When the wooden hull of the Mary Rose was raised from the seabed off Portsmouth in October 1982, Britain watched, entranced. As Prince Charles looked on from a bobbing boat and families across the country sat glued to their televisions, a giant yellow cradle emerged from the depths, carrying its precious cargo – a Tudor warship.
This was the culmination of a story of defeat, death and resurrection. On July 19 1545, after almost 35 years of service, Henry VIII’s warship sank, while the king watched from the shore, during a skirmish with the French navy. She went down quickly, and about 500 men on board died – just 35 swam to safety. She lay in the Solent, untouched, until being rediscovered in 1971. Ambitious plans were drawn up to bring the ship, and the thousands of artefacts inside the wreck, to the surface.
Once the warship went on show, everyone wanted a look: in the summer of 1983 I queued for hours, getting bored and sunburned, to get into a vast warehouse in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard complex. Inside, it was, frankly, a disappointment. Only half the hull remains, and the timbers were hosed down constantly to prevent them from drying out and disintegrating; my memory of that day is of damp inside the museum and crowds outside.
That exhibition space shut in 2009 but this weekend, thanks to £27m of mostly National Lottery money, the only surviving 16th-century warship in the world has gone on display again. This time, she’s in her own purpose-built museum, overlooking Nelson’s grand ship, HMS Victory. Meeting me at the entrance for a preview, head of operations Paul Griffiths says he expects half a million visitors a year. I’m sceptical but as we push through heavy doors into the main part of the museum, the lights dim and the ingenuity of the egg-shaped building reveals itself. On one side are three levels of galleries, corresponding with the lower, main and upper decks of the ship. The galleries are full of artefacts and exhibits illustrating how the sailors lived. On the other side, sealed in a controlled environment, is the remains of the hull itself, a sort of spectral mirror-image.
The first glimpse of the hull through one of the many windows is a proper “wow” moment; each view after that reveals a new angle or aspect of the ship. I may be looking at the same old timbers I saw in 1983 but the experience is transformed in this new setting.
Visiting the museum is about as close to being on board a Tudor ship as it is possible to get without creating a replica – but there’s nothing ersatz or fake here. Divers brought up 19,000 objects from the wreck and the museum crams in 16,000 of them. It brings to mind a watery Pompeii: because Mary Rose sank so suddenly, everything had been in use until just moments before its demise. And although the ship is the main attraction, it’s the personal, small things that really stick in my mind: a pair of perfectly-preserved leather boots that wouldn’t look out of place on a high street today, a backgammon board, a pitcher big enough to hold a man’s daily ration of beer (eight pints).
There is a length of hemp rope that visitors are encouraged to pick up and sniff – it smells strongly of the pitch that Tudor sailors used to keep it waterproof and supple. There’s even the skeleton of the ship’s dog, a cross between a Manchester terrier and a whippet.
Moving down to the lower decks, we slip past a VIP party that I notice includes the distinguished actor Robert Hardy, to whom I am briefly introduced. He’s an expert on English longbows, it turns out, and a patron of the Mary Rose Trust. But Griffiths later tells me the guest of honour is an animated elderly lady, who is scrutinising everything carefully from her wheelchair. She’s Margaret Rule, the archaeologist, now in her eighties, who oversaw the seabed “dig” and the raising of the boat in 1982.
From the lower deck (where the cooks toiled in windowless galleys to turn out meals for 500 men), visitors take a lift to the officers’ quarters on the upper level. While much of the museum is in low light to preserve the objects, the lift is positively stygian. As it slowly rises, we get a sense of how imposing the boat must have been.
The ship’s timbers have been sprayed nonstop since they were raised from the seabed; for the past 20 years the spray has been made up of a waxy chemical preserving solution. The hoses were turned off at the end of April, and it will take another four years for the timbers to dry out – some 100 tons of fluid inside now needs to come out – so visitors to the new museum will see the ship surrounded by what look like giant black polytunnels, keeping the temperature constant at 18C.
Emerging back into daylight, I see HMS Victory is being renovated, as if to spruce it up for its fancy new neighbour. There’s another big-ticket warship round the corner, the Victorian, iron-clad, HMS Warrior. And there are plenty of security checks in place and naval staff wandering about, which is impressive for the many children visiting the site but also a reminder that this is a working place, integral to the Royal Navy’s present and future as well as its past.
Mary Rose is again big news in Portsmouth this summer. Tickets are limited, and issued on a timed entrance system to avoid lengthy queues. I plan to return with the family – exactly 30 years after my first, disappointing, visit. This time I know that what’s inside the museum is well worth any wait.
Tickets cost from £17; www.maryrose.org