Ships and Shopping at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

December 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Leisure, Shopping, Sightseeing, United Kingdom

If you’re on England’s south coast and are looking for a post-Christmas (or any time of year) family day out, I recommend a visit to the Historic Dockyards and the Gunwharf Quay Shopping Centre at Portsmouth for a combination of ships and shopping.

Spinnaker tower at Portsmouth

Spinnaker tower at Portsmouth

To start with the shopping, I met my sister and niece for a girl’s day out at Gunwharf Quays, which is an Outlet shopping centre, selling designer brands at reduced prices, so there were plenty of opportunities to tick a few things off the Christmas list. You’ll find mainstream and designer names such as Paul Smith, Burberry, Timberland, Hobbs and French Connection as well as a multi-screen cinema and the Spinnaker tower, a sail shaped tower from which you can get a view over the whole harbour area. The complex is right beside the Portsmouth Marina and is easy to get to by train with Portsmouth station only minutes away, or by car with an underground car park right beneath the shopping centre.

The Old Customs House Pub at Portsmouth

The Old Customs House Pub at Portsmouth

When we’d picked up a few designer bargains, we stopped for lunch at one of the pubs on the quayside, overlooking the yachts bobbing in the marina. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, but I liked the traditional look of the Old Customs House pub, which was in one of the renovated old brick buildings from the old dockyard days and served moderately priced but nicely presented pub food – see the menus here. There were several different rooms upstairs and downstairs and an open bar area with lots of people out for Christmas drinks or meals from work.

After catching up with family news over lunch we visited the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth which is a few minutes from the Gunwharf Quays shopping area and where you could easily spend a whole day if you wanted to see everything there.  There is a choice of tickets – to either see all the attractions or to choose to visit just one as well as the museums which are open to all. As we only had the afternoon, we chose to visit the primary attraction which is the HMS Victory.

HMS Victory in Portsmouth

HMS Victory in Portsmouth

The HMS Victory must be the most famous ship in the Royal Navy, as the flagship on which Vice Admiral Lord Nelson led the British Fleet to win the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 but was killed during the battle by a French sniper’s bullet. You can see HMS Victory on quieter days as part of a guided tour and when you buy the entrance ticket, you will be given the time of the tour. On busier days there is a free-flow system where you can walk around the ship and guides will be available to tell you about different aspects of the ship.

Figurehead of Nelson at Portsmouth Historic Docks

Figurehead of Nelson at Portsmouth Historic Docks

It’s well worth taking the tour which in our case was guided by an ex-naval gunner, who was giving the last tour before his retirement - I believe I detected a tear in his eye as he walked us back down the gangplank at the end of the tour. The guided tour took us around the different decks and cabins with information about how the seamen and officers lived, ate and fought on the warship in the 18th century. We relived the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place off the coast of Spain and the death of Lord Nelson, who was a national hero and was brought back to a state funeral in London, his body preserved for the journey in a cask of brandy. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the ship, and I didn’t fancy getting a telling off by an ex-naval gunner with such shiny shoes, but you can see some photos of the interior here.

We learned about the cannons and ammunition and about how quickly the British Navy could fire them, due to the constant training they had at sea compared to the French and Spanish who were often blocaded in port. Our guide kept the talk entertaining with explanations of the everyday expressions originating from naval life.

Portrait of Nelson at the Historic Dockyards Museum, Portsmouth

Portrait of Nelson at the Historic Dockyards Museum, Portsmouth

As the majority of seamen were ‘pressed men’ who had taken forcibly from pubs or the streets to join the navy, dicipline was harsh. Punishment was by lashes from a whip called the ‘Cat O’nine tails’ which when it was brought out of it’s bag was known as ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ . After the whipping the surgeon would treat the wounds on the seaman’s back with salt, the most ready antiseptic they had, leading to the expression ‘Rubbing salt into the wound’ , Ouch! and the scars left on the seaman’s back following a whipping would stay with him for the rest of his life, making him ‘a marked man’. The meals of meat stew and ship’s biscuit that were served on a square wooded platter, got a bit monotonous but might be more than a poor man might get at home, leading to the term ‘three square meals’ and the raised edge of the platter was known as the fiddle. If someone had more than his fair share so that the food was touching the edge, it was known as being ‘on the fiddle’.

I thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the HMS Victory which was brought to life by the stories and anecdotes from everyday naval life recounted by our guide. Afterwards we only had a short time left before the dockyards closed and so we had a quick look around one of the Naval museums with with more information about the HMS Victory.

HMS Warrior at the Historic Dockyards at Portsmouth

HMS Warrior at the Historic Dockyards at Portsmouth

If we had bought the full ticket, there were several other attractions to see such as;

HMS Warrior - a 19th century Victorian iron clad war ship, powered by steam as well as by sail power, where you can take a guided tour to hear about what life was like for Victorian seamen.

The Mary Rose – a Tudor warship, the favourite of King Henry VIII and sank off the coast of Portsmouth in view of the king in 1545. The ship was brought to the surface in 1982 and has been undergoing preservation ever since. The ship is currently out of view while further restoration is done, but the museum and artifacts are on display.

Action Stations – a hands on activity centre that brings to life the skills and activities of the Navy, such as climbing walls and flight simulators.

Harbour Tours – you can take a 45 minute boat tour of Portsmouth Harbour with a commentary, and see some of the modern warships and Naval Vessels moored here.

The tickets are quite expensive at £12.50 Adult/£8.50 Child for a single attraction or £18 adult/£13.50 child for an all-inclusive ticket, but if you can allocate half a day for a single attraction or a full day to see all the attractions, you’ll find it good value, as there is a lot to see of interest and it is very well explained and presented. With the all-inclusive ticket, there’s also the opportunity to come back within a year and see any attractions you missed the first time.

Other articles to enjoy

A free day out in Greenwich in London
A river trip up the Thames to Greenwich – Video
Christmas at the Geffrye Museum in London

Travel Resources

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Website
Gunwharf Quays Website
Spinnaker tower Website
HMS Victory Official Website
HMS Warrior Official Website
The Mary Rose Official Website


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