Time Team Travels: Portsmouth

I’ve been a fan of the British archeology show Time Team for years. I used to catch random episodes on hotel televisions during my trips to the UK. Since then, I’ve collected all available DVDs from the UK and, strangely enough, Australia to view at home on my region-free player.

Watching some of these shows again recently, I realized how often I was saying “I’ve been there” to Time Team dig locations. Some were places I’d visited on my usual travels; others, I’ve gone to specifically because I saw the archeological site on the show and was interested in what was there.

I’ve decided to start a new feature based on the places that I’ve visited, starting with the Royal Garrison Church in Portsmouth.

Royal Garrison Church in Portsmouth
Royal Garrison Church

Midway through its 17th series, in an episode titled “Governor’s Green“, Time Team excavated the grounds around the church. The church is now military property but was built in the early 13th century as a Domus Dei–a House of God and a hospital in the original sense of the word, not only providing beds for the sick and needy, but a place for pilgrims to find rest and hospitality on their journeys to holy places.  Located near a major port, it would have been a stopping place for travelers about to embark on pilgrimage to places like Jerusalem.

Last spring, I was about to go to the UK for a tour of the Channel Islands, when the trip’s itinerary changed at the last minute; our tour group wasn’t embarking from Poole, as originally planned, but from Portsmouth.

HMS Victory
HMS Victory

I had only been to Portsmouth once before, very briefly, in 1990. I glimpsed what I thought at the time was HMS Victory (but now realize must have been another ship, the Warrior.)

When I looked up the location of the hotel where we would spend the night before taking the ferry to Jersey, I saw that it was only about a mile from Governor’s Green. I hoped I’d have enough free time to walk over to the church.

It was a close call. Although we left London early that morning, we ran into a lot of heavy traffic getting out of the city, then we had a long stop at Winchester for lunch and to wander around the cathedral and high street on our own. We didn’t arrive at Portsmouth until mid-afternoon.

Henry and Me
Henry & Me

Once in Portsmouth, we visited the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to see HMS Victory for real this time as well as the recovered hull of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose before the tour bus took us to our hotel, a couple of blocks from the waterfront near the Southsea Gardens.

By the time I checked into my room, I had a little more than a hour and a half before dinner and decided to get going.

Making sure I had my camera with me, I went back out again immediately, walking at a swift pace along the Clarence Esplanade past Southsea Castle, the tanks outside the D-Day museum, and the aquarium.

Tank outside the D-Day museum
Sherman Tank

Since I wasn’t familiar with Portsmouth, it seemed best to stay on the main road along the waterfront until I had to turn inland to get around the Clarence Pier. I could see the church from there.

The walk took about 20 minutes; I estimated I had another 20 or so to look around before I had to head back. It was late in the day, so the church was no longer open for visitors. I had to take my photos from outside the gate.

The church was refurbished in the late Victorian period to make it look more like it would have when it was built in the 1200s. Unfortunately, the nave was destroyed during an air raid in World War II and that part of the building remains a roofless shell.

The Ruined Church Nave
The Ruined Church Nave

The nave was the place where the sick would have lain in in rows along each side-aisle, which are just the right length to accommodate hospital beds.

There had once been other buildings around the church, including the Tudor Governor’s House, which was still standing into the 1800s.

Nelson and the Bastion
Nelson and the Bastion

A grand reception was held at the Governor’s House in 1814 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. They were a tad premature, since Napoleon escaped from Elba early the next year and they had to defeat him all over again at Waterloo that summer.

The Governor’s House and its out-buildings have all disappeared in the last two centuries and their exact locations were obscured beneath the vast green lawn that surrounds the church now. Time Team excavated their foundations. The green lawn has been replaced since the dig, so the old stone walls have been covered over again.

Another exciting event occurred here: Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662 just after her arrival in England. She couldn’t provide him with a heir, but she was the lady who first popularized tea-drinking in Britain and I will always honor her for it. When she first arrived from Portugal after an arduous sea journey, she requested a nice, hot, bracing cup. They gave her a glass of warm beer. She soon put them straight.

Nelson walked through this tunnel
Nelson walked through here

After taking a few photos of the church and green, I climbed up on the old earthwork bastion that shelters the site on the seaward side, then took a quick walk through a tunnel that Admiral Nelson is said to have come through once. A statue of Nelson stands near one end of the tunnel by the church.

Then it was time to go.

I was more confident about making my way back, and was worried about being late. Instead of going along the Clarence Esplanade again, I took a shortcut straight across the Southsea Common.

Walking very briskly across the open green fields, pausing only to pet a dog or two and kicking a soccer ball that came my way, I was back at the hotel with enough time to wash up and change before rejoining my tour group for dinner.

The Church from the Common


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.