back to the Bible and Homer's "Odyssey," and its influence has often determined the course of this island nation's history. We wanted to go to the places where we could visualize some of its most dramatic moments - King Henry VIII watching his Mary Rose heeling over and plunging to the bottom, Admiral Horatio Nelson on board HMS Victory planning the strategy that would win the Battle of Trafalgar, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designing the first iron-hulled ocean liner, Francis Chichester and Robin Knox-Johnston setting out to race around the world alone.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, phone: 9283 9766) features the HMS Victory, launched in 1765. She was the flagship for Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Napoleonic wars until his death at Trafalgar in 1805. Today she stands in dry dock, restored to shipshape condition with hull freshly painted and cannons silent but ready.
You can explore her and learn about life on board. Her great cabin, where the officers and Admiral Nelson had their meals, is decorated as it was during the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson had a day cabin, which contains a table and armchair. He also had a sleeping cabin, where his cot hangs from a pole and the original was covered with draperies made by Lady Hamilton.
The Mary Rose was built in 1509 but plunged to the bottom off Southsea Castle while going into action against a French fleet in 1545. Apparently she began to heel too much as the crew hoisted sails, then water rushed in through open gun ports and she sank very quickly. The remains of 200 men were found trapped within the vessel. Most of them were in their late teens and early 20s, with a few in their 40s, and a couple of boys.
After four centuries remnants of the wreck were raised and then bathed for years in polyglycol to preserve it. Visitors have a clear view of the interior of the vessel. Personal possessions of the seamen include rosaries, knife handles, leather pouches, a medical kit and games such as backgammon.
The HMS Warrior arrived in Portsmouth in 1987 after being restored. She was first launched in 1860 and was then claimed to be the fastest, largest, strongest and best-armed warship in the world. Her iron hull measures 418 feet in length, and she took advantage of both sail and steam propulsion.
Country House: Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire BH256QS, tel: 01425-275341 or 800-344-5087;www.chewtonglen.com. The estate has 130 acres of green lawn, woods, lakes, a stream and a bog garden on the property. The cuisine offers regional and international dishes. Special events include wine dinners and cookery demonstrations. The elegant swimming pool is the place to float under a ceiling adorned with white clouds on a sky-blue background. You can try the spa for a great facial or massage, and play tennis or golf on the grounds.
The approach to the city coming in from the sea follows the River Avon. It narrows to a gorge surrounded by high cliffs and leads to an artificial pool, once the main harbor of this important seaport.
The S.S. Great Britain rests at the Great Western Dockyard (phone: 117-926-0680). The world's first iron-hulled steamship was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a visionary engineer who also had built the Great Western Railway. Thomas Patterson, a Bristol ship-builder, designed the hull, and Thomas Guppy was in charge of the sailing rig and the engines. She had a screw propeller instead of conventional paddle wheels. Adjustable sails worked on hinged masts to account for various wind conditions. The vessel had 1,000 horse-power engines and carried enough fuel for a voyage to America.
She was launched in 1843 and called the "greatest experiment since the Creation." Prince Albert came down by special train to attend the launching. Because she was so large she did not fit through the lock at the entrance to the Floating Harbor. After the lock gates were dismantled she could fit through on a high spring tide.
The Dockyard Museum has displays and photographs of this floating palace. Visitors can even go "underwater," that is, beside her hull in dry dock, for a closer look. Walk on board to explore the cabins, including the captain's cabin, first class cabins and the promenade saloon complete with a window seat where passengers could see the ship's wake behind her.
After 30 years of passenger service, she was converted to a sailing cargo ship in 1882. With three tall masts and square sails, she became a successful windjammer. After years of life, including battling wild seas around Cape Horn, she was abandoned in Sparrow Cove, the Falkland Islands, in 1968. But a rescue operation salvaged and returned her to her home port, Bristol, in 1970
Country House: Thornbury Castle, Thornbury, Near Bristol, South Gloucestershire BS35 1HH, phone: 01454-281182; www.thornburycastle.co.uk. Dating from 1509, when it was built for the Duke of Buckingham, the castle has been revitalized and modernized. King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn slept there in 1535. Queen Mary I also lived there. The historical detail is fascinating, with coats of arms, oriel windows and carved ceilings and paneling.
Three dining rooms, with leaded windows, paintings and fireplaces, offer sumptuous cuisine including traditional dishes and regional specialties. Some of the vegetables and herbs are grown on the grounds and wine comes from their own vineyard as well as other locations. Some of the oldest Tudor gardens in England, the "Privy" and the "Goodly" gardens, surround the castle.
The National Maritime Museum in Falmouth (Discovery Quay, phone: 1326 313388) is open in a new state-of-the-art building. With the best deep-water harbor near the southwestern tip of Britain, Falmouth has always been a jumping off place for ocean ventures of all kinds, from exploring expeditions to round-the-world yacht races. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich chose it as the best site for a new museum to house its extensive boat collection. They are displayed in innovative ways with lots of hands-on experience, movies and models.
Head up to the look-out for a panoramic view of the harbor. You can't miss the two castles, St. Mawes and Pendennis, which date from the 1540s when Henry VIII was king. Look for the custom House quay with its pipe chimney where contraband goods were burnt. Here's the place to watch ships coming to the docks, ferries, fishing boats returning with their catch, dinghy sailors out for a race and windsurfers skimming the waves.
Then take the elevator down to view the underwater section. You will experience shipwrecks, diving with and without breathing appartus, submarines and underwater warfare. It's an underwater experience without getting wet.
In between the harbor overlook and the underwater section you'll find a great wealth of exhibits on every aspect of maritime life. Flotilla is the heart of the museum, displaying boats suspended from the ceiling and at various levels in the tall hall. More than 130 in the boat collection appear in rotation.
You'll also find a set of galleries dealing with the sailing packet ships that carried a cargo and passengers all over the world, the lives of people who lives were connected with the sea from 1757 to the present, rescues along this dangerous, rocky and often stormy coast.
Others galleries let you maneuver and race remote-controlled model sailboats and watch how boats are made and restored.
Country House: Meudon, Mawnan Smith, Near Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 5HT, phone: 01326-250541; www.meudon.co.uk.
This hotel has been run by the same family for more than 40 years. The cuisine includes regional specialties with lobster and crab right from the sea, with game and fresh vegetables from local market gardens. It overlooks exotic sub-tropical gardens, and guests can walk right down to the sea on multiple paths through them.