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Portsmouth Dockyard – HMS Victory & Mary Rose

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Where? Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, HM Naval Base, Victory Gate, Portsmouth · Web: Opening times? 10 AM to 5 PM (Mon-Sun); Last entry 30 mins before closing Visiting hours may change Price? Adults £24.00; Children £19.00 (3-15); Infants free entry (under-3) Entry charges may change Time required? A typical visit is 6-8 hours (including travel time to/from london) Trains: Portsmouth Harbour Train fares

Craig’s review… Do you remember when your parents drove you down to the seaside and said “The first one to see the sea gets 10p!” Well, that’s what I’m doing right now, sitting on the train to Portsmouth… trying to spy the sea. I’m off to see HMS Victory in Portsmouth Harbour – the boat that carried Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

It seems almost miraculous to me that it still survives and I’m quite looking forward to stepping inside it (I’m getting very patriotic in my old age). Apparently he was a bit of an idiot in real life, though. He was the kind of guy who talked about himself in the third-person and insisted on wearing all of his medals at once – all fifty-thousand of them, jingling and jangling like a one-man band. He didn’t do modesty, that is for sure. He knew he was good, and he told everyone worth telling.

As soon as you step off the train you can smell the sea and hear the seagulls squawking around in the wind. It’s a proper seafront with grubby seaside pubs and a messy yard of upturned fishing boats with fishing nets and piles of coiled up rope rotting in the rain. And there are a couple of tanker-sized car ferries off to the Isle of Wight for the day.

The dockyard is just a short stroll from the station, and I don’t mind admitting that I choked up when I first clapped eyes on HMS Victory. I’m standing in front of her right now with a little tear in my eye. There she is… I can hardly believe it. She’s missing her sails, of course, but half of the masts are up and every porthole sports a cannon.

When you step inside you’ll see she’s been dressed exactly as she was on the day of the battle. But here’s the caveat: she looks like she did before the battle. There is no damage on her at all. I would have quite liked them to have left some of the damage and wrenches and tears intact, but I can’t see a single scratch or scrape on her. There are no shrapnel scars, no splinters, no smashed up planks. Everything has been replaced and made to look like new. And notice that I said replaced, not repaired. I had a chat with one of the navy guys onboard and he reckons that only 25% of the wood is original. But who cares… it’s HMS Victory!

All of the decks are decorated with historical objects: cannons and cannonballs and reddy-gold lanterns, wooden buckets and tables laden with biscuits and barrels of grog. You can explore all of the gun decks and galleys, the Admiral’s cabin (which wouldn’t look out of place on a 5-star cruise ship), and see where the surgeon patched up the wounded.

You can even stand in the exact spot where Nelson got shot (they’ve nailed a plaque down to mark it). The most moving bit is down below, where they’ve set up a little shrine to mark the place where he finally passed away. It’s all dark and creaky down there in the hold, with the sounds of the sea piped in through the speakers.

The other standout boat in Portsmouth Harbour is even older: Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose from 1545. That’s the one they managed to pull from the sea in 1982, 440 years after it was sank by the French. You’ll find it in a very modern-looking museum that was built especially to house her. I thought the most impressive part of the exhibition was not the ship’s timbers themselves, but the thousands of artefacts that they’ve pulled up with them.

It really is amazing what they’ve managed to retrieve from the seabed. The cases are stuffed full of Tudor cups and combs, bows, bellows, brooms and flutes – everything from a backgammon board to the skeleton of a dog.

The third big boat that you can board is HMS Warrior. This was one of the very first ironclads and it’s certainly worth a look, but it lacks the interesting history of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose. There are a couple more boats that you can visit across the bay, including a WWII submarine, but you have to board a waterbus to get there.

Unfortunately I ran out of time at this point and had to give them a miss – I’d already spent close to four hours looking around the first three boats and I couldn’t squeeze in a waterbus ride plus another boat (plus the waterbus back), followed by a two-hour train ride back to London. So here’s my advice: decide which boats you’d like to board beforehand, otherwise you’re going to run out of time like I did.

The rest of the harbour is home to the Royal Navy’s modern-day fleet, but you can’t get anywhere near those without being arrested. I was quite surprised to learn that over 50% of Britain’s entire fleet can now fit inside these docks – which shows you just how small our navy is these days. But it does look pretty formidable though: some of the ships I spied from afar looked as if they could blow a hole in the world.

Worth a visit? Value for money? Good for kids? Easy to get to?

I also recommend… If you enjoy this then try Chatham Dockyard; Cutty Sark and National Maritime Museum

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

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