Lessons cancelled for a bit of television history

It’s one of my most vivid memories from primary school and one of those televisual events from the Eighties which, like the Falklands Conflict and the Live Aid concert, gripped the nation.

I was 10 at the time and probably recall it so well because it meant something other than lessons for the pupils at was Holden Lane First and Middle School in Sneyd Green.

We shuffled into the assembly hall to sit in rows on the cold floor in front of the school’s one, large colour TV which rested on a trolley in front of the stage.

What unfolded before us over the next couple of hours was pure drama and kept 120 under-11s amazingly quiet and interested.

It was a scene, I’m sure, that was repeated at schools across the country as archaeology came to the masses.

The first few timbers of the Mary Rose broke the surface just after 9am on October 11, 1982, cradled in the arms of a chunky yellow lifting rig.

For someone like yours truly, fascinated by history, it was a tremendous bit of telly and I can’t quite believe it is 30 years ago this week.

First there was the genuine concern that the salvage operation would not be successful – pioneering as it was.

It had taken years of planning and had been delayed by the fact that a detachment of Royal Engineers, who had been working on the project, had been forced to pull out because they had more pressing business with Argentines soldiers in the South Atlantic.

Indeed, the operation was not without its hairy moments – like when a corner of the frame slipped a full metre and we all gasped in horror and the thought of Henry VIII’s flagship disintegrating.

The commentators filled our heads with doomsday scenarios of the hull snapping or the wood deteriorating with exposure to 20th century air.

We simply crossed our fingers that everything would be OK and wondered what treasures the Tudor time capsule would yield when it was eventually brought ashore.

The raising of the Mary Rose was one of the most ambitious and expensive operations in the history of maritime archaeology.

It was significant in that the people behind the privately-funded project weren’t forced to sell-off bits of their treasure trove to cover their costs and led to the creation of the first historic shipwreck museum in the UK to receive funding from the Government.

Mum and dad took my brother and I down to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to visit the Mary Rose Museum when I was in my early teens and I remember standing on the viewing balcony over looking the great hulk which was being sprayed with salt water.

The great warship had been sailing to attack a French fleet when she sank in the Solent – the straits north of the Isle of Wight – on July 19, 1545.

It was no surprise then that among the 26,000 artifacts recovered were weapons which gave us a window on warfare during the Tudor period – including cannons, guns, longbows and arrows.

But the Mary Rose was a floating community which is why everything from casks containing food and drinks to chests of carpentry tools were also salvaged along with rosaries, musical instruments, navigation equipment, clothing and even medical supplies used by the ship’s barber surgeon.

The silt of the Solent had preserved many of the objects well but the underwater environment which had been their home for hundreds of years had made them sensitive to exposure to air. Thus, for the last three decades, work to conserve the wreck and its artifacts has been unceasing.

Millions of pounds have been spent on the Mary Rose to preserve this Great British treasure for future generations.

The final phase if the conservation process – controlled air drying of the hull – is expected to be completed no later the 2015.

I’m sure old Henry would be proud.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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