Just a few weeks after waving off my eldest to his new temporary home in Portsmouth (where he is embarking on a work placement), we followed him down for a series of long weekends.
With hugely positive reports reaching us of this previously undiscovered Hampshire island city, it was definitely the perfect excuse to explore it properly as a family for the first time.
It was time to appreciate Portsmouth at its most authentic – through its rich maritime history. No better place to do that than 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.
All of the Dockyard’s 12 museums and attractions can be enjoyed throughout the year with a great value Ultimate Explorer Ticket.
The Museum: The National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth brings history to life. It showcases treasures from the past 350 years and examines the common threads which link the sailor of England’s ‘Wooden Walls’ to the professional crews of today.
The museum’s major gallery Hear My Story opened in 2014 and tells the undiscovered stories from the ordinary men and women of the ships which have shaped the Navy’s amazing history over the last 100 years, the century of greatest change.
The Sailing Gallery shows the realities of fighting at sea in the age of sail, the Nelson Gallery examines Nelson’s colourful, crowded and short life and the Sir Donald Gosling Victory Gallery explores the history of Britain’s most famous warship from the laying of her keel to her significant battles.
My verdict: This museum is a fitting tribute to The Royal Navy which has helped shape today’s world and made Britain a dominant sea power. Well presented and engaging for visitors of all ages, it also includes some clever interactives. It’s very easy to spend a couple of hours in here, emerging at the end with a true education and appreciation of this proud institution.
The Museum: The centrepiece of this museum is a dry dock tour of HMS Alliance (pictured above) – Britain’s only remaining WWII submarine. There’s also chance to see HMS Holland and X24 plus thousands of photographs, documents, ship plans and artefacts.
A tour of Alliance begins in the forward torpedo store, through the accommodation space to the control room, where the navigation systems, including the working periscopes, are on display. The tour continues through the galley and onto the heart of the submarine, the engine room, before culminating in the aft torpedo compartment, where you can see how submariners would escape in an emergency.
What’s New: A permanent exhibition exploring the history of the British nuclear at-sea deterrent is now open, marking the 50th anniversary of HMS Resolution launching. It reveals the challenging nature of working in these submarines and help promote discussion about why the nuclear deterrent was adopted.
Life under the sea poses challenges that go unseen and unheard. The exhibition presents an insight into life on board the ‘Silent & Secret’ Polaris submarines, using personal accounts and key displays drawn from a number of National Museum of the Royal Navy sites, private lenders and other museums. Visitors will be able to hear stories and see documents and personal possessions of those who served in the Polaris submarine fleet.
My verdict: A trip onboard HMS Alliance is one you’ll never forget, not least because of the rarity of the opportunity. As Britain’s ONLY remaining WWII submarine, one is instantly immersed in the harsh realities of life onboard a Navy submarine which last saw action as recently as the 1970s.
A walk around the accompanying museum adds fascinating context to the vessel’s story, including cinematic footage of Alliance submariners at work, rest and ‘play’ and all about how the role of the submarine has changed over time.
The adjacent Memorial Garden stands as a fitting tribute to the 5,300 British submariners who lost their lives in service and is perfect for a moment of reflection after learning about the sacrifices endured.
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum and most specifically Alliance, was one of my Historic Dockyard highlights. It can be accessed via waterbus from the Dockyard or, as we did, enjoyed as part of a day exploring both Gosport’s naval museums.
In service: Between 1947-1973
Length: 281ft (85.5m)
Displacement: 1,385 tons on surface, 1,620 tons submerged
Armament: 10 torpedo tubes, 1 4-in forward gun, 22mm aft gun, 1 0.303-in machine gun
Top Speed: 18.5 knots on surface, 8 knots submerged
The Museum: The story of naval warfare, this interactive museum housed in the Royal Navy’s former Ordnance Depot at Priddy’s Hard, centred around the powder magazine designed in 1771.
Priddy’s Hard was far enough from the main dockyard for the safe storage of up to 6,500 barrels of gunpowder. In the Napoleonic Wars, this was where all Royal Navy warships including HMS Victory came to load up their guns and ammunition, collecting them from small boats called ‘powder hoys’ which had in turn collected barrels of gunpowder carried in barrows down the Rolling Way to the harbour edge.
The site has adapted as times have changed. With the introduction of breech loading guns in the late 1850s, it was no longer necessary to make barrels or test gunpowder here and a series of large magazines were built to fill and store shells. In the 1880s, the substitution of highly explosive cordite for gunpowder as a propellant required the building of a narrow-gauge railway to transport ordnance between filling and storage buildings. Change continued through the 20th century with the development of torpedoes, depth charges and small arms up to the arrival of guided missiles in the 1960s.
What’s New: A major new permanent gallery has just opened. The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces at War, pays tribute to the high risk, high-octane operations of the coastal forces in both world wars.
Two remarkable historic boats that made such an extraordinary contribution to naval warfare, take centre stage – The Coastal Motor Boat CMB331 and Motor Torpedo Boat MTB71. Immortalised as “Spitfires of the Seas” they were often deployed in the dark, at incredibly high speeds as small but fast attack craft travelling at speeds up to 35 knots.
Rare photographs capture the intensity of serving in the coastal forces and the off-duty antics of the crews. Because of the stealthy nature of their operations, few photographs exist of them in action. Sketches, note books and some of the more personal ephemera gives a fascinating insight into the lives of these everyday heroes.
Larger objects on display include a Holman Projector, a relatively crude anti-aircraft weapon operated by compressed air that was an effective stop-gap measure to deter German aircraft; a Mark 11 Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun and a buoyant acoustic mine, representative of the many thousands laid by the boats.
And a gripping audio-visual display vividly recreates the drama and adrenaline of a motor torpedo boat (MTB) night attack on a convoy.
My Verdict: Although visiting before the opening of the new exhibition, this is an explosive museum that packs a punch. Cleverly laid out and home to more weaponry, small arms and torpedoes than you can shake a stick at!
Historians- especially naval and military historians – will easily while away a few hours in here. But it’s also an interesting stop-off for anyone who wants to learn more about the story behind Priddy’s Yard which was purchased to build earth ramparts as part of the defences for Portsmouth Harbour and the Dockyard. The last time Priddy’s Hard supplied weapons to the Royal Navy was during the Falklands War in 1982. In fact, I am convinced I could still smell gunpowder in parts of the building, which by the way, is beautiful in itself. It makes the perfect home for this museum. There’s more ‘big guns’ to see outside too – and I mean big – so no shortage of selfies to be had here!
- Gunpowder is made up of around 15 parts charcoal (to burn fiercely); 75 parts saltpetre (to provide oxygen); 10 parts sulphur (gives out great heat and ignites easily)
- Priddy’s Hard supplied the ordnance for Operation Neptune, the naval support for the biggest amphibious landing in history – the D-Day landings. (1944)
- The first torpedoes were made from elm wood and detonated by electric wire. They had a copper-lined core of explosive but no propulsion of their own.
- There could be ghosts at Priddy’s Hard. The strain of a munitions worker who was killed in a blast in 1922, is said to reappear on the wall of the room that stood directly over the site of the explosion.
The Museum: HMS M.33 is not only the sole remaining British veteran of the bloody Dardanelles Campaign of 1915-1916, but also of the Russian Civil War which followed. The ship is one of just three British warships from World War I still in existence.
Built in 1915 on the orders of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill,she was a floating gun platform designed to bombard coastal positions from the sea.
Her first active operation was the support of the British landings at Suvla during the Battle of Gallipoli in August 1915. She remained stationed at Gallipoli until the evacuation in January 1916 and served in the Mediterranean for the remainder of the War, involved in the seizure of the Greek fleet at Salamis Bay in 1916.
My Verdict: A little gem of a museum that more than warrants your visit. Despite having already frequented the bigger and more historically famous ships in the Dockyard, don’t be tempted to overlook M.33. Climb aboard for a fascinating self-guided tour and cinematic re-enactment that will give you goosebumps – and not just because of the weather!
Part I of my review of Portsmouth can be found here