We had a family Christmas this year, staying in Byams House, the Officers' Mess of 17 Port & Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps.
Staying at Byams House was not just a lovely way to spend the holiday, but it brought together my interests in the 19th century and the history of the British Army.
17 Port & Maritime Regiment is the regiment that concerns itself with things naval. In the same way as the Army has its own air wing (the Army Air Corps), it also has a sea-going capacity. In the past, this has been much more extensive than now, with Army ships (flying the Blue Ensign with crossed sabres) forming a significant fleet. Nowadays the Army's fleet is much reduced, with most military transport being contracted to private vessels. Even so, while the Navy is responsible for fighting on the sea, the transport and landing of military supplies across water is the responsibility of the Army's seamen navigators. (Don't call them sailors: they don't like it.)
British commitments in Afghanistan and the Falklands mean that supplies are continually being shipped to and from these overseas operations and many of these go through 17 Port & Maritime's own docks in Marchwood, just outside Southampton. In fact, while the Army has seen regular cuts since World War II, these docks have been expanded.
Although there are no stables at Marchwood, the British Army (traditionally run by generals from the prestigious cavalry regiments) is still not sure that the day of the horse is over. So Marchwood is not referred to as an Army Port, or a Maritime Logistic Centre. No, it is the Sea Mounting Centre (and RLC officers in mess uniform still wear spurs to remind them that their job is all about horses). In fairness, Wikipedia refers to it as Marchwood Military Port but no one working there does.
The port was built in 1943, to support the Normandy landings. It was 17 Port & Maritime who were responsible for the Mulberry Harbours. This was a system of prefabricated jetties that could be towed to Normandy to provide a working harbour within hours. It was crucial to the success of the Allied attack and remains a core element of 17 Port & Maritime's capability.
Byams House was a rather splendid house conveniently close to the docks. There was a house there before the 19th century, but it was rebuilt as a grand home in 1878. The Army has built a new accommodation wing, and decorated the exterior with cannon, but the feel of the place is much as I imagine it was in the
Modern entrance to Byams House. The original building is on the left.
latter part of the 19th century. The number of people staying there varies as officers pass through or are posted away, but at any one time around seven or eight will view Byams House as home. It being Christmas (we don't start wars at Christmas) only our host was at home, so we spread ourselves on the leather sofas round the log fire in the grand hall and unwrapped gifts we had left under a tree that, although around ten
feet high, was sitting unobtrusively in a corner. We didn't get to use the reception rooms: two rooms separated by folding doors so they can convert to one grand ballroom. The rooms are still used for formal dinners and regimental balls, their elegant proportions and enormous windows ideal for such occasions. Beyond the windows there is a lawn, rather sad in a rain-soaked December, but ideal for summer parties. Byams House also boasts a traditional walled garden, now largely unloved except by officers' dogs who enjoy the chance to run off the lead in safety.
We strolled up and down the grand staircase, or clattered less splendidly on the servants stairs that provide a convenient short-cut. We admired the oil paintings (mainly military vessels) and the regimental trophies, and for two days we allowed ourselves to slip back to the 19th century. By 1878, the end of the great houses of Britain was already in sight, but William Gascoigne Roy Esq didn't know this when he rebuilt his family seat. Thirty-six years later the Great War would end the way of life that had supported these grand homes. Now most that remain are corporate headquarters, hotels or nursing homes. A few have become military property. There, in a world where tradition is valued and dinners still end with a loyal toast, we can catch a glimpse of what life then must have been like.