When hubby suggested that we visit the Portsmouth Shipyard while in England this past fall, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. A visit to a naval base? My Dad worked at a naval base for years (one of the oldest shipbuilding facilities in this country), so I’m quite familiar with touring historic shipbuilding facilities and what they have to offer. I wasn’t, however, prepared for the fascinating, fun and intimidating adventure that was awaiting us.
We chose to stay at a quirky little b&b along the waterfront, originally a 200-year old pub frequented by the dock workers. The location couldn’t have been better. We had views of the waterfront, the quay, the shipyard and the 560′ foot high Spinnaker Tower. The weather was, what we generally refer to as, typical English … a bit grey, overcast and drizzly. That didn’t stop us, however, from seeing all this unique little area had to offer.
Our first afternoon we visited the very touristy quay with all its fine, upscale shops and restaurants. The next day, we took an exhilarating ride on a hovercraft, floating above the sea and traveling at 45 knots, to the beautiful Isle of Wight where we relaxed on the beach, hiked to the top of lookout cliff, ate local seafood and where I’d love to return … for more than a day.
But the reason we came here was to visit the Dockyard. I wasn’t prepared for how pristine this working shipyard would be. It was almost ‘elegant’ in its presentation, and a bit intimidating with its 20′ high brick walls and imposing main gate, which prevent you from seeing what lies behind the walls.
In addition to the fleets of ships and repair facilities, the entry fee gains you admittance to children’s action stations and pirate adventures, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, harbor tours, a water bus, as well as the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. The highlights, of course, are the H.M.S. Victory, the H.M.S. Warrior and the Mary Rose. Being very familiar with “Old Ironsides”, the U.S.S. Constitution, built in 1794 and now housed at the Boston Naval Shipyard, I was most fascinated to tour the equally famous British warship, H.M.S. Victory, built for battle against the American’s War of Independence.
When you step on board the H.M.S. Victory, you get to experience the ship as it was in 1805. Not only can you inspect every nook and cranny of this fascinating vessel, observing where the sailors and officers ate and slept, the costumed crew take on the characters and give you a very real and personal look at how harsh life was like on board as they prepare for the Battle of Trafalgar. Of course, I found the galley and the main cabin to be the most fascinating. Others may have been more fascinated by the cannons and the coal-fired boiler room. All in all, I would absolutely recommend a visit to experience this piece of history.
The entry fee alone was worth our visit to the H.M.S. Victory, but our day didn’t end there. We took a water bus across the bay to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. Having never been on a submarine before, this exhibit was incredibly fascinating to me (and the others in our group). The first impression for me was trying to imagine how these brave men were able to withstand the claustrophobic conditions aboard this imposing vessel.
This monstrous, grey, monolith of a ship was beyond intimidating. The H.M.S. Alliance is England’s only remaining WWII submarine and what an absolutely incredible experience this was. A retired submariner guide takes you through the entire ship beginning in the engine room and ending in the torpedo compartment. He’s not only very informative, but entertaining as well, providing you with all the ‘inside’ information (including how to use the toilet flushing system*). You have the opportunity to not only view the world through the periscope and push the horrifying ‘dive alarm’, you’ll observe how these brave men lived and worked on this undersea, iron amphibian. Each compartment is staged to replicate exactly how it would have been during WWII, from the jacket still hanging on the peg, to the canned milk for the tea, to the photos of their true loves pinned to the wall.
In addition to the Alliance, there is a submarine museum where you can tour Britain’s first submarine, the Holland I, and learn about John Holland, who developed the very first submersible vessel.
From the Victory to the Alliance and everything in between, our visit to Britain’s oldest Naval Base, the Portsmouth Dockyard, was truly memorable. Restoration of these vessels has been a considerable and expensive undertaking, but so worth it. And in order to continue the restoration, the ticket prices are a bit high, but when would you ever get the chance to experience anything like this? I’m sure you’re thinking this would be great for kids and families and may not interest a lot of people, and I was certainly skeptical, but take it from me, you’ll never forget your visit to Portsmouth and the Portsmouth Dockyard.
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* Just for fun: How to Use the Submarine Toilet Flushing System: After entering, close door “A”
- Open waste tap “B” and flush tap “C” with lever “D”, causing door “A” to be blocked.
- Open cover “E”.
- Move lever “F” to “use”.
- Use lavatory “G”.
- Open waste tap “H” and flushing tap “I”.
- Move lever “F” to “flush” position (do this more carefully the deeper the submarine is submerged) until compartment “J” is barely filled.
- Open shut-off valve “K”.
- Move lever “F” carefully to position “eject”.
Compartment “J” is filled through “K” and “L” with air from the 12 ATM system.
- Move lever “F” carefully to the “air waste” position. In this position, the air flows out of compartment “J” through valve “M” to the foul water tank and on to the battery compartment through pipe “O”.
- Lever “F” stays in the “air waste” position when the lavatory is not in use.
- Close and lock taps “H” and “I”.
- Close lever “E”.
- Close taps “B” and “C” with lever “D”.
Note: If these instructions are not followed exactly as above, the contents of the toilet will spill out over and up and down the closet. If you are so careless, you clean it up!
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References: Historic Dockyard, Boston Navy Yard, HMS Victory, Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Wikipedia, John Holland