Living close to Southampton and Portsmouth, I grew up hearing all the daring, astonishing and tragic tales from the sea. As such I have always had a fascination with shipping and maritime history, and is one reason why I started this blog.
One of the reasons behind this fascination is linked back to one of my very first memories. I remember standing and looking up at a grand and imposing ship moored at the quayside in Portsmouth. This was HMS Warrior and I was on my first visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. That memory has stayed with me since and has influenced many aspects of my life.
I recently revisited the Dockyard, having not been back in many years, and it was like visiting for the first time all over again. It’s a great day out and has something to interest everyone. I thoroughly recommend going and learning about the maritime history of the UK and its role in the World.
The Dockyard itself forms part of Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth and is home to two thirds of the current Royal Navy fleet. The Historic Dockyard is the name given to the portion of the base which is open to the public and plays host to a number of historic artefacts. So what can you expect to see on your day out?
What to do and see
A variety of attractions can be found within the main Dockyard.
The Mary Rose
The Mary Rose is the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. This was henry VIII’s favourite warship, which sank off the coast of Portsmouth in 1545, before being rediscovered and subsequently raised in 1982. She has been painstakingly conserved and enclosed within a purpose-built museum which opened in 2013. The museum is a fantastic space where you can get lost in the history of the ship and the time.
This is arguably one of the most famous warships in the world. Best known for her role at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Victory is also the oldest commissioned warship in the world, having a dual role as the Flagship for the UK’s First Sea Lord and as a living museum.
It was on the Victory, during the Battle of Trafalgar, that Admiral Nelson died and is considered to be an iconic moment in world history. The ship will take you on a journey to understand technical maritime advancements of the day, together with her role during Trafalgar, the death of Nelson and what life would have been like on board the ship.
The ship is currently undergoing a multi-million pound 13-year restoration to preserve and restore the ship. The most obvious sign of this is that her masts have been temporarily removed.
HMS Warrior 1860
The Warrior was the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet. Warrior was designed to be the ultimate deterrent to the French navy and was the first armour-plated, iron-clad warship in the world, as well as being the largest and fastest at the time. She had a lasting influence on naval architecture, so much so that she become outdated very quickly. As a result, throughout her life she has served many roles including as a depot, a school and an oil jetty. She was restored in the late 1970s and now acts as a museum to the Victorian Navy.
One of the newer attractions in the Dockyard, M.33 is one of just three British warships to survive from World War I. Built in 2015, she is a floating gun platform (or Monitor) designed to bombard coastal positions. She supported campaigns such as the Battle of Gallipoli and around the Mediterranean until the end of the War. She then went on to serve as part of the North Russian Expeditionary Force before becoming a mine laying training ship at Portsmouth.
National Museum of the Royal Navy
Here you can learn about the history of the Royal Navy and how it has helped to shape the world. It takes you through the ages of the navy through to modern day through a number of gallery’s. The museum’s major gallery, Hear My Story, opened in 2014 and tells the story of the ordinary men and woman from over the past 100 years.
In the Sailing Gallery you can learn more about HMS Victory, the Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson. As HMS Victory undergoes her refit and conservation, the exhibition will also share forensic analysis being undertaken to understand her past as well as secure her future.
36 Hours: Jutland 1916
The Battle of Jutland, in 1916, was one of the largest naval battles ever involving 250 ships and 100,000 men. This exhibit tells the story of the battle through the largest collection of artefacts ever assembled.
This is another new attraction for the Dockyard. Boathouse 4 which tells the story of the forgotten small craft that have acted as a backbone of the Royal Navy. If you’re feeling courageous you can even climb an indoor ship’s mast. At the top of Boathouse 4 you’ll also find a lovely café and brasserie overlooking Portsmouth Harbour.
This attraction, housed within Boathouse 6, is an interactive experience which features a unique series of physical challenges, simulators and technological experiments, which put visitors at the heart of the modern naval experience.
A visit to the Dockyard would not be complete without a tour of the harbour. On the tour you’ll see both the Historic Dockyard, but also learn about the active Royal Navy base and the history of Portsmouth Harbour.
Further features are set to be revealed in the coming years, with the Royal Marines Museum locating to the Dockyard. The new attraction will open in Boathouse No.6.
As with many attractions such as this, queues can be quite long. So here’s some practical advice for your day out:
- Arrive early to enjoy a full day at the Dockyard
- Allow plenty of time to go through security
- I found queues for HMS Victory to be the worst, so my advice would be to try and do this first thing when you arrive, or at other natural lulls in the day such as Lunch.
- The Harbour Tour usefully stops at Gunwharf Quays shopping area, so if you time this right you could finish your day off there.
Outside the dockyard
Beyond the Dockyard there a number of sites and attractions close by. This includes shopping, bars and restaurants at Gunwharf Quays, just 5 minutes walk from the site. Here you’ll also find the Emirates Spinnaker Tower. A landmark tower with an on-site cafe and a glass-floored platform overlooking Portsmouth harbour.
Tickets for the day are £28 for adults and £12 for kids. Ticket packages for groups and families are also available. I advise looking around as you can get a number of special offers online.
These tickets are valid for a year, so you can come back if you don’t have time to see everything in a day, or just fancy coming again!
How to get there
There are a number of ways to get to the Historic Dockyard.
- By Rail: You can easily get to the Dockyard from Southampton and London. The Dockyard is located adjacent to Portsmouth Harbour railway station and couldn’t be a more convenient way of visiting.
- By Car: Travel on the M27 or A3 towards Portsmouth. As you approach the city you will see distinct brown and white signs signposting the way to the dockyard.
There’s so much to do if you are visiting Southampton and Hampshire. For more ideas look here.