(With Photo - Noble Warship)

Portsmouth is a shipshape royal navy town

By Judith Morgan
Copley News Service

       PORTSMOUTH, England - It would be easy to miss the small brass plaque embedded in the upper deck of the HMS Victory. In fact, a red-haired youngster was standing astride it, gaping at the high-masted rigging, when I happened to glance down: "Here Nelson fell, 21st of October, 1805."
       That would be Adm. Horatio Nelson, of course, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. Mortally wounded by a marksman from the French ship Redoutable, Nelson was carried below to the surgeon's table on the orlop deck where he died three hours later.
       After scrabbling down ladder-slim stairs and stooping to avoid low beams, I stood in that lantern-lighted corner, near a wooden cask like one in which Nelson's body was preserved in brandy until it could be returned to London for burial in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.
       Portsmouth is a navy town through and through, a base since the 15th century and site of the world's oldest dry dock. Ships bells strike the half-hour. Salt winds snap at banners over waterfront chandleries and pubs.
       The only factory outlet store of London's Gieves & Hawkins (No. 1 Savile Row) recently moved to new quarters on a new dock, carrying on their tradition as tailors to the royal navy. Windows gleam with brass-button uniforms and gold-braid caps and fine woolen socks and blazers. The only fault I could find was that double-breasted, navy-blue blazers were plentiful in sizes 36 and 38 and then jumped to 48 and 52.
       "Remember, Lord Nelson was just five-foot six," a clerk commented, as if to explain the gap.
       HMS Victory, launched in 1765 and restored to museum-like perfection, is the most impressive of a flotilla of noble warships in this handsome harbor. With proud names like Illustrious, Invincible, Warrior (Britain's first iron-clad ship, from Queen Victoria's fleet), Iron Duke and Endurance, they provide a swaggering, open log on England's rule-the-waves past.
       While Nelson's black-and-gold flagship may look like Disney's grandest mock-up, the reality is unerringly bold: uneven oaken planks creak and smell of roiling years at sea; ceilings are lower than OSHA laws would allow. Light filters in dimly to the lower gun decks, in contrast to the window-paned opulence of the dining cabin and sitting room where Nelson briefed and entertained staff.
       There were more than 800 officers and men on board this oldest of commissioned warships. Hammocks were strung from the rafters, three and four deep, except during battles when cannons were moved into every gunhole. Even Nelson's cabins were stripped of furniture and paintings as weapons were rolled into place on port side, starboard and stern.
       The noise was horrendous - thuds, explosions, screams and the shrapnel splintering of massive oak beams and masts. The re-enactment by video in the adjacent Royal Naval Museum is terrifying enough.
       These days, the Victory attracts even more adults than children. Devotees of Patrick O'Brian's rip-snorting nautical novels, set during the Napoleonic wars, are among the most avid pilgrims.
       Grown men crowd around to see how the gunports worked and how the hundred cannons were arranged. Paperbacks in hand, they question the affable corps of guides, who are not college students on summer jobs but retired members of the royal navy and Marines. Stationed throughout the ship, they have no set spiel. And they'll talk as long as you like.
       "Which is a carronade?" asked an O'Brian fan, moving toward the bow on the upper deck. "Right here," a ruddy-cheeked veteran said, patting a fat cannon. "These two weapons were short-range and deadly, shooting 68-pound balls up to three-quarters of a mile."
       He waxed on about the chain shot used to damage spars, and wheeling bar shot to bring down masts.
       "Sure, they had rats on board," another guide told a wide-eyed youngster, pointing to a stuffed rodent poised on a bag of flour. "Sometimes they ate them!"
       Next to the spanking Victory, in a dank and humid preservation hall, looms the ghostly hull of the Mary Rose, a Tudor warship that sank off Portsmouth during a battle with the French in 1545. She remained on the seabed for more than 400 years before being raised and returned to the dockyard where she had been built. Cautious restoration is ongoing.
       But at the end of the day, the ship I liked best was probably the M.S. Caledonian Star, a 1960s vessel of quirky charm, which carried 100 of us out of Portsmouth, past the Isle of Wight and south along the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal, anchoring at small islands and medieval villages and upriver cities.
       On the Caledonian Star - with beds, not hammocks, and a bath in each room - we slept peacefully, dined well and went ashore without having to fight for territory. The toughest task for the shipboard doctor was taping an ankle sprained in a biking mishap. A whimper compared to Lord Nelson.

       The Royal Navy dockyard - called Flagship Portsmouth - is open all year, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except for Christmas Day and Dec. 26. An all-ships admission ticket - valid for seven days - is $18 for adults; $14 for children. Tickets to see just the HMS Victory and Royal Naval Museum are $10.
       The M.S. Caledonian Star, operated by Lindblad Expeditions, will be in exploring Antarctica and South Georgia from December through February, 2001. The ship will return to Western Europe, the Baltic and the Mediterranean for cruises from May through October 2001. For schedules and prices, phone (800) 397-3348 or check the Web site at www.expeditions.com.

      Journalist and author Judith Morgan has written offbeat weekly travel columns since 1975.

Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com.
(c) Copley News Service 



(With Photo - Big Sky Reunion)

College reunion: a sentimental journey

By Judith Morgan
Copley News Service

       MISSOULA, Mont. - Physically, it was not as tough as traveling to Antarctica or Kathmandu. But emotionally it won hands down. This was a college reunion - the first I had ever attended. And more.
       It was an all-graduates celebration at the University of Montana School of Journalism, a lovefest to kick off a campaign for a new building, and the dedication of the A.B. Guthrie Reading Room, named for the Pulitzer-prize winning author and father of my roommate, Helen, better known as "Gus."
       It was a gathering of sorority sisters with whom I'd shared four happy years, a group of girls suddenly turned into women and married to grown men - most of whom I did not know.
       That in itself seemed bizarre: in college, we rarely even dated without getting a slew of opinions.
       We were to meet for dinner at the lodge-style Shadows Keep restaurant, with its sweeping view of the high green valley and the fresh snow atop Mount Lolo. One by one my classmates appeared at the head of the stairs, slowly coming into focus like surprise guests on a quiz show.
       Although conversations rolled unchecked, we did not cover headlines: no crime, no politics, no international conflict, and precious little wagering on the looming World Series.
       There was bountiful laughter. There were flashback tales of family and Montana and the West. ("Do you remember when my Dad took us bow-and-arrow hunting for deer that snowy morning and you were so glad that he missed?")
       It was a dazzling autumn weekend of apple-red maples and golden poplars and languorous weeping willows. Full-skirted cedars framed the old Main Hall and the long, grassy Oval that spreads before it. A book sale drew parka-clad crowds to the entrance of the Maureen and Michael Mansfield Library, named for the former Montana senator and his wife. Alums posed by the bronze Grizzly statue.
       It was also Homecoming, with the crowning of queens and the traditional "Singing on the Steps" and the lighting of the giant "M" high on Mount Sentinel. You could hear the band practicing near the football stadium on Friday afternoon, the notes of "Up with Montana!" bleating across the ripples of the Clark Fork River.
       Before the trip, I was apprehensive. I'd been away too long. What if I didn't recognize old friends? What if they didn't recognize me?
       But we were all pretty much the same, if slightly blurred at the edges, yearbook photos seen through another filter.
       Nor was the campus unfamiliar, even though Brantly Hall, the stalwart, dark-brick building that was my freshman dormitory, is now on the National Historic Register. I could still smell the pizzas, that we used to pull up to the balcony, after hours, in a basket.
       And the Wilma Theater, where I believe I heard Marian Anderson sing, now has a terrific art deco restaurant, Wilma's, in its basement.
       This was my first visit to Big Sky country since the devastating wildfires of summer blackened almost 900,000 acres. Only in a state as big as all outdoors could you lose so much and remain majestic.
       I was reminded of the vast sweep when a wry South African, who chairs the University Foundation's Board of Trustees, introduced the incoming treasurer, a businessman from Sidney in Eastern Montana:
       "John drove here from Sidney," the chairman said, "and I flew in from London ... and I got here first. "

       Contact Travel Montana, 1424 9th Ave., Helena, Mont. 59620; or telephone (800) 847-4868. The Web site is: www.visitmt.com.

      Journalist and author Judith Morgan has written offbeat weekly travel columns since 1975.

Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com.
(c) Copley News Service



(With Photo - Historic Center)

City of London's lively museum

By Judith Morgan
Copley News Service

       If you think Mrs. O'Leary's cow has taken a lot of flack for starting Chicago's fire, imagine the abuse heaped on poor Thomas Farrinor, the king's baker, back in London of 1666.
       They say that Farrinor did not bank his embers properly before going to bed on that windy, September night. The conflagration spread rapidly from Pudding Lane, torching 400 streets, 13,200 houses, 44 of the 51 company halls and 88 of the 97 parish churches, including much of St. Paul's. Four-fifths of the city burned during those four days; 100,000 Londoners were left homeless, many spending the winter in tents.
       But the miracle of London's Great Fire is that only eight people died - a fact I found hard to believe after witnessing the snapping flames of the Great Fire Experience within the Museum of London.
       The museum, which opened in 1976 near St. Paul's Cathedral, is the tale of one vibrant city - a lengthy, lustrous tale, unfurled like a tapestried scroll through 14 galleries.
       You can slip into the shadows of Londinium, the wild west outpost of mud and thatch built by the Romans after they conquered British kings in A.D. 50.
       You can stare through a deep, slanted window at the longest exposed section of the London City Wall, a rampart begun around A.D. 200 which stretched from modern-day Blackfriars in the West to the Tower of London in the East. Emerald grass sparkles at its base; moss clings to the ruddy stones.
       The rich evidence of Roman London - the amber and emerald beads, the intricate mosaic floors, the pomegranate seeds and spice jars, the charred lentils, the statues of centurions, the gold coins and bone combs, the jet dice and slender, musical pipes - was uncovered during archaeological excavations, most recently at 1 Poultry Lane.
       No one quibbles about the provenance of the treasures. Unlike prizes at more heralded museums, they were not shipped home as bounty.
       Londinium did not have the marble streets of some Roman communities; the re-creation shows a gritty, noisy, frontier town of carpenters' shops and potteries and ironsmiths. The Thames River was wider then - more than 1,000 meters at high tide - and the Romans used elm pilings to build a bridge across it. They left a legacy of roadways still in use: Oxford Street, the Strand, Kensington and Edgeware.
       But the Roman link is just part of the capital's history.
       With exquisite lighting and clever twists of path, the museum takes you wandering through the rigors of Saxon London, with its battle-axes, grave slabs and wooden loom weights, and medieval London, marked with pilgrim badges - especially to the shine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury - and a large, iron-clad "common chest," which held city valuables and required six keys, entrusted to six men, to open.
       By the time I reached the late-15th century church door that leads into Tudor London, I had lost all sense of time, past or present. The music of Henry's court seemed positively perky, the costumes and palaces familiar. A 17th century rocking horse made me smile, as did an entire paneled room with four-poster bed and carved chests of bog oak and holly. Carved desks and street signs seemed homelike. Pottery coronation mugs looked like finds on "Antiques Roadshow."
       Then the twin terrors struck: the Great Plague which, at its peak in 1665, topped 7,000 deaths a week and doomed a quarter of the London population, and the next year, the Great Fire. Blackened, leather firemen's helmets and a small bucket are especially poignant.
       What else do I remember from the dream-like day at the museum? The gruesome gates of Newgate Prison, the wooden dolls of Queen Victoria, the hansom cabs that could have carried Sherlock Holmes, the sparkling 19th century shop-fronts, the gilded 1928 elevator doors from Selfridge's department store, the early days of London theater and BBC radio and television, the corrugated tube shelters in which Londoners took refuge from the Blitz during World War II.
       But what is the prime draw?
       "Our most famous exhibit is the Lord Mayor's gilded coach from the 1750s," a guide said. "Too bad you had to miss it, but once a year they take it out for the Lord Mayor's show."
       I plotted my return over a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake at the museum cafe. Could it have been a Farrinor recipe?

       In the maze of old London and new, the Museum of London is hard to locate, but easy to get to. The entrance, where Aldersgate meets London Wall, is midway between the tube stations of St. Paul's and Barbican. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5:30 p.m. Closed Dec. 24-26 and Jan. 1. Admission is $7.50 for adults (good for a year) and $4.50 for seniors. The telephone is 020 7600 3699. The High Street Londinium exhibit closes Jan. 28, although the excavated Roman treasures are on permanent display. The Web site is www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

      Journalist and author Judith Morgan has written offbeat weekly travel columns since 1975.

Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com.
(c) Copley News Service


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