The quarterdeck of HMS Victory as it is now…
H.V.Morton, the author of the famous “In search of…” travel books once confessed that when out walking he would sometimes stop and tease himself with the thought: “I wonder who stood here long ago?”.
I must admit that although I don’t go as far as that, I do find it an intensely moving experience to stand on the very same spot where some great historic event took place. I suspect that there are quite a large number of people who share this very same trait on the quiet!
For me personally, one of the most moving of such moments (and I have had several of them I am happy to say) was when I stood on the quarterdeck of the Victory in Portsmouth Harbour for the first time. Almost oblivious of the centuries, I was transported back to that wonderfully dramatic moment when this majestic 3-decker slowly broke through the combined French and Spanish line of battle on that early afternoon of the 21st October, 1805 off Cape Trafalgar.
What an incredible scene it must have been.
The quarterdeck as pictured at the height of the battle
I went and stood by the famous hatchway and in my mind’s eye, saw Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy calmly walking towards me through the dense smoke from the thundering cannons. Nelson (he is only a few feet away now) stops a moment and turns round to look at the poop deck under which the giant steering-wheel is housed (see first picture). Captain Hardy, who had walked on alone a few steps, suddenly becomes aware that Nelson is no longer with him, stops too and looks around enquiringly, his eyes searching for his old friend among the seething crowd of gunners and marines who fill the confined space of the deck.
Not seeing him at first, he re-traces his steps (it’s only a few feet) and finds to his horror the Admiral lying on the deck shot through the chest by a musket shot from the French 74 Redoubtable which is lying alongside the Victory – their lower yardarms entangled.
As Hardy bends down on one knee beside him, Nelson says: “They have done for me at last, Hardy…my backbone is shot through.”
To stand there on that actual spot was, for me, one of those moments which the poet Keats finely describes as being “big as years”. It was a long time ago now, but even so the smallest details have remained indelibly etched on my memory – so much so that at times I am almost tempted to think…!
“O – but come on – that’s absurd!”
Yes, of course it is, but it does show how powerful the imagination can be when fed with the right ingredients at the right time! (besides – an ancestor of mine took part in the battle – even though he was press-ganged!). Anyway, a vivid imagination is almost as good as the real thing! It may not be quite so stirring, but at least it’s better than having a cannon-ball take your head off!