The Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is, without a doubt, the most brilliant family-friendly experience I have had this year.
Believe me, keeping everyone happy is no mean feat. But my wife and I, and my two boys (aged five and seven) were all utterly enthralled in different ways. On the Dockyards’ new Ultimate Explorer ticket, you can visit and revisit 12 engaging attractions over a full year period.
For us the highlights were the Mary Rose Museum and HMS Victory. Despite being a military history publisher, I will admit that I learnt a great deal I didn’t know before.
As you approach the Mary Rose Museum a sign boldly declares that “you’ll never feel closer to Henry VIII”; this is literally true given that as you walk in you can snap a selfie next to a model of the red-headed Tudor monarch.
The museum brings to life not only the 16th century warship and 500 men (and one ship’s dog) who lost their lives when it went down during the Battle of the Solent on 19th July 1545; it also tells the story of the awe-inspiring technical and technological feat of its discovery, lifting and conservation.
Of the 129 skeletons exhumed from the silt, the museum has recreated the lives of some key figures.
Through a combination of osteological and genetic analysis, they have pulled together pictures of characters they believe were the purser, the cook, an archer and a royal bodyguard.
Their bones are displayed alongside their possessions, along with images of how they might have looked.
Other objects found in the wreck are displayed at four levels corresponding to the decks of the Mary Rose; they are all set out opposite the exact positions they were found on the wreck itself, an impressive sight on the other side of the glass in its enormous light and climate-controlled building: visitors pass through an airlock to look down on the spell-binding wooden structure itself.
The attendants are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and answered all our boys’ questions incredibly well and patiently.
The Ultimate Explorer ticket also includes entry to HMS Victory, the flagship of Nelson’s fleet.
As you move through the ship the evocative audioguide tells the story of its journey to the Battle of Trafalgar and of Nelson’s last day: you can stand on the spot where he took a musketball to the shoulder, descend through the steps and hatches through which he was carried down to the surgeon, and stand on the spot where he spoke his last words to his long-time friend and captain of the Victory: “Kiss me, Hardy”.
On the way we learnt all sorts of titbits about early 19th century naval life and about the craft herself, which is still a commissioned battleship with a standing crew of serving sailors.
Brand new for this year is the opportunity to climb down in to the dry dock to get close to the keel and understand how the ship was built and is preserved.
HMS Warrior, the third large ship on the site, was in its Victorian time the fastest and largest battleship in the world.
It is presented in a different way again: instead of audioguides, there are actors in sailor’s costumes who give a vivid picture of life on board, from the boiler room to the top deck — on the way giving the kids a chance to heft some cannonballs and light a cannon.
There are plenty of Covid precautions in place throughout the site, with one-way systems and hand sanitiser dispensers throughout (a jokey noticeboard on board HMS Warrior insists that these are being taken due to a cholera outbreak on board).
The site also includes the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, the HMS M.33 (the sole remaining British veteran of the bloody Dardanelles Campaign of 1915-16) and plenty more.
Not everything is open to the public but there is still more than enough to see and enjoy. Her Majesty’s Naval Base is the home port to 60 per cent of the Royal Navy’s surface ships.
And on our visit, looming behind the Georgian warehouses were two huge aircraft carriers, impressing our boys and giving a sense of how this site is continuing a long historic tradition.
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