Just a few weeks after waving off my eldest to his new temporary home in Portsmouth (where he is embarking on a university work placement), we followed him down for a long weekend.
With early positive reports reaching us of this previously unexplored Hampshire island city, it was definitely the perfect excuse to experience it properly as a family for the first time.
It was an opportunity to appreciate Portsmouth at its most authentic – through its rich maritime history. No better place to start then than at The Historic Dockyard area, where the history of the British Navy dates back 1,200 years to its earliest days under King Alfred the Great in the 860s.
This is the first of a three-part blog, in which I review most of the Portsmouth and The Dockyard’s 12 museums and attractions, all of which can be enjoyed throughout the year with a great value Ultimate Explorer Ticket.
The Mary Rose
History: The flagship of Henry VIII, it served in his fleet for 34 years before sinking during the Battle of the Solent in 1545, with the king watching from nearby Southsea Castle.
The Museum: Her remains, which were raised in 1982, are now on display along with thousands of the original objects recovered alongside the ship, giving a unique and moving insight into life in Tudor England. She is the only ship of her kind on display anywhere in the world. The Museum tells the stories of the 500 men who lived, worked and died on-board. With some 19,000 artefacts on display, recovered from the seabed in one of the most challenging archaeological excavations of all time. You can even listen to the sounds of the past, smell real Tudor smells and see the ship brought to life with cutting-edge technology telling the emotionally compelling stories of what life was like on-board when she sank in the Solent in 1545.
What’s New: This summer visitors can re-live the final moments on board the Mary Rose as it sinks during the Battle of the Solent on 19th July 1545 in the Mary Rose 1545 Experience. Step back in time to hear from King Henry VIII and the crew of Britain’s most famous shipwreck and even experience the immersive Tudor warship sinking. Don’t worry – no sea sickness tablets required!
My verdict: This impressive museum certainly does what it says on the tin and is packed to the rafters with thousands of genuinely fascinating artefacts through which we get a glimpse into everyday Tudor life. The new interactive experience is a great addition, especially for families and immediately engages the visitor. It’s easy to see why this museum has won awards and definitely takes centre stage in the Dockyard.
HMS Victory and Gallery
History: The Royal Navy’s most famous warship, best known as Vice Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.
What’s New: Opened in May, HMS Victory: The Nation’s Flagship exhibition retells the extraordinary story and lesser-known history of the oldest naval ship still in commission in the world. The gallery at the neighbouring National Museum of the Royal Navy, displays previously unseen objects from the ship including a section of HMS Victory mainmast, damaged at the Battle of Trafalgar and displayed in Portsmouth for the first time. Through a mixture of large format cinematic film, interactives, newly displayed and previously unseen artefacts including a shot-damaged section of original Victory mast from the Battle of Trafalgar and a spectacular ten-foot-tall, 200-year-old figurehead, it charts her decline and rescue in the 1920s by the Society of Nautical Research (SNR) and the dramatic events when she could have been permanently lost to the nation.
This enhanced visitor offer also includes a self-guided audio tour of the ship and a dedicated walkway to take you down into the dry dock to view the hull of the enormous 3,600-tonne ship.
My Verdict: The new gallery is a fabulous addition to the all-round HMS Victory experience. Nothing quite beats standing in the ship directly in front of the spot, marked by a plaque, where Lord Admiral Nelson fell. Being part of the bowels of history in this way is both mystical and magical. And I highly recommend tuning in to the new audio tour which really helps bring the stories to life. A personal highlight from my Dockyard experience so far.
HMS Warrior 1860
History: The largest and fastest of all Royal Navy ships, HMS Warrior is Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured battleship and the newest member of the National Museum of The Royal Navy’s fleet. Launched in 1860, at a time of empire and Britain’s dominance in trade and industry, HMS Warrior 1860 was the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet.
The Museum: Warrior has undergone a re-interpretation, reflecting what she was like in 1863 by opening up new areas of the ship and bringing stories from the period to life. With every room you discover and every object you hold, you immerse yourself in a time gone by. Whether you meet a gunner getting ready for battle or a Victorian tourist who’s wowed by the ship’s beauty, history is brought to life like never before. Her story is also told through characters that lived, breathed and worked during the Tour of Britain thanks to the Dockyard Alive team.
What’s New: New spaces including the captain’s cabin and galley have been reinterpreted to reflect how it was 156-years ago. Authentic set dressing you can touch transports you to another time when the grandeur of Queen Victoria’s favourite ship ruled the waves.
My Verdict: A fascinating experience, not dissimilar to the HMS Victory one, and worth including on your Dockyard museum itinerary, but if you want to visit it’s one to prioritise as it closes for the winter season at the end of October.
What to Expect: On the 45-minute Harbour Tour you can expect to see many of the fortifications that were built to protect Portsmouth over the centuries, in particular the Round Tower at the harbour entrance and the Solent forts which formed the centre of a string of fortifications along the coast during the Napoleonic Wars. This wide natural inlet in the coastline is a flooded river valley protected by a deep narrow entrance on two sides of the dockyard, here and at Gosport, which makes an ideal harbour.
My Verdict: Fascinating insight whether or not you’re a maritime or naval enthusiast. There’s lots to learn and even more to see, including unrivalled views of modern frigates, destroyers and helicopter carriers, as well as historic buildings and the dramatic skyline. We’re appreciating this city from its most unique and beautiful vantage point – and there’s even the opportunity to alight at Gunwharf Quays for designer shopping and entertainment. (Also a must-visit on any trip to Portsmouth.) Worth making time for ships AND shops!
NB: The Harbour Tours operate hourly throughout the summer but are weather-dependant so it’s important to keep a check on their up-to-date timetable.
Read second part of my Portsmouth Review here