Below the surface, there can be a world of wonder
I TURNED a corner in the museum and emitted the kind of gasp of amazement you rarely hear outside low-budget thrillers.
The Mary Rose, Henry VIII’S prize warship, stood before me, half a hull encased in a gleaming box of glass. The ship’s belongings were laid out on the port side in their original positions so that visitors could walk between the hull and its contents on floorboards that dip and rise in line with the ship’s curves.
I’ve experienced some good history lessons in my time but nothing that came close to this. An embarrassment of Tudor riches; a whole way of life preserved in the anaerobic silt of the Solent. I saw everything from the leather monogrammed pouches and belongings of the rich captains to Tudor nit combs, flasks, backgammon sets and the reconstructed skeleton of the ship’s dog, nicknamed Hatch.
“She’s the only 16th-century warship on display in the world,” said a museum guide who saw me gawping and came over to chat. “So much of what we know about Tudor life we know from the Mary Rose.”
But our gain was their tragic loss. While no one can agree on exactly what caused the ship to sink they do know it went down very quickly and with great loss of life (there were only 35 survivors from a crew of more than 500).
“It was a huge blow,” my guide told me. “The battle of the Solent is one of the most important events in Tudor history and yet the only thing they seem to teach them in schools is the Spanish Armada.”
Making a mental note to swap my Armada lesson for a new one, I asked him about the discovery and preservation of the ship. Tudor history aside; what is equally astounding is the most recent part of the story – how you can raise half an entire ship, and most of its belongings, from a 437-year sleep on the ocean bed and keep it all intact. The simple answer is: with great difficulty. There was a military historian called Alexander Mckee who wouldn’t give up till the ship was found; over 25,000 dives; an archaeologist named Margaret Rule who had to learn to dive so that she could supervise the project from close up and, of course, the simply incredible feat of lifting the hull intact.
I have vivid memories of watching the TV news reports as a child. Now I could have stayed gazing for hours. Sadly, it was a mere 39 minutes before Mr Brighouse radioed in for parental backup but the astonishment of the place remains undiminished.
So much so that, back in our holiday cottage I spent a happy hour trawling the museum’s website, taking a longer look at artefacts I only had time to glance at in the flesh. On one of the pages I noticed they were recruiting volunteers to work at the museum and I had a fleeting desire to run off and join them.
But come September, I have places to be. New school, new class, new possibilities. The annual challenge of sifting through the six-week anaerobic silt to see what we can pull up to the surface.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary school teacher in the Midlands.she tweets @jo_brighouse