If I could have my time again, I would have joined the Royal Navy, y’know. I mean, what’s not to like about a life at sea? Fresh air, gallons of rum, scurvy (or curvy) wenches, pieces of eight, Spanish doubloons and legalised piracy make up most of the activities in today’s modern Royal Navy, as far as I know. The rest of the time is presumably spent making up words to confuse landlubbing types. Galley? Port? Poop Deck? You mean kitchen, left and toilet, don’t you? Probably.
As you may have gathered, I do secretly love all things pirate, and this probably played an unconscious part in my decision to marry Mrs B, who is indeed a curvy wench from Cornwall, never afraid to let out the occasional “arrrrr” when the mood takes her.
Also, being a bit of a closet history buff and indeed, a closet patriot, I’m acutely aware of the key role the Navy played in our National history – from securing trade routes so we could steal tasty spices from other countries through to winning epic battles against nefarious enemies of the Nation. The story of the sea is so closely intertwined with the history of the United Kingdom, it’s hard to tell where the piracy ends and the Nation-State begins – for my money, we should all be a lot more buccaneering in our approach to modern life and things all started to go downhill when the Navy shrank, but that’s just me.
Anyway, it just so happened that a surprisingly empty Bank Holiday appeared in our normally jam-packed family calendar this month and, having exhausted our normal family repertoire of taking the children to overpriced petting zoos and bewilderingly loud inflatable places, we looked for something to do.
Deciding it was time the children got a good dose of British History, and the fact that Portsmouth Harbour was only an hour by train for us, the scene was set for the most epic battle of all time – convincing small children that learning history would be fun.
Tickets for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
As always, you have two basic options when booking tickets for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Option One is that, if you’re smart and well organised, you can use the online website to book your tickets directly, in advance, and really plan your day out. What ticket you buy is dependent on many factors which I guess only you can decide – how much time you have, how small any children you have are and how genuinely interested you are in all things Naval.
There are a huge number of attractions at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, including HMS Victory (yup, the one Nelson died on), HMS Warrior (Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured battleship that was the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet), The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, the (mysteriously named) HMS M.33, the (must see!) Mary Rose Museum, the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, plus the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and Action Stations.
If time is no object and your children are capable of being interested most of the day, to see everything then an Ultimate Explorer Ticket is probably your best bet. These give you a whole year of unlimited access to every attraction so you can come back any time within a year and see the bits you didn’t manage to squeeze in last time and they’re (as of Apr 23) £39 per adult and £29 per child if you’re smart and book online early – they’re a fiver more on the gate.
If, however, you have smaller children who tire quickly, or you only want a quick peek inside, the next best option is probably the three-attraction ticket at £34 or £24 respectively for Adults and Children, and again, costs a fiver more on the gate.
This allows you to pick three things you really want to see (and I’d strongly recommend HMS Warrior, HMS Victory and the Mary Rose) and again, these tickets come with the bonus that you can come back at any time in 12 months and have a look round again.
There’s also the one attraction ticket, which lets you into one attraction for the day only, priced at £29/£24. Finally, if you just want to wander around and soak up the Naval atmosphere, you can get a Historic Quarter Pass, which is issued at the Visitor Centre between 10 am and 4.30 pm for free. It’s also worth mentioning that under 3’s are free on all tickets.
At this stage, you’re probably nervously fingering your wallet and thinking “Hang on a minute, Jim. I wanted a cheap and cheerful day out, and suddenly, you’re telling me it’s the best part of £140 for a family of four?”
I am – but hear me out. A day out at Thorpe Park is £180 and you don’t even get to make a single pirate joke. Ditto Chessington and both those tickets only let you in for the day, and they contribute nothing to the upkeep of our National heritage and contribute everything to overseas shareholders.
When it comes to preserving the few remaining things that made Britain Great, I am curiously keen on spending money. Think of it like a National Trust membership – an investment in GB Plc if you like. It helps preserve cool things for future generations with the added bonus of the fact you can annoy everyone with pirate noises all day long.
It’s also possible to bag a saving on the standard prices if you’re a MOD 90 holder (free entry and up to 4 guests receive 25% off Ultimate Explorer tickets), a Blue Light or Defence Discount Card holder (30% discount on an Ultimate Explorer Family ticket), a Veteran (gets you £20 Ultimate Explorer ticket), or a Blue Peter badge winner (yes, honestly! It gets you free entry).
All these discounts are applied on the door. Honestly, it’s enough to make me wish I’d sent in more milk bottle tops to Blue Peter as a kid now.
Option Two is that you’re not smart and well organised (hello!) and bowl up on the day and pay an extra fiver for everyone’s ticket. This option will win you exactly no favours with the wife.
What to See at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
- HMS Warrior
- HMS Victory
- Mary Rose Museum
- National Museum of the Royal Navy
- Action Stations
- HMS M.33
- Boathouse 4
- HMS Alliance at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum
- Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower
- Harbour Tours
Visiting HMS Warrior at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
HMS Warrior is cool. She was Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured battleship that was the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet. She set terror into the hearts of Frenchmen and made the trousers of many a Spanish sailor fill with fear at the sight of her imposing metal structure steaming towards her.
It’s also the first ship you see when you enter the dockyard so naturally, we gravitated towards it ready for our first good dose of Naval history. The ship itself has been re-imagined to look exactly as she was in 1863 and the layout gives you a really good idea of what life must have been like for sailors of that time.
There are lots of volunteer guides on hand, always ready and willing to explain the items on show and things like hammocks are strung up and they actively encourage children to climb in and get an idea of how comfortable they are.
Special mention, however, must go to the characters in period costumes who really add atmosphere and excitement to the tour. We arrived just in time for the 11 am demonstration of the Gun Drill, an accurate, humorous and loud explanation of what the gun crews would have to do in times of war to get the guns ready for battle, with audience members “volunteered” (I think pressganged is the right term?) to take on various roles to give an idea of the amount of effort it took to get the ship to “Battle Stations”.
The Officer of the Day, a rather energetic Lieutenant, left us feeling like we’d taken on the French fleet single-handed in the space of his thirty minutes which enraptured my son – the sign of a talk well done.
The rest of the ship was well worth an exploration, with racks of (fortunately) well-secured cutlasses and rifles, cabins laid out as the Officers and Sailors would have lived and huge decks that contained all the galleys, stores and offices that would be needed on a ship of the day. It’s a testament to the staff and volunteers of the Warrior that you stepped off deck feeling two things – firstly as if you’d actually been to 1863, but secondly, that you’d witnessed a demonstration of the sort of teamwork modern business owners would weep to be able to harness.
Every man, every detail, every system and every item had a function that contributed towards the ship acting as one, in perfect unity and harmony. It’s a really impressive testament to the fighting power of the day.
Visting Action Stations at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
After such a huge dose of British Naval History, the children were beginning to rebel as they realised Daddy may have tricked them into learning things on a day off, so it was a quick hop to the other side of the Dockyard to visit Action Stations, the Royal Marines sponsored exhibit that showcased the Royal Marines history and values.
Now originally, they were called “The Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot” but that wasn’t particularly catchy and it must have cost a bloody fortune when it came to painting the signs outside their barracks, so after some cunning marketing, they went for the much catchier and shorter name of “Royal Marines”, much to the delight of accountants the disappointment of signwriters in the Greater Pompey area, I assume.
People expecting to see rows of carefully preserved medals and dusty mannequins wearing long-forgotten uniforms may well be disappointed – as the name suggests, Action Stations is all about getting children moving and excited.
Next to the entrance hall stands a nearly three-story high climbing wall where children can climb in four-minute sessions for free and throw themselves safely off the very top. There’s also a “Lazer Quest” type game for a small additional cost, but if you don’t fancy that, there’s also a Royal Marines branded obstacle course, an Invictus Games stand and a confidence course for smaller children (below 1.2m) which all allow children to swing, jump, climb and jump to their heart’s content and hopefully burn off some pent up energy.
Cunningly, each activity has a big poster next to it which informs you which Royal Marine Values are tested by each activity – the climbing wall is a test of Courage and Cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and the obstacle course is all about Excellence and Determination. It’s a very cunning way to implant values in younger people and of course, if they like the sound of living up to those values in real life, the Royal Navy Recruiting Office is only a webpage away. As an added bonus for fatigued parents, there are a limited number of refreshments available inside – I recommend the strawberry ice cream.
Visiting HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
The undoubted star of the show when it comes to visiting Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is clearly HMS Victory, a living, breathing reminder of the days when Britain had wooden ships and ironmen. Sure, to some, it’s a pile of fancy rope, timber and ballast, but like many a good mechanical construction, what really hits you square between the eyes is the fact this ship contains not just relics and smells of a bygone age, but it almost has the soul of the Nation captured between the ancient wooden decks.
Now, before you accuse me of unnecessary anthropomorphism, hear me out. She was launched in 1765, famously served as Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and now has 245 years of total commissioned service in the Royal Navy in one form or another.
This ship is older than most of the American nations, including some upstart Nation called the United States of America or something (founded in 1776). She’s been lived in, sweated in, eaten in, dined in, fought in and died in. The sweat, breath, and blood of generations of British sailors have been infused into the very deepest parts of the fixtures and fittings and you can feel the huge weight of history as you step on board.
At first look, you can completely understand why HMS Victory was the inspiration for HMS Dauntless, the Navy ship in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl because she looks exactly how you expect a seafaring vessel should.
You can clamber all over the ship and see where and how sailors ate and slept and the drama and excitement of the days of Georgian seafaring. Like HMS Warrior, she’s not built for tall or less abled people, so as you progress down into the lower decks, be prepared to stoop further and further down unless you’ve got a spine shaped like a question mark.
Indeed, the only thing that spoils an amazing trip through an exciting period of British Naval History is the fact you have to exit via the gift shop which has been added to the very bottom deck. This caused some confusion to my young son as he loudly questioned why Georgian sailors would need emergency access to engraved HMS Victory glassware, chocolate and branded pens in the mists of fighting off the French and Spanish fleets.
It’s a great question, but I guess every penny counts when it comes to keeping this magnificent old girl afloat.
Visiting the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
If that wasn’t enough sea-based excitement for one day, you absolutely must make some time to visit the new and improved Mary Rose display at the Dockyard.
Now, like me, you might be a bit sceptical about how the preserved half of a long sunken 400-year-old Tudor warship could be even half as exciting as visiting a fully preserved ship like Warrior or Victory … well, prepare to be surprised.
From the initial welcome from a virtual King Henry VIII, you’re then taken on a virtual tour of the ship’s ill-fated voyage in 1545, including the moment she tragically sank in the Solent just as she was on her way to give the good news to some impertinent Frenchmen with the loss of most of her crew.
Having set the scene, you then walk through to the display area to hear the story of her loss, her subsequent discovery and the history and background of the vessel. There’s a small area where young children can dress up in Tudor clothes, a fascinating scale model of the Portsmouth area at the time of the sinking and displays telling the story of the crew, from the richest to poorest and showcasing the artefacts painstakingly recovered from the depths of the Solent.
But of course, the showstopper is the remains of Mary Rose herself. As the display is set over three floors, each floor takes you past the equivalent deck and again, virtual reality springs into life and ghostly holographic displays project what would have been happening on each deck as you walk by, allowing you to get a real feel for the men who lived onboard and the parts they played on board the ship. Gunners, bakers, navigators and officers spring into life to demonstrate what life would have been like in 1545, before vanishing back into darkness like ghosts bearing silent witness to a time long since gone.
If that wasn’t enough, new for 2023 is the Mary Rose 4D diving experience towards the end of the tour, a hyper-realistic journey allowing you to experience what divers on the wreck would have seen and felt when she was first discovered in 1982. You emerge blinking back into the daylight with a distinct feeling you may have wildly underestimated how dangerous diving is for a living and how cool being on a Tudor battleship really was.
Eating and Drinking at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Of course, in between all this non-stop excitement, you’re going to need some sustenance. Perhaps it’s the sea air, perhaps it’s all the talk of grog and ships biscuits, but halfway through the day my stomach began to rumble like a cannon and of course, small children’s default mood is “hungry”.
Luckily, the dockyard knows this and provides the Mary Rose Café (mostly sandwiches, snacks and hot and cold drinks) but if you want something more substantial, Boathouse 7 provides a full, nautically themed dining experience, with a choice of hot meals or sandwiches at a reasonable price, plus an adjacent gift shop.
I had the sheer joy of queuing behind an overexcited American tourist who asked for “some of those famous British Fish and Chips” only to look on in horror as his plate was filled with a deep-fried cod with an enthusiastic scoop of sloppy mushy peas on top, delivered stoically by one of Portsmouth’s finest examples of womanhood.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I had the scampi – and very good it was too. Feeding a hungry family of four came to about £35, but can be much less if you’re a good parent and deny your children cakes, chocolate and fizzy drinks.
Other Things to Do at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Regrettably, all good things must come to an end and after quite a full day of Naval history, the children were quite physically tired and mentally tired of Daddy’s pirate jokes, so we decided to cut our losses and head back. But if you have the time, there’s even more, to do during your day out. If you have the time, you can hop on to the complimentary waterbus service to visit the two Gosport sites; the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower and the Royal Submarine Museum, both of which are firmly on the list of a return visit, as well as visiting HMS M.33.
All in all, it’s a genuine 5-star day out, although that clearly depends on your enthusiasm for incredible engineering, incredible bravery, mind-boggling history or pirate jokes. If you wanted to trick your small children into learning something cool, or at least gain an appreciation of the kind of things that made Britain Great, it’s not a bad place at all to potter around.
In an age when victimhood seems to triumph over victory, and moral clarity has turned .. a wee bit hazy … you could do much worse than spend a day reminding yourself of a time when everyday people did some quite incredible things. Go and have a peek. After all, England does expect that every man shall do his duty.