Tuesday, 23 August 2016

HMS Trincomalee, the 200 year old fighting ship

The summer holiday this year was supposed to be touring Scotland, but first we made a little detour and discovered an absolute gem of a naval museum. Those of us who write historical fiction need to know something about the transport of the time, and this was a wonderful evocation of a major part of that transport system.

Hartlepool may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a day trip, but just by chance we discovered that it has a fascinating naval museum built around HMS Trincomalee, Britain's oldest historic fighting ship still afloat .

She was built in Bombay in 1817 and was being used as a training ship as late as the 1980s. She has since had extensive refurbishment and is now owned and maintained by a trust, and is part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, although it is planned that she remains the focal point of Harlepool's "Maritime Experience".

And what an experience! Even as we arrived we could see the masts of the ship towering over the houses that surround the quay. Forget the cars - imagine yourself a young man, fresh from the country where the tallest structure you have ever seen is a windmill, then suddenly you climb off the coach, look up and see these beautiful masts rising to the sky above the houses......
And once you are inside the "experience", you can see these houses for that they are, part of the recreation of a busy quayside as it might have been seen by the first crews of the HMS

Trincomalee .

Once on board the ship itself, visitors are free to wander round with access to (almost) all areas.

One gets the feeling that the ship is ready and waiting for action.
The luxurious captain's cabin, a self contained living space
The officers' quarters - the little doors with slatted "windows" lead to small bedrooms
Of course, there's not a lot of space, and one gets a good idea of what it must have been like for the sailors to live, work, eat and sleep in these cramped conditions.

hammocks strung up..


Cook working up a sweat
...& fresh food stored wherever possible (don't worry - the goat's not real...)

The lower one goes in the ship, the lower the ceilings (and there are a lot of wooden beams, so one needs to be careful.)  Children visiting the ship will love being able to run around like powder monkeys on the lower decks while grown-ups have to bend almost double to avoid banging their heads. There are nooks and crannies to be explored, very little is off limits and I just loved it!

It was wonderful to see these belaying pins being used as they should be - when my heroine in Wicked Captain Wayward Wife finds herself in a sticky situation she uses one of these to batter her assailant. Here you can see they would make a perfect cudgel - in fiction only, of course!

Wandering around the quay there are lots of shops to be explored, including the swordsmiths and the gunmakers, where a fashionable gentleman and an officer are enjoying themselves inspecting the gunsmith's wares – including a fine set of duelling pistols. Another young man is in the tailors, getting a new uniform.
inside the swordmakers...

the swordsmiths' window. Choose your weapon!

Or perhaps Sir would prefer duelling pistols?

Being fitted for a new uniform

"Shopping can be so tedious!"
the tailors also caters for ladies.....

The amount of detail packed into each of the shops and houses is extensive, I could have spent a week there and not seen and read everything. The detail on the shop fronts, too, was fascinating, and it really brought the place alive for me.

There is even a grand house, where the master is resting prior to going back to sea (although with a gouty foot I wonder if he will be able to make it on board unaided). In another room his children play while the maids pack his trunk to the accompaniment of the mistress's sobs, for she has taken to her bed in distress at the thought of hubby going away again.

Health & Safety is a bit lax!
On the quay itself there is a ferocious crocodile in a crate, but whether he is being shipped in or out of the dock I don't know.

A sneaky peak into the printers shows the printers boy hanging up pages to dry, and in the alehouse one can see the sailors relaxing. You can also hear first-hand the stories of men who were press-ganged, learn about the sailor's life (and the captain's, too), discover how the ship's architects designed the warships, and even see the types of pests that ships and sailors have to contend with (tarantula, anyone?)

My favourite shop has to be the chandlers, which was packed to the rafters with every sort of useful item (I am sure some of us can remember this kind of hardware shop, where you could buy everything from a box of matches to a tin bath).  While you wander around, marvelling at it all, the chandler is berating his assistant, who is somewhere upstairs checking the stock.

I was also  intrigued by Madame Volland's establishment, supplying wax figures and so much more.

Unfortunately it seems that Madame is too exclusive to open her doors to the 21st century traveller, so all we have is her fascinating window with its anatomical body sections and a fine selection of spare eyes and teeth, for any sailors who should be unfortunate enough to lose their own.

"Eye, eye, Cap'n" (sorry!)

We spent the day at this museum, enjoying the exhibits, taking the Fighting Ships Tour, being startled by the noise of the cannon and musket demonstration and generally soaking up the ambience of this beautiful and imaginative re-created dockland. And to think it is all in the name of research, because it has inspired so many ideas andI just can't wait to use them!
You can find out lots more detail about the HMS Trincomalee here, but I would certainly recommend a visit , if ever you are in the area.

I wouldn't be surprised if my next book should have quite a sea-faring flavour......
Melinda Hammond / Sarah Mallory

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

WATERLOO 2015 - One author's experience of the bicentenary, from 18th – 21st June 2015

Artillery - where is Lord Randall?
One would think, having made a battlefield tour years ago and then going over it all again when I wrote A LADY FOR LORD RANDALL, I would have had enough of Waterloo, but I could not miss the chance to be there for the recent Bicentenary. 

I joined a small party to travel to Waterloo for the commemoration events taking place to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle. It was a convivial group, about 28 of us; some from England, the rest
Me and the Scots Greys....
from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. Our party also included at least seven descendants of people who had served at Waterloo, so we all had a strong interest in history and the battle. With estimates that a quarter of a million visitors were expected to descend on the area, we were quite prepared for crowds and disruption (or "risques de perturbations" as one road-sign advised us). One shock was to find that the farm of Mont St Jean (which had been a military hospital during the battle) had been decorated with a large plastic beer-bottle on the roof - Waterloo beer specially brewed for the occasion!  A little more tasteful was the huge image of the Charge of the Scots Greys fixed over the doors!


Happy to pose....

In fact, although the crowds on the Saturday were enormous, most of the time we managed to get everywhere and do everything we wanted without too much queuing or delay. Or perhaps we were just well-organised!

We arrived on the Thursday, when the French and Allied bivouacs were already teeming with soldiers.  It really was like stepping back in time.  For the first hour or so it was "Ooh look at that fantastic outfit/uniform/dress," or "More soldiers, quick, take a photo!" but it was impossible to keep up and it wasn't long before we felt it was quite normal to be surrounded by colourfully dressed people. There were stalls selling everything from stamps and mugs to wines and even Napoleon's perfume! Also period dress, anything from Regency bonnets to full dress uniforms.
Farthingale's Historical Hats

Only the uniforms are for sale, madam.


Reports say there were up to 6,000 re-enactors, 300 horses and 100 cannon assembled for the battle, and there were also many more enthusiasts who had come as spectators and were happy to wander around in their Regency outfits. 

Practising for the battle

The re-enactors came from all over the world, the uniforms were superb and they were all so keen to show them off. The troops were split into two camps, the Allied Bivouacs gathered around Hougoumont, and the French Bivouacs a little further down the road, near Napoleon's last headquarters at Le Caillou.

Officers living in style

Quarters for ordinary soldiers & their wives

Truly international and a family affair

Just walking through the camps was hugely exciting, the air smelled of woodsmoke from the camp fires, soldiers paraded, marched or stood around in groups chatting. 

Here come the band!

"just in case the Prince of Orange should be wounded..."

 In one area we saw Hanoverian soldiers tying wooden poles to a door to make the stretcher for carrying the wounded Prince of Orange from the field (very prescient of them) while in quiet spaces the cavalry were tending to their horses.  As we gazed out over the sea of tents I was reminded of Lydia Bennett's delight at going to Brighton where there was a whole camp full of soldiers. Now I know how she felt!

"A whole camp full of soldiers!"

We visited Hougoumont and saw the new British memorial, officially unveiled by Prince Charles on the 18th June.  When we were there on the Friday (19th) the artillery were practising, so as we walked around the courtyard there was the ominous sound of gunfire – very atmospheric.
The walls of Hougoumont - a peaceful encounter

The new British memorial at Hougoumont
The re-enactments took place over two nights and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. The corn had
Skirmishers on the field
deliberately been left growing and although it was waist high, rather than the six foot crop we are told was there at the time of the actual battle, it did give a good idea of what the soldiers would have faced and provided a wonderful image when a single rider galloped across the field, leaving a shimmering wave of moving corn in his wake.

British Cavalry parading past the grandstands

Before the action started Napoleon and his entourage rode past the stands (we were not surprised that he received more cheers than boos). On the second night the Allied PR team had clearly decided they were losing the publicity battle so Wellington was persuaded to make a similar tour, waving his hat to the crowds and when he reached our stand he even made his horse rear dramatically, to huge cheers from the crowd. I suspect the Duke was not at all impressed with having to pander to the hoi polloi in such a way, but there, that's democracy for you!

The Duke - huzzah!

The spectator seating and standing areas were arranged around two sides of a small part of the original battlefield – the site of D'Erlon's attack against the Allied centre. One needed binoculars to see the action on the far side of the field, and unfortunately some in the southern-most seats had a very poor view because of the rise in the ground, but fortunately we had a good view of the battle – until the cannon started firing and everything was enveloped in smoke.

Hougoumont re-enactment

Cavalry in the corn
If anyone was hoping to learn about the battle in detail from the evening re-enactments then they were probably disappointed, but for an idea of the chaos, smoke, confusion and noise of early 19th century warfare, it was brilliant. The organisers had arranged for models of Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Pancenoit to be built on the battlefield and various actions took place around these structures . I know some of the re-enactors were disappointed that the spectators would not see much, given the size of the battlefield and the smoke from the guns, but I thought it all added to the drama of the occasion and helped one to imagine just how it must have been on the day. On more than one occasion we were asking each other what on earth was going on, and it can't have been much different for the men and officers back in 1815, the smoke was too thick to make out uniforms and whole divisions could be hidden from view.  During the re-enactment, the number of troops engaged in fighting around the model of Hougoumont gave some idea of the hard-fought original battle, where 3,000 Allied soldiers kept 13,000 of Napoleon's troops at bay. At times the action here was a little too enthusiastic, and the plywood walls collapsed!
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience – we saw skirmishers and the first troops on the field literally wading through the waist-high corn, we watched in awe as a seemingly never-ending column of men and horses moved across the skyline to take up their positions, we heard the cheers, the bugle-calls and drums.  Through the smoke we saw soldiers form square before a cavalry attack and watched the orange flash moving across a line of infantrymen as they fired a volley. The 300 horses taking part looked magnificent although there were a few worrying moments when we saw a couple of riderless horses galloping off the field – clearly they did not like the gunfire.  For me one of the most surprising experiences of the re-enactment was before the action had begun, when a party of officers galloped past. I expected the ground to shake with the thunder of hooves, but instead what I was most aware of was the hiss of the corn hitting the riders' boots and stirrups (look out for that in future books!).  Another surprise was how resilient the corn proved. In the area near our grandstand, where there were small skirmishes and some artillery action, the corn was almost intact even after the two nights, although I imagine where the main action took place, including the marching columns of the Imperial Guard and the cavalry charges, the corn would have been flattened.  We didn’t have the mud that the original soldiers experienced, either, but no one complained about that!
If you are wondering why I haven't many pictures of the battle....

Of course, it was on a much smaller scale than the real battle – this was a mere 5,000 troops putting on a show for two hours a night, whereas in the real battle over 100,000 men fought for over ten hours and left more than 40,000 dead and wounded. The smoke from just this relatively small number of guns threw a misty pall over us as we made our way back along the road to find our coach, and it was easy to imagine just how thick and black the smoke from  must have been in 1815.
For me, the re-enactments were fantastic, but they were only part of the whole experience. It was wonderful to be able to spend hours walking amongst the tents, to see the soldiers and their camp followers going about their daily routines. It was living history. 

On the Sunday morning we went to a corner of the field where Adams's Brigade had been stationed. There we listened to the Waterloo descendants amongst our party telling us about their ancestors and lay a wreath. For me it added considerably to the moment that while we were listening to the readings behind us some of the re-enactors were preparing to leave, so we had marching feet and the clatter of a gun carriage being moved, and as we were about to leave some of the soldiers began marching away.

A fitting ending to a fabulous few days.
Was this real, or had I gone back in time?

There are any number of sites online with films and photos of the re-enactment, so do please search them out for more details - this is just a quick and very personal overview, but I hope it will give you some flavour of the event.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory