Review: Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

I finally paid a long overdue visit to Portsmouth last month and caught up on the key ‘attractions’ on both sides of the harbour.

I’m going to address the main attractions – HMS Warrior, HMS Victory, HMS M33, The Mary Rose museum, The Royal Navy Submarine Museum and Explosion: The Museum of Naval Firepower – individually in their own posts, but I thought I’d start with the Historic Dockyard itself as an overview, its ‘other’ attractions, and some of the highlights to be found there. I’ll add the links as I post them…

Historic Dockyard Overview

There’s no doubt, it has the potential to be really confusing! The Historic Dockyard is physically interwoven (separated by fences and MOD Police) with the very active Royal Navy Dockyard, home to our capital ships. As you look at HMS Victory, there behind her are our current capital ships, HMS Elizabeth, and when I visited, HMS Prince of Wales.

It doesn’t stop there. The Historic Dockyard is the home of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) AND the Mary Rose Trust. There was a time when you could buy a combined ticket, but the Mary Rose Trust has now gone its own way and you have to buy a ticket for the Mary Rose and one for everything else! If you haven’t done it already online, there are two separate ticket offices at the entrance.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy is another confusing name. It should be National Museums of the Royal Navy because there are several. The main museum is here in the dockyard with its Museum Ships, HMS Victory, HMS M33, HMS Warrior. Its other museum sites are on the other side of the river in Gosport (RN Submarine Museum) and Priddy’s Hard (Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower), down in Yeovilton, Somerset (Fleet Air Arm Museum), up in Hartlepool (HMS Trincomalee) and over in Belfast (HMS Caroline).

And while we’re on it, there is a plan to bring the Royal Marines Museum into the Historic Dockyard from its former Eastney seafront site on the other side of Portsmouth. The museum closed last year, partly in anticipation of the move into the Historic Dockyard’s ‘Action Stations’ building, which is currently used as a commando assault course playground/experience for kids. Unfortunately in October 2018 the NMRN had its £5m Heritage Lottery funding application turned down, so now they have to raise the money themselves which means that project will be delayed beyond its planned opening in 2020.

What’s in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, apart from the ships?

Well, on the east side of ‘Main Road’ there is the ‘Action Stations’ building I just mentioned, and a small dock in front of it used for some water borne family activities. There are also some food & retail outlets and two exhibition spaces. One of them was used, until recently for the ’36 Hours – Jutland 1916′ Exhibition which ran throughout 2018. The space is now being prepared for the 2019 exhibition on Pirates. The other exhibition space, Boathouse 7′, is used for the ‘Dockyard Apprentice’ exhibition, which highlights the experiences of young dockyard workers on the Admiralty Apprenticeship Scheme, which, at the start of the 20th century took 7 years to complete.

Boathouse 4

Yellow gantries tower over a hanger-like building with wooden boats being built, repaired and restored.
Boathouse 4 – the small boat workshop

Appropriately, immediately opposite, on the west side of Main Road, is ‘Boathouse 4’ which shows many of those same skills in real life application. Boathouse 4 is the home of the Boatbuilding and Heritage Skills Centre, where the students of the International Boatbuilding College and Highbury College learn their practical skills in wooden boat building, repairing and renovation under the watchful gaze of the public. It also has a number of historic cutters, pinnaces, launches and other small boats on display, and, rather bizarrely, an upmarket restaurant & bar overlooking it all (good spot for a cup of tea!).

Two two-man canoes
The ‘Cockleshell’ canoes. Mk7 (Dark green) & Mk2 (Light blue)

On the mezzanine level opposite the restaurant there is a collection of historic small boats on display. These include two very important examples of the canoes developed by Royal Marine Commando, Herbert “Blondie” Hasler, who was leader of the famous ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on Bordeaux in 1942. Blondie Hasler was one of the founding members of the Special Boat Service (SBS) and spent some time developing canoes for clandestine sabotage missions.One of the canoes on display is a Mk2 canoe, as used on the Bordeaux raid (there are only six still in existence). Hasler’s speciality was adding a sail to canoes, which you can see perfected in the Mk7 canoe next to it which had outriggers for stabilisation and was used to raid Japanese ships in Singapore. I’ve got a really good book on the SBS and Hasler’s role, if you’re interested: SBS – The Inside Story Of The Special Boat Service Pound sign

National Museum of the Royal Navy

Then, running along the west side of Main Road comes the National Museum of the Royal Navy itself, housed in two linked buildings, with a third detached building at the end, which was the original HMS Victory Gallery building, built in 1938. Next door, in the NMRN main building is another Nelson Gallery dedicated to Nelson’s personal life, and upstairs in a loft is the ‘Trafalgar Sail’

I’m reviewing HMS Victory and those related ‘on shore’ Victory and Nelson exhibitions here.

The NMRN’s remaining two galleries are on the ground floors of its two linked buildings. Broadly they cover the age of sail (‘The Sailing Navy’) in the first, and the age of propulsion (‘HMS Hear My Story’) in the second.

There are some interesting items in both halls and their connecting corridors.

For example the HMS Victory 42-pounder cannon on display in The Sailing Navy gallery. No, not that HMS Victory, her predecessor, launched in 1837 and lost with all 1,100 hands in the English Channel in 1744, 21 years before Nelson’s flagship was launched. The wreck of Victory 1737 was only discovered recently and this cannon, which the museum has had since last Sept is one of two brought to the surface. See? And you would have walked past it thinking “just another cannon” if I hadn’t told you!

There’s another significant historic cannon in the corridor between the two main galleries; the 4″ Naval Gun that fired the Royal Navy’s opening shot of WW1 when on 5th Aug 1914 HMS Lance sank the German minelayer Konigin Louise.

If you are a regular reader you’ll know I’m a sucker for models and there are plenty of ship models in both galleries, but one in particular, the large scale model of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle in the ‘HMS Hear My Story’ gallery is definitely worth looking out for.

And also look out for the German Enigma coding machine. Yes, I know. It’s not unusual to see Enigma machines, but this one is rare. It’s an M4 machine, donated to the NMRN by the Royal Navy Signals School at HMS Mercury in 1983 (together with its spare rotors found almost 30 years later), but it doesn’t have a reflector (that sends the signal back through the scrambling system) so it has an adapted rotor. I thought M4 machines were only used by the U-boat arm, so I can’t see that it has a rotor to spare, but hey, what do I know!

The NMRN museum also has a small collection of armaments; shells and missiles, but if you are interested in ordnance then head for the NMRN’s excellent Explosion! museum on the other side of the harbour, which I’ll review soon.


Declaration: No need. I was visiting Portsmouth on my own. All entrance fees, accommodation, petrol, etc paid by me.

 

Factbox

Website:
National Museum of the Royal Navy
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is a brand of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (it used to be separate).

Getting there:

Stone pillared gateway with security tents inside
Victory Gate entrance

The Historic Dockyard is, naturally, right at the heart of Portsmouth. The entrance, Victory Gate, is at the junction where Queens St becomes The Hard, a hundred yards from Portsmouth Harbour rail station and the bus station.

If you are driving, you can make use of the Park + Ride scheme from the outskirts of Portsmouth, which of course is cheap as chips! (£4 per day). Or the Historic Dockyard has parking for 295 cars (follow the brown tourist signs) and within easy walking distance is the Gunwharf Quays shopping centre car park.

You can get between the NMRN sites at the historic Dockyard and across the harbour using the free NMRN passenger ferry.

 

Entry Price:
The Portsmouth Historic Dockyard tickets cover almost all attractions in the dockyard and on the other side of the port, namely HMS Warrior, HMS Victory, Boathouse 4, Harbour Tours, Action Stations, HMS M.33, National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth, Dockyard Apprentice, Explosion Museum and Royal Navy Submarine Museum. The Mary Rose is a separate ticket.

  Any 1 Attraction* Any 2 Attractions Any 3 Attractions Full Navy
Adult £18.00 £25.00 £32.00 £31.00
Child (5-15) £13.00 £18.00 £23.00 £18.50
Concession (60+ or Students) £17.00 £23.50 £30.00 £27.00
Family 1+3 (1 adult & up to 3 children) £37.60 £48.00
Family 2+3 (2 adults & up to 3 children) £49.60 £68.00

* Explosion Museum and Royal Navy Submarine Museum count as one attraction for ticketing purposes.

You can see, the pricing is designed to steer visitors to “Full Navy” tickets, which give access to all the attractions on site (except Mini Ports, Laser Quest and Mary Rose) and the other side of the harbour, for a whole year.

However you might also consider NMRN Membership, which gives you a year’s access to all these attractions AND to the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, Somerset, HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool, and HMS Caroline in Belfast. You also get 25% discount for up to 4 friends & family members, and discounts on NMRN food outlets & shops. You also get their ‘Scuttlebut magazine, which actually a seriously good read! Membership costs £48.00 Single, £66.00 Couple, £78.00 Family.

Look out for Special Offers online. Eg. currently there’s a ’14 months for 12′ deal on Full Navy tickets.

There is a Gift Aid option on tickets (which allows the NMRN to reclaim 25p tax for every £1 spent).

 

Opening Hours:

The Historic Dockyard is open on all days around the year (apart from the usual December breaks), but the two sites on the other side of the harbour have different timings. In particular, Explosion! only opens on weekends during the winter.

During the rest of the year it is open every day (inc Sundays and public holidays), except Tuesday mornings.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

WINTER (29 Oct 2018 – 25 Mar 2019) SUMMER (26 Mar 2019 – 28 Oct 2019)
10am to 5pm Daily 10am to 5:30pm Daily

 

Submarine Museum, Gosport and Explosion!, Priddy’s Hard.

  WINTER (29 Oct 2018 – 31 Mar 2019)** SUMMER (01 Apr 2019 – 27 Oct 2019)
Submarine Museum 10:30am*** – 4:30pm. Closed every Monday and Tuesday. 10.00am – 5.00pm Daily
Explosion 10:30am*** – 4.30pm. Closed Mon – Fri. Open Sat & Sun. 10.00am – 5.00pm

** This excludes February half term (18 – 22 Feb) when both sites will be open every day.
*** I would double check on this. When I arrived at 10.30am I was told Explosion! had been open for 30 mins and the website was in error.

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The Historic Dockyard has a lot to see in addition to its famous ships.
The main NMRN has some interesting artifacts but not as many as I was expecting, although to be fair there is a great deal to see at their off-site museums and in the Victory & Nelson galleries. I thought Boathouse 4 was a worthy addition to the dockyard, linking the skills & traditions of the historic dockyard with the present, and I was very pleased to see the SBS canoes. I missed the Jutland Exhibition and was too early for the next major Exhibition in that space. (See 'About' for review criteria explanation)
EXHIBITS 75
DISPLAY 73
TECH 62
VALUE 66

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