Light the corners of my mind.
Misty watercolour memories
Of the way we were.
When we woke up this morning and went out onto our balcony, I felt all funny inside as we watched the Borealis gliding into her berth in Portsmouth, Hampshire. I could see the Spinnaker Tower in the near distance and the masts of an old sailing ship (HMS Warrior) as well as the chalky face of the backdrop formed by Portsdown Hill. It was a little bit of excitement mixed with a lot of nostalgia, as I was born and bred in Portsmouth and lived there until the long, hot summer of 1976, when my family moved to Durham.
We went up to the Lido restaurant and selected a seat near the window, so I could continue to look out. We could see the traffic speeding by on the M27 (which was only just starting to be built in 1976) and we could also see a large building with the words “HM Naval Base Portsmouth” proclaimed in large letters.
Once we were fed and watered, we got ourselves ready to disembark for this morning’s half-day tour. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have booked an excursion as I would have preferred to spend the time visiting all my regular old haunts, but with the Covid rules, etc. etc. (you know the rest). Nonetheless an organised tour was better than no tour at all, and we’d chosen the ‘Panoramic Portsmouth’ excursion.
We boarded the coach and off we went through the unfamiliar (but strangely familiar) streets. Unfamiliar because an awful lot of changes had happened in Portsmouth since I’d left (and even in the times I’d visited since, namely 1990 and 2003). But, happily, I could see the many things that hadn’t changed as well, and I found myself anticipating the names of pubs and streetnames before we arrived at them. As we passed the Marriott Hotel I remarked to Trevor, “there used to be a pub here called The Harbour Lights” – it was still there! The rest of the area surrounding the pub had been built up with a retail/business park, one of those soulless places that you can find everywhere that includes Costa Coffee, KFC etc.
As the bus passed the business park and the sea view opened out, my heart soared at the dearly-familiar sight of Portchester Castle and its Roman fortified walls; the top of St. Mary’s Church was just visible. The church is situated within the grounds of the castle, and a long path stretches through the grounds down to a portcullis which opens directly onto the foreshore. We lived in Portchester from 1970-1976 and many a school holiday was spent, with my sister and my school friends, playing in the castle grounds, walking along the towpath and swimming in the sea. I could barely take my eyes of it!
As the bus continued on its way, we visited more familiar territory. We passed Castle Street (the main street in Portchester) and the old Victorian building which used to be my old junior school – Castle County Junior School. The building is now Castle Street Centre, an adult day care centre, but it is a listed building so they are not allowed to change the structure.
Today, we were going to start with a visit to Portsdown Hill, a chalk-soiled hill which overlooks the whole of Portsmouth Harbour and dominates the skyline. As we continued along the road and my journey down Memory Lane, we turned off just before Cams Hill School (which used to be Fareham Grammar School for Girls when I started there in 1972) and started our climb.
We arrived at the top where there are a number of historic old forts and lookouts; Portsdown Hill provided a great location and vantage point for the defence of Portsmouth; on a clear day it’s possible to see for 23 miles. However, when the bus parked up at Fort Nelson and we eagerly went to look at the view we were unable to see very much due to all the bushes and trees, in full leaf, which prevented us getting any great photos.
We were able to go and look at a massive-looking cannon thing called Mallet’s Mortar. It was apparently built for the Crimean War but never actually fired a shot in anger. The cannon balls, in a couple of piles nearby, looked HUGE. 🙂
Later on, we continued on to Fort Southwick, which I remember well from my childhood (and not in the most positive way). My disciplinarian father often used to march my sister and me from our home in Castle Street to the top of the hill, along Portsdown Road to Fort Southwick, a journey of more than two miles each way (a long way for an 12 year old and a 10 year old). All I remember is my legs absolutely killing me on the long pull up the hill and wanting to keep stopping for a rest, while my father urged us to look sharp and keep up. 😦
Back down the hill again the bus made its way through the busy streets of Fratton, our guide pointing out the floodlights of Fratton Park, home of Portsmouth Football Club. I knew this area; I was only born about a mile from Fratton Park, in Copnor. There were fewer changes in this part of town than there were along the seafront near Portchester.
Our next destination was to the main seafront of Southsea. This is where all the tourists come to stay when they visit Pompey; it’s a typical English seaside resort with a wide shingle beach, yacht club, and a couple of piers with funfairs and amusement arcades, South Parade Pier and Clarence Pier. I remembered them well; it was a real treat when we were kids to come here and go to the fairground, I have vivid memories of Billy Manning’s fair at Clarence Pier and the terror of riding on the ‘Mad Mouse’ rollercoaster. 🙂
Our next stop was to Southsea Castle, an artillery fort originally constructed by Henry VIII, and from where he watched as the Mary Rose sank off Spithead. We were given 15 minutes for a photo (and toilet!) stop, so we went out into the bright sunshine and walked over the grass towards the sea, watching the little boats and also the Hovercraft carrying its passengers from Southsea across to the Isle of Wight and back again. The hovercraft service in Portsmouth is the only scheduled hovercraft service in Britain, and it only takes 10 minutes to cross from Southsea to Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. I can also remember this from my childhood; mainly the noise; it’s a short crossing but you can hardly hear yourself think during that time. It certainly is a fascinating means of travel to watch though; being an amphibious vehicle it comes right up onto the beach to disembark its passengers, before once again lifting up on its cushion of air and speeding across the water. 🙂
While we were walking around, we decided to do the seasidey thing and buy an ice-cream each. I chose a salted caramel and Trevor had a mint choc chip. They weren’t cheap – £3.50 each. We had to eat them fairly quickly as they were apt to melt quickly in the warm air. A little birdy watched me with his beady black eyes as he hopped about on the grass; I kept throwing him small pieces of my cone and he would eat them quickly before looking up at me, his head cocked to one side, hoping for more. 🙂
Back on the coach again our next stop was to old Portsmouth, and this really brought back memories for me. Half the time I wasn’t even listening to the guide, I was lost in my own reminiscing. We visited The Hard, where you will find Portsmouth Harbour railway station as well as the main coach station; The Hard leads onto Queen Street where the main Royal Navy dockyard is situated, as well as Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The bus continued down Queen Street and I pointed out the Royal Maritime Club to Trevor, which is a hotel today, but used to be the Royal Sailors’ Home Club when I lived here. In fact, in 1970 our family lived in the Sailors’ Home Club for three weeks while we were waiting to move from Copnor to Portchester; our house was a brand new build and wasn’t quite finished by the time the sale of the old house was completed.
The bus parked up in a side-street and we got out to explore for 20 minutes. We went along the street and I got some great photos of the Spinnaker Tower (built on the site of the former Tricorn Centre) as well as some of the beach and pier. As I stood there and breathed in a huge lungful of the salty air tinged with the evocative scent of seaweed and fish, I felt such a massive rush of nostalgia. 60 years ago, the very first breath I ever drew had the smell of the briny to it; maybe that’s why I have such an affinity with the sea and all things nautical; I was born by the sea, and I’ve already specified that when I depart this earth I would like my ashes sprinkling at sea.
But just in case you’re wondering why a Durham girl (who is so proud to live in Durham) should have been born so far away in Pompey, here’s a very brief biography. My father was from Durham and my mother was from Belfast, and they met when they were both based in Portsmouth in the late 1950s whilst serving in the Navy (or the WRNS as it was then, in my mother’s case). They married in 1960 and settled down in Portsmouth, and exactly one year, one month and one day later along came little me. 🙂
When I was 15, in 1976, my father retired from the Royal Navy after 25 years’ service, and the family moved to Durham, my father’s birthplace, and where I’ve lived ever since. So while I count myself as a Northerer, I still have a strong affection for Portsmouth.
Strangely enough, as we were making our way back to the coach, we passed an artists’ studio and shop called Hotwalls; outside of which was a rack featuring postcards and greetings card reproducing the work of Louise Braithwaite, who paints happy crowded scenes in well-known cities and locations among other things. One card on the rack leapt right out at us; it was a scene of Durham City, featuring the Castle, Cathedral, Elvet Bridge and Brown’s Boathouse. We couldn’t believe it! It was serendipity; and I had to buy the card. Fancy coming all the way to Portsmouth to buy a card featuring Durham! As I have such a strong connection to both cities, how could I resist? 🙂
By this time, we had to be back on the coach for our return journey to the Borealis. What an incredible day it had been (for me, at least). It made me realise that it had been far too long since we’d last visited, 18 years in fact. We will have to make a point of coming back for a much longer stay, when we can explore where we want, when we want. I kept looking at Trevor with a soppy look on my face saying “Awww…. Pompey”. 🙂
We got back on board around 12.30pm, just in nice time for lunch, which we enjoyed sitting up at the pool deck, listening to the resident band Funky Blue, and enjoying a freezing cold beer. Then we returned to 6176, sat out on the balcony for a while, then enjoyed a 30 minute power nap.
Then we just spent the afternoon pottering around the ship as you do; greeting and chatting with people we knew and making new friends with people we didn’t. Sometimes just enjoying not doing very much at all is a pleasant way to pass the time. 🙂
Later on I took a long, refreshing shower and washed and blow-dried my hair before getting ready for dinner at 6.15pm. We always choose first sitting as it gives our dinner time to “get down”. In the past when we’ve been on the 8.30pm sitting it can sometimes be half past 10 before you leave the restaurant which, to my mind, doesn’t give ample time for you to digest your meal before bed time.
Table #97 only had four of us tonight; George, Dorothy, Trevor and me, as Brian and Alison had booked to eat in the “Colours and Tastes” Asian cuisine restaurant tonight. Nonetheless we passed a pleasant meal with interesting and amusing conversation and excellent food and drink.
The featured entertainment in the Neptune Lounge tonight was the Scottish singer and musician Gordon Cree; he was excellent again and this time added the grand piano to his mastery of musical intruments. What a talented bloke; he could play, he could sing and he threw in bits of comedy as well. He ended up inviting his ‘special guest’ singer onto the stage, an excellent mezzo-soprano called Cheryl Forbes. It was only after her second song, when Gordon was thanking her, that he told us she was his wife! Wow – such a fantastically musical couple. I must say that the entertainment on board the Borealis has been excellent so far.
When we went along to the Morning Light Pub for the quiz afterwards and bagged a table for four so that Sid and Carol could join us, there was no sign of them. As the lounge filled up, people kept asking “are these seats taken” and we kept saying yes, but as 10 o’clock approached and there was still no sign of them, we had to give the seats up to a couple of ladies who subsequently joined our quiz team. A few minutes later, here comes Sid and Carol looking for us, and looking for a seat. Typical. The two new brains on our team didn’t make any difference though; we still didn’t win!
After our exciting day today, a massive dinner and several of the all-inclusive cocktails, we felt too tired to go up to the Crow’s Nest tonight, and we returned to 6176 around 11.30pm. Going out on the balcony, we saw that the Borealis had travelled 12 nautical miles to her anchorage off Cowes, Isle of Wight, and the night was quiet and still as we watched the distant lights twinkling.
Once again we slept very well.