Saturday, 11 July 2020

Master & Commander - Patrick O'Brian

At any one time I very often have three books on the go, with reading filing a very significant amount of my day, one of the benefits of being retired, and having always considered that reading is food for the mind.

Not all my reading is spent on historical factual books, as with any diet I believe in quality, variety and, with all categories, consumed in moderation, which includes historical fiction that can inform my hobby life as much as the historical factual reading if in a slightly different way.

One area of my hobby interest has always attracted me to a significant amount of fictional reading, namely age of sail naval adventures and over the years I have worked my way through the trials and travails of Richard Bolitho written by the late great WWII naval fiction writer Douglas Reeman, who went under the pen name of Alexander Kent; the daring adventures of Lord Nicholas Ramage created by the late Dudley Pope and cut my teeth as a schoolboy on perhaps the greatest of the genre, Horatio Hornblower written by of course the late C.S. Forester

However, to my surprise although perhaps more likely to not having enough reading hours in my day until now, I had never got to grips with Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey and his polymath companion Dr Stephen Maturin, despite having thoroughly enjoyed Russell Crowe's and Paul Bettany's portrayal of them in the 2003 film, Master & Commander, The Far Side of the World.

Not only that but following seeing the film I went out and got a copy of 'The Official Guide to the Major Motion Picture, which revealed more about the plot and its obvious diversion from the original story to better fit it for the American film going public and the attention to detail in its recreation of the navy of King George III and the ships of that era.

So I thought I would finally get around to seeing why so many readers of the genre put O'Brian's creation very much at the top of their reading list and where better to begin that with the very first incarnation of the series of what would eventually be twenty one books, than Master & Commander, published in 1969 and introducing Lieutenant Jack Aubrey recently appointed to his first command in April 1800, His Majesty's Sloop, Sophie of fourteen guns and recently acquired from the Spanish, to operate from Port Mahon in Minorca against them and their French allies, not to mention the odd Algerian privateer.

The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebec Frigate El Gamo, 6th May 1801 off of Barcelona - Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

I have to say that the book encompasses the same type of plot approach that I am familiar within this kind of historical fiction, be it naval of land accounts of combat, and the familiar set ups of the drama and action that follows. 

So we see Captain Aubrey gaining the confidence of his crew, working them up to performing at the highest standards in sailing and gunnery competence whilst demonstrating his own talents at leadership and command through various encounters on land and the water, culminating in the great showdown with the Spanish 32-gun Xebec-Frigate Cacafuego the most obvious reference to the career of Captain Thomas Cochrane and his brig HMS Speedy taking the Spanish 32-gun Xebec Frigate El Gamo.

Interwoven with the plot are of course the usual sub-plots of encounters ashore and the growing friendship between Aubrey and Maturin as they learn to share their appreciation of music amid the carnage of war and the intrigue of command as we are introduced to actual historical persons involved in historical events of the time.

My picture of the former Royal Naval hospital in Port Mahon, Minorca photographed in the late eighties, and described in Master & Commander during a visit by Dr Stephen Maturin

All good stuff and very much what I expected from this kind of read, but what made the book stand out for me over and above other reads was O'Brian's attention to the dialogue between his characters and his descriptions of combat that for me most noticeably captured a feel of authenticity that other authors have not quite achieved to the same level.  All the squalor and blood are captured in the accounts but not in the style of an all action boys comic and the language used between the various characters from common seamen, Minorcan serving girls to captains and admirals felt like I was reading a naval fiction written by Jane Austen, not the first time that description has been made, but a very apt one for describing the detail in which the characters express themselves in the convoluted language style of their day.

As with other fictional reads where the reader is expected to travel with the author into the world they create for their characters, it is important to get the reader to buy into this recreated world with attention to the detail and the dimensions of the characters that allows the belief in the account to take a hold in the readers mind, and it is in these areas that it seems to me that O'Brian's work stand head and shoulders above others writing in the genre.

In 1987 Port Mahon was a Spanish naval base, operating old US WWII era destroyers

This attention to the historical feel of the writing didn't at first appeal to all the critics at the time of writing and there was a significant problem for the books to grab the US market for a few years but the quality of the writing is obvious and explains why these books are now so highly regarded for their authenticity in feel for the period.

Martello tower guarding the approaches to Port Mahon 

Finally the other aspect that really grabbed my appreciation was the descriptions of the places in the Mediterranean that impact on the story, something I have a familiarity with having spent a lot of time on the Murcian coast and having explored Gibraltar and Minorca on many visits over the years.

I found myself easily picturing the places described in the book with memories of Martello towers and Georgian sashed windows on houses in Port Mahon, a Spanish naval base during my visit in 1987, but just a case of replacing the few grey warships of the time with the black hulled chequer board sailing equivalents familiar to Aubrey as depicted below.

Mahon Harbour 1773, makes interesting comparison with the pictures from our visit in 1987- The Naval Chronicle and as featured in a future book review 'Harbors and High Seas - An at Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian by Dean King.

Needless to say I really enjoyed Master & Commander and am now into Post Captain, the second book in the series with plenty to go to fill my fictional reading time in between rigging model ships. 

If like me, you too have missed out on the delights of Patrick O'Brian and decide to join Captain Jack Aubrey on his adventures at sea, then I should perhaps use a favourite turn of phrase of his when I say 

'May you take joy in it'.

Needless to say all the series of Jack Aubrey novels are readily available and, unless you are determined to own a collection of hardback first editions signed by the author, are very affordable in paperback (my preference, but I am a bit old fashioned) or on Kindle.

Next up the Spanish 74-gun ship of the line Montanes joins the Spanish squadron in JJ's Dockyard as more models are added to my Spanish collection.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

All at Sea - On the Stocks in JJ's Dockyard, Spanish Builds Part Two

'Here comes the Santa Anna' - Carlos Parrilla Penagos

It's so nice to be back into working up the 1:700th collection of ships and the next part of the build which is concentrated on the Armada Espagnol, started with my build of Santisima Trinidad  back in May.

As covered in my previous post announcing this work, the mighty 112-gun Santa Anna was destined to pick up where we left off and thus featured as my header is the amazing work of Carlos Parilla Penagos depicting the great Spanish first rate hoving into view under a full spread of canvas and formed part of the inspiration in the production of this model.

My rendition of the Santa Anna flying the pennant of Vice Admiral Alava at her foremast

The Santa Anna was a Spanish 112-gun first rate ship of the line designed by Miguel de la Punte and built by Jose Joaquin Romero y Fernandez de Landa and when launched on the 28th September 1784 at Ferrol, was the prototype for a class of 112-gun ships to follow, which included the Mejicano, Conde de Regla, Salvador del Mundo, Real Carlos, San Hermenegildo, Reina Maria Luisa and Principe de Asturias.

Jose Joaquin Romero y Fernandez de Landa 1735 -1807
Engineer General of the Fleet

Having completed her sea trials in February the following year, under Captain Felix de Tejada who reported that "she kept the battery in good use in a fresh wind and heavy seas" his report effectively gave the go ahead for work to commence on her sister ships that would form the core of Spanish first rates during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

A fine model of the Santa Anna which informed the completion of my own, built by the master naval modeller Fernando Gonzalez Ruiz

The Santa Anna appears to have had a fairly quiet war, at least in the early years with her shown as 'In Ordinary' in 1793, acting as the flagship for Teniente General Domingo de Perez de Grandallana between 1797 to July 1799.

Teniente General Domingo de Perez de Grandallana was the Flag Officer aboard the Santa Anna during the French Revolutionary War.

Santa Anna was to have her particular moment of glory and an immortal place in naval history on 21st October 1805 when as part of the Combined  Franco-Spanish fleet under Admiral Villeneuve, she was the leading ship in the rear division under Captain Don Jose Gardoqui a seasoned commander having taken part in the capture of HMS Ardent 64-guns on 17th August 1779 in the English Channel and the only Spanish captain to have commanded three of the other Spainish 112-gun ships previously.

The Action of the 17th August 1799 in which Captain Gardoqui participated in the capture of HMS Ardent 64-guns.

Santa Anna leads the rear division of the Combined Fleet at Trafalgar seen positioned ahead of the French Forgueux 74-guns.
Another view of the stern galley of Fernando Gonzalez Ruiz model

The Santa Anna was not part of the combined fleet when it sailed for the West Indies in the summer of 1805 as she was laid up in Cadiz having her hull copper sheathing replaced at that time and although joining the fleet in October it appears Villeneuve was less than happy with her state of completion describing her as 'barely out of the dockyard' and 'not in a condition to engage'

Vice-Admiral Don Ignatio Maria de Alava

Her flag officer at Trafalgar was Vice-Admiral Don Ignatio Maria de Alava, second in command of the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar and who would assume command on the death of the Spanish commander Admiral Gravina following the battle.

 HMS Royal Sovereign is depicted leading the British lee column under Admiral Colingwood with the Santa Anna ahead and about to open fire. - Stuart Bolton

Being the leading ship of her division and flying the pennant of Admiral Alava at the head of her foremast, she became the focal point for Admiral Collingwood's attack as he led in the British lee column at Trafalgar, describing the Spanish flagship as that 'Spanish Perfection'.

The Royal Sovereign broke through, astern of the Santa Anna shortly after noon, delivering a devastating raking broadside from which the Spanish flagship never really recovered.

Following up on this opening attack, Royal Sovereign luffed up alongside Santa Anna to begin exchanging broadsides yardarm to yardarm.

The next British ship to pass through the line was HMS Bellisle 74-guns, which promptly delivered another raking broadside into the stern of the Santa Anna which struck at about 14.15 at the same time as Collingwood learnt of Nelson's death.

The Santa Anna was by then a dismasted, crippled hulk, with casualties amounting to 238 (97 killed and 141 wounded, including Captain Gardoqui and Admiral Alava) surprisingly light at just 20% following the close range pounding she received.

Taken in tow by the frigate HMS Euryalus, the Santa Anna would be recaptured by a Spanish squadron two days later and towed back into Cadiz for repairs.

Back Home - Carlos Parrilla
The Santa Anna is towed back to Cadiz by the French frigate Themis after being recaptured following the Battle of Trafalgar.

At Trafalgar Santa Anna would have carried 30 x 36-pdr long guns on her lower deck, 32 x 24-pdrs on her middle deck, 32 x 12-pdrs on her upper deck, 12 x 8-pdrs on her quarterdeck  and 6 x 8 pdrs together with 6 x 24-pdr obusiers on her forecastle.

Needing 250 men on her capstans to lift her mighty anchors, Santa Anna had an over-strength compliment of 1,189 crew consisting of 720 naval personnel, 383 army and 86 marine artillerymen.

Next up, a book review providing some fictional inspiration to our hobby and the Spanish 3rd Rate Montanes 74-guns joins the fleet.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Dartmoor Walk - Down Tor Stone Row

Carolyn standing in the amazing Neolithic/Bronze Age Hingston Hill stone circle at Down Tor Stone Row

With restrictions on movement in the UK gradually relaxing with all the possible implications that might have in terms of the control of the pandemic, the opportunity to explore the countryside to get a bit of physical exercise away from home is opening up and Carolyn and I took advantage of the new rules to take a trip out to Dartmoor to walk and visit some of its many neolithic monuments, many of which we have not seen before.

The map shows Burrator Reservoir and where we walked on our recent visit to Dartmoor

The area we went to is close to Burrator Reservoir, a large lake built above Plymouth in the centre of a series of connecting valleys, or combes as we call them in Devon, in the late 19th century to provide fresh water for the city and near abouts.

Dartmoor National Park is a natural moorland upland slap bang in the middle of Devon, created during the ice age which left this granite based moor covered in rocky outcrops or tors and amazingly balanced stones left on top of them when the ice receded.

This ancient landscape is covered with neolithic, bronze age and iron age settlements and monuments which reminds the visitor of the distant history of the land with its many ruins in the landscape, so beloved of Tolkein in his Middle Earth fantasy which is so easy to imagine in this part of the world.

The OS walking map with Down Tor at the centre of our planned route to Cuckoo Rock and Down Tor Stone Row

I had discovered several recommended walks in the area, but decided to opt for a relatively short jaunt, just 3.5 miles, although the walk would feel more than that with a lot of off road and track hiking and up-hill, down-dale effort to get around the central key feature of Down Tor at one end of the reservoir, with several hut circles and settlements near to and on the way to the stone row itself.

The other reason for my choice was to use my ViewRanger app on the phone for which I had downloaded the OS 1:25000 Explorer Map of Dartmoor and on which I had plotted our walk the night before and which would allow me an opportunity to try it out in this way.

My ViewRanger route planned in on my phone shows up in blue with my route
recorded in red on the digital version of the OS map seen above 

I have used this app in Spain last year for our Peninsular War battlefield tour and the previous year walking Offas Dyke with Mr Steve, but hadn't yet tried it with a pre-set route that I had plotted to follow.

Back in the day, I used to use a compass and paper map, but in these days of sat-nav and the ability to carry all the information on your phone I am very happy to embrace the technology to help in planning longer and more interesting excursions

If you look closely you can see that Carolyn and I took a few detours on the way to look at stuff and we ended up walking the route the other way than I had planned, as I set out on the wrong bridle path but carried on once I had discovered the error to see how practical making changes was with the device. No problem at all!

The first part of the walk had us following an old bridle path up from the car park and soon brought us to our first ancient buildings, namely the remains of the medieval Middleworth Farm with the old farmhouse looking rather forlorn covered in a velvet of local mosses and lichens.
The path leading up from the car park to Middleworth Farm

As we followed the valley of the Narrator Brook to our right, on our left the lower slopes of Down Tor presented indicating we were leaving the lower ground around the reservoir and climbing up on to the higher ground of the moorland above.

Down Tor peaks out above our path as we moved along from Middleworth Farm to the neighbouring ruin of Combeshead Farm next to a gloriously old oak tree

The old oak on the boundary of Combshead Farm a bit further along the path

The ruins of Combeshead Farm indicated a larger range of buildings than its neighbour along the way, but no less robbed out of its valuable stonework.

On leaving the ruins of the farm we were immediately struck by trees draped as they were in a wispy lichen that hung down from their branches as well as lacy looking clumps that adorned the lower branches.

The wispy lichen hanging off the trees here was most noticeable and very unusual.

The trail climbed steadily and soon enough, Cuckoo Rock, a curiously shaped piece of granite on the highest point cut into it by two large horizontal gashes, not doubt carved out by wind rain and ice over the centuries, hove into view, with the ground before it covered in ferns and bushes.

Cuckoo Rock a very noticeable landmark on our route as we climbed ever higher 

On the climb up, the path became overgrown in ferns amid which we met some of the local residents, Dartmoor ponies, that wander free on the moor and together with their Welsh counterparts are reminders of the Celtic ponies that puled the chariots and provided the mounted arm of the Britons who faced off against Caesar's and Claudius's legions.

A mare and foal, Dartmoor ponies forage amid the ferns and proved difficult to spot until you were really close up. You have to be cautious when the foals are about as mums can be rather protective. 

Dartmoor is high up and exposed to the worst of the weather in the South West and the granite bears testament to the harsh effects of the climate, particularly in the winter.

Getting near to the top now!

Well if we get stuck up here at least we some slight shelter - me first!

The view from Cuckoo Rock from the way we came and our climb up to it to the the view out to Combshead Tor on our next part of the walk were truly stunning and made a perfect stop point to grab a drink and a quick snack before pressing on.

The view of our path up to Cuckoo Rock with the ruins of the two medieval farms nestled down in the trees to the extreme right and the valley of the Narrator Brook following the trees in the valley left to right.

Now on top of the high ground behind Cuckoo Rock we could see the back of Combshead Tor and beyond that Down Tor stone row.

Another Tolkienien reference, perhaps Eleanor? The moor was dotted yellow at this time of year

I really enjoy the challenge of finding my way around in open country and identifying specific landmarks to navigate by, ever since I got lost learning to fly years ago on my pilots qualifying flight but went back to the basics of narrowing down my exact position based on known landmarks, to get back on track and pass my test.

Here I was just trying to find the stone row and found myself scanning the horizon from Combshead Tor and suddenly realise I had been looking at it for several minutes before it dawned on me exactly what I was looking at.

The neolithic monument that is the stone row and cairn or collasped burial mound within the stone circle at one end, known as Hingston Hill Stone Circle

Its really amazing to think that this burial mound and stone monument was constructed somewhere between 4000 to 2500 BC possibly just into the bronze age and represents the work of some of the most ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, with the landscape very much as it would have been then.

Carolyn follows the path back in time

With the highlight of our walk found we headed back up hill to start the descent back down to Burrator Reservoir and the car park, with Down Tor ahead and to the right of our path but with a significant enclosed settlement to look at on our way down.

Our path back to the car with Down Tor to the right and Burrator Reservoir in the distance.

This curious Ice Age landscape left boulders precariously perched on rock ledges

The high ground here is covered in granite boulders and made identifying the boundary of the enclosed settlement difficult at ground level.

The circular shape of these piled rocks indicate the circular boundary of this early settlement, perhaps where the people who built the stone row came from

The remains of a round house within the settlement can be seen peaking above the ferns in the centre of the picture, within the enclosure

Two gnarled trees seemed to mark the route between them down to the car

As we descended the path opened out, but the clouds still threatened rain

With the settlement identified we pressed on down the slope, enjoying the copious amounts of fresh air and grateful for the threatening clouds holding off from unloading a shower before we were back to the car.

Dartmoor is a fantastic place to walk with lots of interesting places to visit and we had a great time exploring around Down Tor, which made such a nice excursion after our several weeks of lock down.

I am looking forward to getting back into more walking in the year and will share the adventures here on JJ's

For more information on the sites visited I have attached the following links:

Next up, the crowds line the wharf to see the mighty 112-gun Santa Anna join the Spanish Squadron