Master and Commander - A Patrick O'Brian Museum Trail

By Max Glaskin | 30 December 2001

The extraordinarily popular novels of Patrick O'Brian convincingly recreatenavy life during the Napoleonic Wars, from the thunderous sea battles rightdown to the weevils in the ships' biscuits.The heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend Dr StephenMaturin, encountered numerous adventures around the world and in early 19thcentury English society.Now readers can extend the sublime literary experience of the 20 volumeseries by following this trail designed especially for the 24 Hour Museum.It's suitable for lubbers and all ratings but laggards may miss the tideunless they hurry. There's not a moment to lose.

Shows the cover of the first Patrick O'Brian book - Master and Commander. There is a picture of a frigate of the Napoleonic-era with its sails furled. In the foreground is a small rowing boat with four men rowing. In the top left hand corner are the words Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

The first Aubrey/Maturin novel, Master and Commander.

The extraordinarily popular novels of Patrick O'Brian convincingly recreate navy life during the Napoleonic Wars, from the thunderous sea battles right down to the weevils in the ships' biscuits.

The heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend Dr StephenMaturin, encountered numerous adventures around the world and in early 19th century English society.

Now readers can extend the sublime literary experience of the 20 volume series by following this trail designed especially for the 24 Hour Museum. It's suitable for lubbers and all ratings but laggards may miss the tide unless they hurry. There's not a moment to lose.

Stern of HMS Trincomalee

HMS Trincomalee, Hartlepool.

Cannon on Trincomalee

A visit to Britain's oldest floating warship, HMS Trincomalee, is almost like being on board Aubrey's first frigate, the 38-gun fifth rate HMS Lively, or on his evensmaller and beloved HMS Surprise.

Even though she was not launched until 1817, well after hostilities ended, the 46-gun Trincomalee, now moored at Hartlepool, is very similar in design to earlier ships and it is easy to imagine her crew practising their gunnery skills while Jack times them from the quarterdeck.

Trincomalee overall

Frigates were the most dashing ships in the navy because they were fast andwell-armed: highly suited to Aubrey's demeanour. The Trincomalee gives a fine insight into the cramped conditions on a warship and there is one particularly curious coincidence worth considering as you admire the futtock shrouds...

At the end of the 19th century the Trincomalee was renamed the Foudroyant, after Nelson's one-time flagship and upon which a certain (fictional) Lieutenant Jack Aubrey had served shortly before the beginning of the novel series.

Red House Stables Working Carriage Museum, Matlock, Derbyshire

O'Brian maintains the momentum of his novels on dry land with some memorablyexhilarating carriage rides. Fortunately Caroline Dale-Leech can offersimilar experiences in the Derbyshire countryside. They are more sedate andcertainly safer than those taken by the impetuous Diana Villiers in thebooks.

The museum has nearly 40 carriages available, including a stage coach, aRoyal Mail coach, a park drag and a Hansom cab. If you have the time, apleasant day can be spent riding to the great houses nearby, stopping atcountry hostelries for appropriate refreshment. Budding Dianas may even takelessons in driving the carriages themselves ­ in period costume orotherwise.

Shows a photograph of HMS Victory's stern, which bears the sign 'Victory'.

HMS Victory, Portsmouth Jack Aubrey once passed the salt to Horatio Nelson, one-time commander of this astonishing vessel, and that alone is reason enough to visit.

But our main interest is the sickbay below decks. This is the kind of workplace ofwhich Dr Stephen Maturin could only dream, being spacious, light, pristine, well-aired and as steady as a rock.

a view of HMS Victory from the Dockside

Yet it gives an excellent impression of where the ship's surgeon may havedispensed the bolus, potable soup and tincture of laudanum to crew sufferingfrom the marthambles, the great pox and unbalanced humours. And it's wherehe would examine the wounded before deciding whether to saw off theirshattered limbs with ferocious-looking instruments or cut a little hole intheir skull and cover it with a beaten coin.

a painting of a man working on a ship

The Historic Dockyard, Chatham

a photo of men using a cannon

"She is a Chatham ship...she is pretty spry," said Jack Aubrey describingHMS Bellona which he commands in The Commodore, the 17th book in the series.And here you can see exactly how she was built by following the Wooden Wallsexhibition, a tour of some of the twenty-six trades required to build awooden warship.

a photo of a white slatted front building

Eleven ships of the line were built at Chatham, including HMS Victory, but the featured vessel is the Valiant, a third-rater with the same 74 guns as Bellona which was launched a year later in 1760. It was here also that the great naval architect and master shipwright Robert Seppings perfected diagonal bracing to strengthen ships.

a painting of a large ship at sea

Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth This treasure house of naval history contains some real gems that will inspire every O'Brian fan. The most captivating are the original cover paintings for the Aubrey-Maturin books by artist Geoff Hunt. The museum owns 12 of the pictures and exhibits them in rotation. (Pictured) The Ionian Mission, by Geoff Hunt, RSMA. Copyright, Royal Naval Museum.

a photo of a museum interior

The numerous models and displays illuminate the lexicon of O'Brian's text,from the Articles of War, which describes capital offences, through to theyardarm, from which offenders were hanged.

The area would have been quitefamiliar to Jack and Stephen, each joining and leaving several ships inPortsmouth harbour throughout the series of novels.

Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower, Gosport, Hants. The Museum of Naval Firepower would astound Jack Aubrey. His love of gunnery knew no bounds but even he could not have foreseen how marine ordnance would develop.

Try, if you can, to ignore the 20th century atomic bomb on exhibition, and take a look outside at Powder Quay above. It was here that small boats would pick up prodigious quantities of gunpowder in wooden casks and row it out to Jack's ship, moored safely in the middle of the harbour.

The powder was made in mills in Kent and Essex and stored in the Great Magazine at Priddy's Hard. It was only released to officers with permission from the Ordnance Board ­ or perhaps with a little of the captain's cash to buy more than the official quota.

a painting of a rural scene with cottages

Buckler's Hard, Hants Now a peaceful and picturesque village where the Beaulieu river joins the Solent estuary, it was, in Jack's day, a major shipyard where 50 wooden ships were built for the navy, including four ships of the line and Nelson's own favourite, the Agamemnon.

a photo of two museum dummies in wigs next to a window

The exhibition of village life and its hardships in the 18th century gives a clue as to why so many man preferred to take their chances at sea, particularly if fortunate enough to crew a vessel commanded by 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey.

One cottage is especially relevant. Inside is shipwright Henry Adams poring over plans under the scrutiny of an overseer from the Navy Board. As O'Brian readers know, Jack had particular ideas about ship design and a deep loathing of bureaucracy. He'd have befriended Adams and wasted not a moment with the overseer.

Websites worth visiting on the trail of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin :

www.hmssurprise.org - an inspiring site for O'Brian devoteeswww.io.com/gibbonsb/pob/ - an all-embracing compendium of O'Brian siteswww.aubreymaturin.co.uk - organisers of trips and events associated withJack and Stephen's adventureshttp://williamcalvin.com/bookshelf/POB.htm - for an appreciation of theAubrey-Maturin novels and some particularly commendable extractswww.theorlopdeck.org - devoted to historical naval surgery www.btinternet.com/~lawrence.edwards/tallships/pob/pob.htm - Tall ships fan Lawrence Edward's Patrick O'Brian page.

Max Glaskin is an award-winning freelance journalist regularly published in the Sunday Times, New Scientist and many other national publications.

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