Yesterday was an in-town day and today we are going further afield. We are starting in leisurely fashion because we cannot use the network card for cheap train tickets until 10:30 on a weekday. This gives us time to have breakfast at Giraffe in Essex Road which currently has a £5 breakfast offer.
After breakfast we crossed the road to the bus stop and took the 341 to Waterloo station. So far, it is a bright sunny day with an early morning chill which will, I hope, lift as the day proceeds.
We usually go on our out-of-town jaunts at weekends and it was interesting to notice the differences between weekend London and London in the week. There was more traffic in the streets, so that the bus made slower progress, but on the other hand, there were not the huge crowds at the station that sometimes make weekend travel uncomfortable. (We had of course missed the rush hour.)
We bought day return tickets to Portsmouth and left aboard the 10:45. As we roll south, the sky is blue, only lightly streaked with cloud, and the strong sunshine promises a warm day. Our train terminates at Portsmouth & Southsea, not at Portsmouth Harbour, as is more usual, but that suits us for what we plan to do.
The first thing we have in mind is lunch and so we search for somewhere suitable, i.e. cheap but not tacky. Fagins (sic) Cafe fills the bill with omelette and chips, served by an amiable and friendly waitress.
After lunch, we started walking towards our next goal. Even here, three miles away as the crow flies, the Spinnaker Tower was clearly visible. It is tempting to call the Spinnaker “Portsmouth’s Eiffel Tower” though it is only just over half the height of its French rival (170m as opposed to Eiffel’s 300.5m).
Along the way I was interested to discover this cattle trough (“collecting” these troughs has become something of a hobby of mine). This one was presented, not by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association for once, but by the RSPCA. The date is a little hard to read but I think it is 1881, or possibly 1891 – see the dedication plate below.
An interesting feature of this trough is that the maker’s name is given: A. Dench. As the trough, including the round-topped wheel fenders, so closely resembles the typical trough donated by the Association, I wonder whether Mr Dench supplied all of them, though he could just have been working to a supplied pattern here, I suppose.
The trough stands at the beginning of a road called Old Commercial Road, part of which, as is shown by a faded old street sign, was previously known as Mile End Terrace. Dickens fans will know that the house that was once number 1 Mile End Terrace is the birthplace of Charles Dickens, today a museum owned and run by Portsmouth Council. This was our goal.
The Dickens family lived here only a short while before moving on. Very few items in the house are possessions of Dickens or his family. There is a bookcase and the couch on which the author died at Gads Hill Place. The rest are articles that were around at the time and were like those the Dickens family would have owned. Soft furnishings have been made to contemporary designs. The house thus gives an impression of what it might have looked like around the time of Dickens’s birth and no more than that can be expected at this late date.
Despite the almost complete lack of genuine Dickensiana, photography is not allowed so I cannot show you the interior.
The above photo shows Old Commercial Road today from near Dickens’s birthplace. Would John Dickens and his wife still recognize it? Probably not, as it will have changed over the decades. For example, the foundation stone of the Methodist chapel on the right was laid in 1884, long ago by our standards but 33 years after the death of John Dickens and 14 after the demise of the famous author (1870).
Looking back from the Commercial Road end, we see what appear to be old tram lines (the rail on the extreme right has disappeared, perhaps removed when that part of the road was resurfaced). I am guessing that this was a terminus and that the trams never entered Mile End Terrace.
From Dickens’s house, we walked to another museum, the main Portsmouth Museum. Once an army barracks, the museum building has turrets like a castle and is rather striking in design. It is set in pleasant gardens where one can sit and enjoy refreshments bought in the museum cafe. Entry is free but, again, photography is not allowed.
There were two exhibitions here. The first, A Study in Sherlock, subtitled Uncovering the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, gathers together a substantial collection of memorabilia related to Conan Doyle’s famous fictional character. There is also a repeating video showing in episodic form the mystery The Doctor of Portsmouth, and dotted about are clue cards, so that you can play the sleuth between episodes.
The second exhibition is one on women’s clothing entitled Little Black Dress. We didn’t visit this (neither of us wear little black dresses) but spent time on the Sherlock displays and the picture gallery that features works both on the local area and by local artists.
From the museum we took a bus to the sea front and spent some time examining and photographing the war memorial. This is huge and consists not only of a tall spire but also of a grand enclosed court, like those in funerary complexes in Ancient Egypt.
Stationed around the court are four slightly larger than life-size sculpted figures of service personnel, representing those killed in the wars. They are very striking and possess a mythic quality, suitable to the symbolic role that they play. They are human but other-worldly at the same time. The emphasis on ships and sailors reminds us that Portsmouth is an historic naval town.
As time was getting on, we set out towards the centre, looking for somewhere to have dinner. On the way we passed this impressive structure, built in 1861 as a private house, and later turned into a hotel. The Web site provides a brief history of what is now the Queen’s Hotel. Imagine having this as your own house!
We eventually settled on an Indian restaurant, The Jewel in the Crown, that had a vegetarian thali on the menu. As a bonus they also served lassi. The meal was a little disappointing, though, as the food was bland and unexciting. We were fed but we will not return.
We took a bus to the curiously named Hard, once called the Common Hard. This is a road that runs along the seafront near the Historic Dockyard. Here you can see across the water to Gosport (where Tigger was born), watch the ferries coming and going, and admire HMS Warrior, permanently moored here as a museum ship.
There are good views of the Spinnaker from here, of course, and of the waterside pubs.
There are plenty of these in what is, after all, an old navy town where there was good money to be made from thirsty sailors and dock workers. There are stories too of landlords betraying their drunken customers to the press gangs.
A flock of black-headed gulls were swooping, calling, perching and squabbling as they are wont to do. They are skilful fliers and I love to watch them. I tried to photograph them which was difficult as they are suspicious of people and in the low light, fast shutter speeds were not available.
Every time the gull looked away, I took a step forward, getting closer and closer. Eventually, he spotted me, of course, and gave me the hard stare before flying away.
My last photos in the failing light were of this sculpture commemorating the ‘mudlarks’, children of poor families who used to scramble and dive in the mud under the bridge to the station and to the Gosport ferry for coins thrown down for them by passers-by. The practice was finally brought to an end only in the 1970s with the building of the new bus terminal.
We had spent the day in Portsmouth but had seen only part of it. The old naval town has so much to offer that you need several visits or a longer stay. You could spend the whole day in the Historic Dockyard looking at the exhibitions and visiting HMS Victory and HMS Warrior; or enjoy the shops and restaurants at Gunwharf Quay (where the Spinnaker is sited) and while there watch the Isle of Wight ferry dock in an inch-perfect manoeuvre despite a nasty turn to enter the mooring; or explore the town and visit its museums, as we did this time. It is a town to return to again and again.