England became a unified state in AD 927 and, since the 15th century, has had a significant impact on the wider world, developing the English language, the Anglican Church, and English law – the basis for the common law legal systems of many other countries around the world. Its beautiful and varied countryside is interspersed with quaint villages and cosmopolitan cities including the capital, London.

The name "England" is derived from the Old English name Engla land, which means "land of the Angles". The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that settled in Great Britain during the Early Middle Ages.

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Portsmouth Insider’s Guide: Warships & Waterfronts

The south-east city of Portsmouth has seen its fair share of history. With a famous residents roll call that includes Henry VIII, Horatio Lord Nelson and literary heroes such as Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s little wonder that history oozes out of Portsmouth’s every pore.

By Tina Ediss

Historic Portsmouth

In 1194 King Richard the Lionheart had been on his way from Portsmouth to fight in some far away crusade. However, the winds and tides were against him and he ended up staying for two weeks.

This was quite a long time in Richard the Lionheart terms as he spent just six months of his ten-year reign in England.

This unplanned visit would prove to be important to Portsmouth as the King granted the townspeople a Royal Charter giving them certain rights.

Portsmouth was founded in 1180 by Jean de Gisor, a wealthy Norman merchant, who created a port at the wiggle of a waterway now known as Camber Quay. The town’s position was perfect for trading with France – or attacking it during the period of prolonged warfare in the 14th century.

HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Then largely undefended, Portsmouth was attacked by the French and destroyed by fire on a regular basis.  Eventually fortifications were built and added to by Henry VII who also created the world’s first naval dry-dock here in 1495. As the Navy grew, so did Portsmouth and the city has a
rich and important naval heritage.

The city sits on the Solent, a busy body of water between the Isle of Wight and mainland southern England. The waterway is a vital shipping route as well as a popular playground for recreational craft.

Portsmouth is actually a large island, separated to the north by a narrow creek. It’s a sprawling city yet the main areas are fairly compact. Old Portsmouth is home to the Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury and some of the older buildings that survived the bombs of the Second World War. It leads neatly to the Point, an area of cobbled streets and salty pubs where press gangs were feared and sailors parted from their hard earned
money. It is also called Spice Island, which could be because of the spices imported here – or because of its once spicy reputation.

Naval hero: Admiral Horatio Nelson

The Hard is where Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is situated. It is the city’s most popular attraction with three impressive ships, HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and Henry VIII’s Mary Rose.

The best loved is HMS Victory dating from 1759. The oldest commissioned warship in the world, she carried Admiral Horatio Nelson to victory in the Battle of Trafalgar.
He was fatally wounded during the battle and
died three hours later, knowing the battle was won.

Nelson became a hero and his aptly named ship a national treasure. She’s not sleek like the ships of today. Her belly seems rotund, as if it’s bulging with all she needed to carry. The ship can be explored from the depths of the hull to the Great Cabin where Nelson planned the battle. She’s rich with an assortment of evocative nautical aromas. Smells of wood, of rope, of tar, of provisions once carried, of decks well scrubbed and brass brightly polished.

HMS Warrior was launched on 29 December 1860 and was the world’s first iron-clad battleship. She never fired a shot in anger but deterred with some efficiency; wooden warships didn’t dare challenge her.

HMS Warrior, the first iron-clad warship

Stationed onboard are costumed volunteer tour guides like Bill White, an ex-naval man. “There’s not another ship in the world like her,” he says proudly. “This is an unique job. We get visitors from every nation, all different and all happy because they are on holiday. In fact, my job means that I can say welcome in 11 languages.”

The third of the ships, the Mary Rose, is really just half a hulk but her story is incredible. She set sail on a summer’s day in 1545 with Henry VIII watching proudly from the shore. Then, for no reason that’s ever been discovered, she sank, taking 400 souls with her. For 437 years the Mary Rose lay on the seabed, protected by the silt of the Solent.
In October 1982, she was dramatically raised from the deep and displayed in the Mary Rose Ship Hall. She has now disappeared from view as a new museum, due to open in 2012, is built around her.

Many of the fascinating artefacts found with her are on display in the Mary Rose Museum. These objects give remarkable insights into Tudor times. There are many weapons; cannons and cannonballs, long-bows and arrows but it’s the personal items that turn these ancient mariners into people; bowls, spoons, shoes, leather jerkins, carpenter’s tools, rulers, combs even a backgammon set.

There’s so much to see in the Dockyard; Actions Stations is a favourite with children who can have a try at being in the Marines. There’s also the Royal Navy Museum and a boat trip around the harbour.

The city played a vital role during the Second World War. The naval presence and the docks made Portsmouth an obvious target for ruthless Luftwaffe bombers. Much of the city was reduced to ruins, centuries old buildings lost forever. On D-Day the city was an embarkation point for men heading for the Normandy Beaches; the story is told in the D-Day Museum. A little farther along on Southsea Common stands the Portsmouth Naval Memorial commemorating sailors who died at sea during the First and Second World Wars.

Charles Dickens’ birthplace

Portsmouth has some impressive literary links. Charles Dickens was born in the city on 7 February 1812; his terraced house is now the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum. Arthur Conan Doyle worked in the city as a doctor while writing his Sherlock Holmes novels. There’s a fascinating Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the City Museum. I have a special interest in Victorian writer Sir Walter Besant, born in Portsmouth in 1836. His mother was Sarah Ediss and we are distantly related. In his autobiography he talks about growing up in Portsmouth and how the city walls were “the playground, the breathing place for the children and the
boulevard for the people.”

And so they remain: people promenade the walls along the seafront on all but the stormiest of days. Children play as they’ve always done, not particularly impressed, orunaware of the age of the Round Tower (1418), the Square Tower (1494) and Southsea Castle (1544).

Henry VIII’s Southsea Castle on the seafront

Southsea’s little shops along Marmion Road and Albert Road are good for shopping. They are a bit edgy, a bit New Age with everything from hand-made chocolates and delicious cakes (try Snookies on Osborne Road) to fashion and antiques. There is also a good shopping in the city centre, however most shoppers head for the bargains to be had at the outlet stores of Gunwharf Quays. Dine alfresco here at one of the restaurants facing the Solent.
It feels very continental, only often with a bit more bluster.

Scale Spinnaker Tower

Looking down on this historic maritime scene is the modern Spinnaker Tower that stands on the water’s edge, a giant mast with huge sails billowing. From this great height (110 metres) the view of the whole city, the countryside that surrounds it and across to the Isle of Wight, is ever changing. On a sunny day the Solent is all sparkly and blue. When the sky is overcast rays of sun pierce through the clouds and hit the sea like spotlights on a stage.

This is Portsmouth past, present and future; pick out the ordered military buildings, the fine buildings that survived the bombs of the Second World War – and the post-war buildings that could never replace all those that didn’t.

Read our listing of the top places to visit in Portsmouth

For further information on where to stay and what to do in Portsmouth www.visitportsmouth.co.uk.
Tourist Information Centre, The Hard, Portsmouth PO1 3QJ; tel: (023) 9282 6722.

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Kings College Chapel

King’s College Chapel: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

It’s one of Britain’s best loved traditions, watched by millions on TV and radio. The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols took place at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 1918. Since then, the annual service has become an integral part of the festive season

It’s one of Britain’s best loved traditions, watched by millions on TV and radio. The first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols took place at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 1918. Since then, the annual service has become an integral part of the festive season.

In the words of the service booklet, the ceremony tells the story of “the loving purposes of God” through a combination of carols and carefully selected readings from the King James Bible.

“I think it has become a British institution,” agrees Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, the person tasked with arranging the service and directing the choir. “It is very widely broadcast and is very well known. I get a lot of letters and emails from people around the world saying how much they enjoy the service. The public feel that it belongs to them. They have a stake in it.”

Cleobury is passionate about the Festival, which he has been part of since taking over as Director of Music in 1982. He puts his love of music down to coming from a musical family. His father played the piano and organ, and his mother was an amateur choral singer. He went on to become a chorister in Worcester and studied the organ at Cambridge University. Prior to joining King’s College, he held the prestigious positions of sub-organist at Westminster Abbey and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral. Cleobury thinks all of this provided good preparation for his work at King’s.

Yet despite his many years of experience, Cleobury admits it was a nerve-wracking prospect to become part of the celebrated Festival – and that it can still be daunting for both him and the choir. “You get over that through very careful preparation,” he says. “We hone general skills daily, though for the carol service reportoire, we generally prepare during December itself. That involves not only preparation of the carols, but also psychological preparation for the service.”

The enduring nature of the Festival is partly down to its iconic moments, such as the lone chorister singing the first verse of opening hymn ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, and partly due to the beautiful setting of King’s College Chapel. But it’s also because the service remains faithful to its past without being set in stone – highlighted by the fact that Cleobury commissions a new carol from a different composer each year. “I thought it was important to add something new to the service, so it could remain traditional but not fossilised,” he says. “It helps it to reach out to new people. I always think of it as an ancient tree which has a trunk and roots. The service has roots in the past, but it is still growing new leaves.”

Though he admits not everybody has been a fan of the new carols, he feels they’ve been incredibly lucky with the ones that have been composed over the years. While each new carol is different, they are united by a festive theme with serious undertones: “They can’t just be about tinsel and wrapping paper!” This year, Cleobury is excited to announce a carol by the Bristol-born composer Tansy Davies – though, he has yet to hear it. “I commission the carols but don’t really know what they’ll turn out like until the last minute!” he says.

Of course, the traditional hymns and carols remain an essential part of the service’s appeal. While the arrangement does change each year, the Festival always begins with the hymn ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and closes with ‘Hark the Herald Angel Sing’. “I inherited those when I started, and I didn’t see any reason to change it,” Cleobury says. “They’re two of the best known hymns and I think the lyrics resonate with people, whatever they believe in. ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is, of course, about the birth of Jesus, and the theme of a baby’s birth is something that resonates with most people. I had a grandchild recently and, strangely enough, [‘Once in Royal David’s City’ hymn writer] Mrs Alexander’s beautiful words came into my head. ‘Tears and smiles like us he knew.’ The words mean a lot to people.”

Cleobury thinks it is important for the Festival to resonate with people who perhaps wouldn’t usually attend church services. “I think that’s very crucial, because many can respond to elements in it who do not wish to participate in formal or official church organisations. The service can affect everyone – Christians, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists, and the message of the service has different potential for each individual.”

This wide appeal is helped by the fact it has been televised since 1963. It’s actually a different service to the one that takes place in the Chapel on Christmas Eve, with seven lessons instead of nine and additional carols. It’s filmed a few weeks before it is broadcast. Cleobury doesn’t find it unusual to be conducting a Christmas service a few weeks before the actual day. “I think most people are gearing up for Christmas by mid-December and many schools have had their Christmas services by then of course. I have certainly done stranger things, though – like recording a CD of Christmas songs in August in the South of France. Now that did feel odd!”

In 2009, Cleobury’s services to music were recognised when he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List. However, he’s well aware that any musical service is more than about one person. “I know it’s a cliché, but I saw it as recognition not just for myself but for everyone I have worked with. Nobody achieves anything without the help of others.”

There are 650 seats for the Christmas Eve service of Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. They are available for the residents of Cambridge and the wider public. However, demand for seats is extremely high, so if you want to attend the service it’s best to get there early. The public are admitted to the main gate on King’s Parade from 7.30am, and as you queue you’ll be entertained by the Choral Scholars of King’s College Choir singing carols. The service itself starts just after 3pm. The televised Festival, however, is a private service for members of the college, so you won’t be able to attend this one!

Stephen Cleobury is always on the lookout for potential new members of the choir. For more information, visit www.kings.cam.ac.uk/choir or email choir@kings.cam.ac.uk

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