Two Portsmouths

Adrienne Berg  

Berth of the Royal Navy: Portsmouth, UK

Reports of Portsmouth, the cradle of Britain’s maritime lineage, include words like seedy, shady, and sketchy—hardly images to inspire a visit.  A primary target, the city suffered extensive bombing and was rebuilt cheap and ugly after World War II.  But in the Portsmouth, I imagine, David Copperfield dashes through the streets, and Captain Wentworth strides the ramparts, and Fanny Price’s cramped abode fronts the lane, and Jack Aubrey’s HMS Sophie sets sail from the harbor. Close ties with fictional characters make their memories seem like my own. The bus driver said, “Don’t go there.” Yet in my mind, “the Channel” and “the Royal Navy” and “sea air” and “Admiral Nelson” echoed ceaselessly. A visit to the Historic Dockyard feels like a pilgrimage.

Brick storehouses and workshops that housed rope-making works, shipwrights’ facilities, and the Paymaster’s Quarters now host tearooms, shops, and museum exhibits, displaying an astonishing wealth of artifacts. Garish 18th-century figureheads along a balcony encircle the royal barge that Charles II lent for Nelson’s burial procession. The rigged masts of the first ironclad ship, the 1860 HMS Warrior, rise above its central smokestacks, embodying the technological shift between the days of sail and of steam. The pride of the navy lay ahead, in dry dock and under repair. Her masts were down, and a tarpaulin concealed her main deck. The HMS Victory towered above the neighboring structures, awesome even in undress. Her hull, exposed to the keel, and her decks, impress with gravitas and immensity.

Following the prescribed route, we go belowdecks, into the hull, the orlop, the surgery, the galley, climbing ladder-like steps to the gundeck, the main deck, and the forecastle. We peer into hammocks, count guns, imagine a scene of battle. Eight hundred manned this vessel, which for all its vastness seems dark, cramped, and smelly with only dozens of tourists aboard. The officers’ quarters appear markedly more comfortable, with windows and carpets and crystal and room to stand. 

Britain’s greatest hero, Lord Admiral Nelson, lived and died here. A gap cut into the construction tarp allows a view of the deck, the very spot, on which he breathed his last. With battle boiling around, he died, and the precise location of his famous demise is memorialized with a brass plaque. A ship’s carpenter secures the planking with a cordless electric drill.

The Dockyard closes at six. We walk the ramparts of the harbour, look at the moat and the Channel. We stop at the Spice Inn, where Nelson drank his last pint of English ale on English soil. We observe the British Navy alive and well, with destroyers and carriers under construction or repair, or decommissioned, at docks all around the harbour. Cadets live aboard a retired warship.  Ferries and tugs cruise to and fro. Delinquents loiter on the strand. The cold water glitters and locals jump in. Bells in the cathedral tower ring and ring.

An aura of history and excitement and wonder at what man can do perhaps lent an undeserved romance to the salt and grit of a working harbor. The shadows of heroes, the relics of everyman, the symbolic vestiges of a collapsed empire silently resonate along the quayside. Some whiff of enchantment must waft off the sea—the cobbled streets and stone ramparts glimmer with a patina of honor and glory. Hard labor and loyalty lend a sheen to the gates and walls. The spicy breath of the harbor hints unmistakably of adventure, and drama, and long salty tales. Beneath the ramparts, shadows gather for mischief or revelry, and the tide turns.

Sandbar at the Edge of the World: Portsmouth Island, NC

I thought I had already reached the end of the world ferried out to Ocracoke from the Sunday morning silence of Swan Quarter, NC. Mist thins near land but gathers over the shallows of Pamlico Sound, obscuring our destination and magnifying the calls of the sea birds. The great Atlantic invisibly looms.

A smaller boat picks up where the giant car-carrier unloads us. Beyond sight, beyond the world, exists this remnant: Portsmouth Island. Part National Park, part museum, part mystery, part Nature, the island joins the string of sandbars, shoals, and islets of the Outer Banks. No bridge reaches this forgotten outpost, and our captain lands us on a desert isle.

Dolphins leap out of the sound as the boat approaches the low shoreline. A galvanized pipe protrudes at the edge of the sound and serves to secure the craft. Relics, rusted and busted, lie where they washed up.  The tides of time continue to erode and transform the island, low and sandy, even after years of depleting it of residents with every storm. Skeletons of villages, homes, and livelihoods left sketch a memory of the last gasp of a once-busy port. There’s no sign of a living human. 

People came here to make money, off-load and transfer cargoes for a price, build homes and put roots down in the shallow, sandy ground. Thousands of ships passed through, and men conducted the business of living, pioneers on the edge of the sea, civilizing the untameable. Now unspeakably remote, this place marked a threshold between worlds old and new.

Two hundred years of maritime commerce left marks on this slip of sand off Cape Lookout, but the shifting sands that filled the gap between islands, ending the lightering trade and the useful days of this port, encroach on the clapboard structures and the grassy pathways.  Like a toy model, the old post office stands with its shelves and counters. The postmaster’s office behind the Dutch door, open, invites each comer. Imagination fills the empty room with small talk and business, but that only happens once in a while. Echoes fade, and wuthering quickens around the corners and through the gaps in window frames and floorboards.

Maps of village roadways and highlights show points of interest. A dozen or so houses stand collected near the church and the store on the island’s sound side, sheltered from the brunt of ocean winds. Grassy pathways reach off towards all of the places village residents would need to go–church, school, the Coast Guard station, the docks, the post office, neighbors, cemetery. Now they guide strangers through a historical tableau. Portsmouth Village, 1753-1971. 

Pancake-colored marshland stretches to a knoll crowned with cedars, probably, pine and live oak. At the very limit of my vision, a streak of salty sea, almost elusive, marks the horizon. Closer in, a puddled track leads towards the abandoned schoolhouse, disuse evident in its muddy surface. No lock bars visitors. The spare white room echoes with our steps. Interpretive photographs and some token antiquities prove a lively bunch of youngsters once contained within the building, practicing penmanship and reciting poems. The sea’s bounds defined their lives but allowed the spread of knowledge, of culture, of human endeavor. 

Stunted trees stand around the schoolyard – twisted, lichened, with wet furrowed bark. Some mowing happens here. The short grass marks a tenuous border between the village site and the marsh. The air of abandonment that hangs in the mist is partly cultivated by volunteers who keep wild Nature from reclaiming the village footprint. The Federal government colludes with the effort by providing resources and accommodating visitors attracted to the isolation or the natural abundance. The impulse to keep the village from disappearing impels a set of rules to keep modernity at bay as well. A flush toilet is available to visitors, but there are no other amenities.  We mustn’t touch anything. Treasure-seeking is not permitted. A carry in-carry out policy discourages litter. A living stasis has been declared and established. 

Between sand and sky, fat mosquitoes flit among standing rainwater lagoons. Square cottages, churches, and cemeteries testify that people were here before. They worshipped and learned and worked. They sheltered together during hurricanes in the sturdiest house on the island. A dozen hardy men, in turn, lit the beacon and led the life-saving station through fifty years. Crews of sinewy rowers trained for the opportunity to save mariners from crashing tempests and treacherous shoals.  Some of their names are captured in ink in record books and logs, but most will stay in the secret past. I write my name with a stick in the sand. 

These days, the rudimentary housekeeping, sweeping and painting and picking up after storms, is tended to by the Friends of Portsmouth Island.  Park Service signs interpret for us, naming each house’s history – holding the last fragment of someone’s whole life “until he too moved away” and never came back. The stories lie between the lines, behind the closed front doors and buried in the yards, half-heard as winds rustle marsh grass, half-remembered by descendants and locals. Some of the mystique of the past and its heroes has been captured in photographs, by research or recollection, and, like detritus embedded in beach sand, is there to be discovered by the curious; surviving tales tell of dancing and tragedy and valor, endurance, privation, and back-breaking labor. I fill in blanks as I meander, seeking glimpses and clues to the puzzle of the place, finding fragments, encountering no one. 

And there’s the ocean. Fog drifts loosely towards the island, blurring the view. At one end, the sturdy pier, long and strong, lost hold in the middle. The planks slant like a ramp into the water. Cracked clamshells, purple and striated, lie discarded by gulls. I scare up sea birds. The marsh prickles in panic. A whole shoal of cormorants croaks.

These islanders believed they would stay. They built to last. They lived like it was real, this fleeting foothold on a sandbar. They made their homes, lived, died, left. And we the people preserve the evidence, pretending that we too are worth remembering. Off-island, Portsmouth Island might not exist at all. The known world turns around a million miles away, and this island shifts in the wind. The sea, sand, and storms live here; people arrive and go. The island floats in the Atlantic, shifting in the wind, and I watch it as I depart, stepping back from the edge of the known world.

BIO: Adrienne Berg is a reader, writer, and educator in North Carolina. She spends most of her time thinking about the world, fate, and story. Her work focuses on the interface between individual experience and everything else.

Photo: Wikipedia.

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