10 Reasons Why You Should Get Your Butt Down to Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard Right Now

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I've never been a big fan of naval history. 

I grew up on boating holidays and I do love being on or near water, but naval history can be a real bore.For me it sits within military history and the history of industry, both of which I find to be masculine data-smothered snooze-fests most of the time. So you can imagine my surprise when I headed to Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard - a huge complex of museums completely dedicated to naval history - and had a really freakin' good time. All of a sudden naval history was tangible and interesting, filled with beauty and charisma. If I can enjoy it anyone can, so here's 10 reasons why you should get your butt down south to go visit right now.

1. HMS Warrior 1860
My view from the deck

The first thing that strikes you about Portsmouth's historic dockyard is that you're surrounded by beautiful coastline and nestled inside it there are several huge and impressive ships. Walk out of the visitor centre and you'll be greeted with the imposing HMS warrior, the world's first iron-hulled and armoured warship that was launched in 1860 and still looks ready to kick some arse.
The Warrior is an odd beast, straddling two different distinct periods of naval design. It's vast masts and classic shape (even including a figurehead) are very old fashioned, but the warrior is at its heart a very modern beast, which is clearly seen in the iron cladding and the growling steam engine inside. While the ship never actually fired a shot in anger it's nevertheless clear that the technology aboard meant that naval warfare was changed forever. She was described as "a black snake amongst rabbits", striking fear and awe into those that came across her 9,210 tonnes of weight.
As a visitor you're invited to climb aboard and can access almost all areas, delving deeper and deeper down the multiple floors into it's hull. While the Warrior is huge when empty, you must remember that it held a whole army of sailors and the sheer organisation involved in their living space is pretty darned impressive. From a technological standpoint, in both looks and function, the Warrior also becomes a perfect point of comparison when you move on to the other ships in the dockyard...

2. HMS Victory 1765 - Present Day

Perhaps the most famous ship in the dockyard, this impressive vessel was where non other than Admiral Nelson was killed at the battle of Trafalgar on October 21 1805. Like the Warrior this beautiful ship is completely open for you to walk about on, and you can even visit the exact deathplace of Nelson, marked on board by a brass plaque and a famous painting depicting the scene. The ship is again, utterly huge, with six decks which you can explore. Ideally she's best seen after having experienced The Warrior as you can experience a ship of significant prestige and function before the advent of steam. The Victory carried 98-104 cannon guns, as well as a whole rang of handheld weapons which are fascinating to see on display throughout the ship, within easy reach of any crew-member. The same ingenious storage solutions and multi-use items are on display too, which gives you an impression of the day-to-day lives of the crew, but the whole ship is a little more cramped than the Victory. If you want to get an impression of just how many men worked on board, my favourite part was the storeroom where each sailor's kit-bag was stored. Just try to count them, and then imagine that army all squashed aboard at once. The comparison between their areas and the multiple small but more comfortable rooms for the officers is also very interesting.
Surprisingly, The Victory is still classified as an active naval warship and still has its own commanding officer and crew. Should we ever find ourselves at war on sea again, the Victory will - in theory - be ready to raise her sails and set out to defend us.

3. The Mary Rose Shipwreck 1511

Step back in time a little further and you'll find the new gem of the dockyard and my favourite exhibition: The Mary Rose. I love Tudor history, so I was very excited to be able to see in person Henry VIII's favourite warship, especially as it is the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. 

The Mary Rose sank in 1545 off the coast of Portsmouth in a battle against the French, and lay at the bottom of the sea until she was raised from the Solent in 1982. Preserving anything that has been sat under water for so long is no mean feat but it
was obvious that the Mary Rose was special enough to work incredibly hard to preserve. She acts as a time-capsule for the period and contains over 19,000 artefacts which cross military items but also personal items, and even the well-preserved skeleton of 'Hatch' the dog along with a tragic number of the crew members. These crew members became vital sources for forensic science to analyse and from them we learn a great amount about the lifestyles of people (especially sailors) at the time. What's more, the huge cache of longbows found on-board finally allowed experimental historians to have live working examples of British longbows to try and inevitably work to breaking point. This blew out of the water many previously held theories of longbow construction and use that had previously been guessed at.

With such a valuable item to preserve it is not surprising then that Portsmouth sank some serious money into her preservation and display, and the building now boasts the recently opened £27 million Mary Rose Museum. Here the Mary Rose is still being preserved, as she has been for 20+ years. Due to the Mary Rose's position on the seabed she acts as a almost perfectly halved ship, so the museum is designed so that you walk down what would be here centre, with the Mary rose itself on your right hand side and the artefacts found in her on your left hand side in situ with where they would normally be so that you can compare. Currently the Mary rose is partially blocked off with various sized windows to allow you to look inside while treatment is being completed, but within a few years the treatment will be complete and this will be replaced by a full wall of glass. Also above and below, there are more traditional museum rooms, where the personal belongings if the crew are displayed and explained, which  makes for a wonderfully interesting snapshot into several lives. All in all it's a truly unique museum that is well worth the price of admission.

4. You can walk around a freaking submarine!
HMS Alliance Submarine

The control area of the Alliance
In an effort to create one unified museum experience, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard 
has even stretched out its reach as far as Gosport so that it can include the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. The main attraction of the museum is an imposing submarine that is lifted out of the water for visitors to step aboard: this is the HMS Alliance, a vessel that was launched in 1945 just as WW2 came to an end and decommissioned in 1973-9. The trip out to Gosport used to be quite an undertaking, but now a shuttle boat can take any interested visitors across easily, which is also a nice little expedition in itself as it takes you closer to the naval base and allows you to really appreciate the wonderful scenery of the dockyard.

The Museum itself isn't much to look at - a small circular building with a few exhibits. But the trip itself is well worth it to see the HMS Alliance herself. She is Britain's only remaining WW2 submarine, so offers a unique experience to see what life was really like for the crew packed inside. When you arrive you are given a number and are allowed in in small groups of visitors, walking through the submarine while 2 or 3 tour guides - all ex-navy submariners - explain how the submarine functioned, what life was like, and the intimidating (and often dangerous) evacuation drills that the crew were subjected to. After seeing the Warrior,Victory and Mary Rose and being impressed at their cramped and creative living spaces, they were nothing compared to the sheer claustrophobia of this ship which held 65 crew members who all lived in what is effectively a corridor. There were some impressive live features for you to experience as well, from working periscopes that you could look through, to the ear-splittingly loud and buzzing engine room.

The submarine itself is a short experience but well worth the journey. As I mentioned, I was underwhelmed with the Royal Navy Submarine Museum itself, but it's worth sticking your head in for another complete submarine on display: the X24, the only surviving midget submarine from WW2. This tiny vessel is cut in half so that you can see inside and it really shows the creativity and bravery involved in being art of a submarine crew.

5. The Spinnaker Tower

Your friendly neighbourhood blogger's
feet taking in the view
While not technically an official part of the Historical Dockyard, it'd be a crime to visit Portsmouth and not visit the Spinnaker Tower. At 170 metres tall it's a remarkable structure which looks like it ought to be plonked in Dubai with other ostentatious experiments in architecture, but here it does look rather beautiful. It holds three viewing decks, one of which has an awesome glass floor area and another that has a cafe that serves tea, cakes and scones so that you can enjoy the view over the harbour and relax. And don't worry, there's elevators so you won't need to walk! When we visited you could even see the workmen abseiling up and down the structure as they carried out maintenance work, which was pretty impressive. If you can, make sure to scurry down there sooner rather than later while it's still beautiful and white: rumour has it that new sponsorship might mean that it's painted in god-awful brand colours in the future.

6. The Nauticula Shop (and shipwreck booty) 

Back in the Historic Dockyard, what would a museum trip be without a bit of shopping? While there are pretty decent gift shops scattered about at each museum, there is also a hub of shops and eateries you can enjoy, one of which is Nauticula. Now I don't know how far anyone has experienced this shop, but when I was a kid and we were on boating holidays this shop's catalogue always came in the post. As the name suggests it sells all manner of nautical themed gifts: some tat and some awesome. To see the catalogue in physical shop form was pretty cool for me, but if you don't have the same sense of nostalgia for this odd shop then I instead encourage you to check it out for the very awesome shipwreck treasure that it sells. For a couple of hundred quid you could pick up a perfectly formed little porcelain vessel from the Hoi Ann shipwreck of 1490. It's unusual to see and pretty affordable for that sort of age (though lets admit the tourist prices hoik it up a little), so any history buff ought to take a look if you've got some birthday money saved up.

7. The Sheer Amount of Nazi Uniforms, Guns, Swords at the Antiques Storehouse

One of the more independent antique shops and somewhat more expensive, but  I'd recommend that the Antiques Storehouse is definitely worth sticking your head in as the sheer volume and variety of what's on offer is unlike anything that I have in the local antiques shops near me. They have hundreds of guns and swords and - provided you have £20k+ to spare - you can even get a full suit of armour. For me the most interesting items were the countless military uniforms and hats on sale, even including Nazi items. And yes, the Nazi hats really did have little skull and crossbones on them.

8. The Nelson Gallery

After a rest and a cuppa, it's also worth delving deeper into the Royal Navy museums at its centre, which are all pretty interesting - especially for individual items, like huge maritime guns and an example of a genuine 'Jolly Rodger' pirate flag (on red material to indicate that they take no prisoners). For me the best standard museum was the Nelson Gallery. This beautifully designed space is dedicated to the famous HMS Victory captain, and is truly extensive due to the sheer volume of portraits, statues and collectibles from his life and after his death. It feels beautiful and intimate and together pulls together to create a lasting impression of the man and why so many people felt such a lasting emotion for him (that he turns out to be rather good looking no doubt helped!). You may also learn something new: for example, did you know that while he is famous for having grey hair in fact it was a sandy blonde? His hair only turned momentarily grey after the shock of having his arm amputated, but this famous portrait of him, combined with the fashion for powdering one's hair at the time, meant that the idea of a grey-haired Nelson preservered. Also exhibited is his 'death mask' which recent studies has now suggested was actually cast during his lifetime.
Definitely worth a look for any art fans, and for anyone who likes a personal touch to their history.

9. You're Right Next to a Real Navy Dock

If you have time to keep wandering around the dock, one of the other interesting elements is that the modern-day Navy still uses part of it. When you're on the shuttle-boat or looking down from the Spinnaker keep an eye out for modern-day warships moored up and pay special attention to any of the boats near it. You'll notice that they have pilot boats and police boats whose job it is to keep any civilian vessels from getting too close, and they'll always circulating and keep an eye on everything. Pretty interesting.

10. Freakin' Yearly Passes & Improving All the Time

Finally, one of the biggest reasons why you should get your butt down to Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard is that it's not only bloody massive but it is also updating and developing all the time. As I've mentioned, the Mary Rose museum is being updated in line with the restoration of the ship and will get more impressive as time goes on. Also coming soon in August 2015 is the Monitor 33 museum - a real life warship from 1915 - and the Boathouse no.4 which was built in 1939 to answer the rapid increase in shipbuilding required for WW2.

I visited for two days in the end and still didn't manage to experience all that was on offer, such as the Explosion Museum of Naval Fire-power, Action Stations (for if you've got kids) and the Royal Marines Museum. But luckily it's not the end of the world as the dockyard offers year-long passes to the museum. Frankly, if you're seeing more than a couple of things it's definitely worth picking these up as they're pretty decent value for money.

So what are you waiting for? Get your butt down there!

[More Travel Posts]

*A Visit to Stonehenge
*The Festival of Arts and Humanities and Philosophy at the Showroom: Her
*A Visit to Chatsworth House
*A Stroll Around the Lost Village of Damflask
*A Trip to Bishop's House in Sheffield

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