It's now definitely more than 500 years ago today since Henry VIII became King of England. To round off a celebratory week, I took a walk along Portsmouth seafront to the place where Henry was standing when his beloved Mary Rose sank. Off Southsea.
It's far from the prettiest castle in England. Tudor castles were never pretty, merely functional, and Southsea's a good example. No turrets, no crenellations, just concentric geometric walls and a squatblockykeep in the middle. The castle was built on Henry's orders on the southernmost tip of Portsea Island to repel approaching French warships. It's one of many coastal defences around the Solent, built in the 1540s to protect Portsmouth Harbour from potential attack, although its main claim to fame is as a one-off royal viewing platform.
To follow in Henry's bloated steps, enter the castle through the archway to the left of the lighthouse on Southsea Common, between the Aquarium and the Leisure Pool. You'll be glared at if you don't pop into the shop to buy a ticket, and then there's a choice of three main areas for exploration. You might expect the battlements to be the best option, and they're certainly extensive enough for a good wander, but the outer walls are thick and tall enough to restrict any decent views. A better bet is to follow the sign "to the tunnels", which'll take you on a long trek beneath the surrounding footpaths along a series of dark winding brick passages. Seven year old girls find the whole experience rather scary, from what I saw, but you're made of sterner stuff so you'll have no trouble at all.
Which leaves the central keep to explore. Up the stone steps into a suite of chambers on two levels where an exhibition about the history of the castle awaits. It's a mundane castly tale, with one brief tragic moment upon the national stage, after which the story is more about preparation than action. But there are a few historical pictures and objects to see, plus a video nobody sits and watches (because nobody ever sits and watches videos in museums, not all the way through). And finally up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof (so narrow that the council have installed a push-button traffic light system top and bottom). At last a decent panorama over the Solent, past an ever-chugging stream of boats and ferries, towards the murky Isle of Wight in the near distance. And two miles off shore, somewhere out there beneath the sea, the spot where Henry's beloved Mary Rose sank to the sea bed while he watched. But I do wonder how the fat bloke ever got up the stairs.
Visiting » Entrance to Southsea Castle costs £3.50 (or, if you've got a Portsmouth library card, this summer it's free). I bet you wish you had a Portsmouth Library card. » Southsea Castle's a couple of miles along the coast from the Historic Dockyard and Spinnaker Tower. You'll likely be distracted along the way by the amusement park on Clarence Pier, and the Blue Reef Aquarium, and maybe the D-Day Museum on Southsea Common. Throw in some terribly pleasant middle class shops, and the Royal Marines Museum, and yet another pier, and there's probably enough in Southsea alone to keep you occupied for a day. I see now how my brother managed to spend three years living here. » And that's still only some of what Portsmouth has to offer. Oh yes. Well worth a weekend if you ever have the time.