One of the UK’s three operating bases for the Royal Navy, Portsmouth dockyards are steeped in history. The oldest dry dock in the world, it is home to relics of Britain’s illustrious maritime past – most notably HMS Warrior, the first armour-plated, iron-hulled warship, built in 1861; Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory; and the remains of Henry VIII’s iconic Tudor warship The Mary Rose. Among a flotilla of current and former ships moored at the harbour are HMS Invincible, HMS Westminster and HMS Almirante Cochrane, while Portsmouth will also become the home to the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
There are so many attractions within the historic dockyard it is difficult to fit them into a day’s visit. Highlights include the living museum onboard HMS Victory, where 800 men once lived, worked and fought; the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which brings to life the experiences of the men and women who have contributed to the navy’s illustrious history, and a new museum due to open at the end 2012 that reunites The Mary Rose and the 19,000 artefacts salvaged from its wreck on the sea bed.
For those who like to participate rather than peruse there is the Action Stations attraction, where adults and children alike can experience the thrill of its warship and helicopter simulations, as well as one of the largest climbing towers in Europe and 27 enthralling activities at the InterAction Gallery – bringing you an astronaut’s view of the world, the science behind propulsion, and much more. There is also the opportunity to get up close to the modern warships moored here on a boat tour of the harbour, become a dockyard apprentice for the day and relive the Battle of Trafalgar, making the Historic Dockyards one of the most interactive attractions in the country with a unique insight into British naval and maritime history stretching back over 500 years.
HMS Victory is currently undergoing a period of restoration and visitors have the unique opportunity to witness the painstaking process taking place on the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
Because of Portsmouth’s historic strategic importance there are still a number of impressive forts scattered nearby along the south coast. Most notable are Fort Brockhurst and Fort Cumberland, dating from the 1850s and 1780s respectively. Brockhurst is largely unaltered and its parade ground, gun ramps and moated keep can still be viewed, while Cumberland’s robust pentagonal defences are an unusual sight – access is by pre-booked tour only (for both sites Tel: 0870 333 1181. www.english-heritage.org.uk).
Another south coast fort can be found on top of Bembridge Downs on the Isle of Wight. This derelict fortification is only accessible via guided tour but offers wonderful views (Tel: 01983 741 020. www.nationaltrust.org.uk). In the nearby high street, the 200-year-old Bembridge Mill stands proudly as the only surviving windmill on the island, its four flows and machinery mostly intact (Tel: 01983 873 945. www.nationaltrust.org.uk).
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, PO1 3LJ.
Tel: 02392 728 060. www.historicdockyard.co.uk