Portsmouth and its Historic Dockyard have had an important role in English history for over 500 years and are still an essential hub for the Royal Navy today. It provides a fascinating day out with a huge range of attractions – you can do everything from wandering around ancient warships to sampling modern strategy games to seeing brand new battleships and much more. Located on the coast of Portsmouth with convenient transport links, children and adults alike will have an amazing time at the Dockyard.
The Mary Rose: The only 16th century warship left in the world
On 19th July 1545, after 35 years as an important battleship in England’s navy, King Henry VIII watched from Southsea Castle as his flagship, the Mary Rose, suddenly capsized and sank without a trace during the Battle of the Solent. What exactly caused the pride of the fleet to fail nobody knows, but her sinking and subsequent burial in the ocean floor led her to become the world’s oldest surviving warship.
The Mary Rose can now be found in a specially-designed museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. As well as the 40% of her beams and floors that survive, this museum displays an impressive collection of artefacts. You can see the ship’s original cannons, musical instruments belonging to the crew and the tools of the different craftsmen, and learn about how each was used. The wealth of information that has been gathered through forensic experiments is also truly staggering: you can look into the reconstructed faces of members of the Mary Rose’s crew like the chef, and learn about their health and practices. Visiting the Mary Rose museum gives you a real step into history, a chance to see 500-year-old games and weapons and to learn all about what life was like as a 16th century sailor.
See Portsmouth’s modern navy and historical harbour
In contrast to the world’s oldest warship, Portsmouth has a thriving modern navy, which you can get a sense of by taking the harbour tour. This boat trip takes you in a loop around Portsmouth’s port and harbour and shows you past and present navy battleships, passenger ships and cargo ships. If you can, sit on the right hand side of the boat, as you will get a much better view! From the boat you will also be able to see straight to the mainland beyond, then gaze up at Portsmouth’s impressive Spinnaker Tower while the tour guide shares a wealth of information with you, ranging from fascinating to funny – did you know Portsmouth imports 70% of the UK’s bananas?! Make the most of being able to see parts of the harbour otherwise hidden from view while riding over the waves of the Solent.
Explore Admiral Nelson’s very own flagship
Like the Mary Rose, HMS Victory had an impressive military career, taking part in many famous battles such as the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Unlike the Mary Rose, she escaped from her battles more or less unscathed, and having been restored she is now resting in a dry dock just waiting to be explored. Guides are available to answer any questions you may have while you wander round every dock of this ancient ship. You can see all sorts, from the sailors’ hammocks to their plates and cups, the cannons and guns they used to win their battles, and even a plaque marking the exact place where Admiral Nelson fell after being shot. From the low ceilings to the permeating smell of tar, when on board you can really get a sense of what life was like for the crew of what is widely considered Britain’s most famous ship.
Find out more in the Dockyard’s museums
As well as the ships, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard has multiple museums, showing off a huge range of artefacts and offering a variety of experiences. The Royal Marines Museum will show and teach you all about the history of the Royal Navy, giving you a chance to follow the journey each new recruit makes, while HMS Alliance gives an insight into what life was like on a WW2 submarine, the only British sub to still survive. Finally, the National Museum of the Royal Navy has a number of exhibitions, where you can find out a huge amount about naval history, the people of the Victory, Admiral Nelson and much more besides.
Wander round the Warrior
HMS Warrior 1860 is many people’s first view of Portsmouth. Moored in the harbour opposite the train station, she gives an insight into life on a ship in yet another period of British history: this time the 19th century Victorian era. Her history as a warship was short-lived but impressive: she was the fastest and largest ship in the world when she was built, and the first to have ever been built with an iron hull, revolutionising British shipbuilding. She was designed to compete with the pride of the French fleet at the time, and when complete she was 60% bigger. Come and see things from the sailors’ perspective, and compare the Warrior to the Victory to see how British shipbuilding developed – everything getting bigger and better!
500 years of history in one place
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard has all this and much more besides – Action Stations for example gives children the chance to try out life in the navy, with a climbing wall, a simulator and lots of games. Covering so much history and providing so many experiences, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is truly a unique attraction. It also couldn’t be easier to reach, as it has a car park on the same road and is around the corner from Portsmouth Harbour station and the Hard, where a number of buses stop including the Portsmouth Park & Ride. Tickets bought online are 20% off the on site price - it’s possible to buy an all-attractions ticket, or to pick and choose the attractions that interest you most. With so much to see and do, the Dockyard definitely has something for everyone – come and step into the past!
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