A Day Out in Portsmouth

Portsmouth skyline

Portsmouth has enjoyed plenty of media attention in the last year or so since the opening of the new Mary Rose museum at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. We decided to have a day out in Portsmouth recently to see the Mary Rose as well as to explore one of the few large towns in the UK which we hadn’t yet visited.

The people behind the creation of the Mary Rose Museum had a difficult task. While looking at a ship that’s over 500 years old might be remarkable in itself, it takes a lot more than the broken hull to make the Mary Rose into a top-class visitor attraction. Fragmented bits of wood will only hold people’s attention for a short time, even if they are in a shape that just about resembles an old boat.

View of the Mary Rose

What the Mary Rose Museum has done very well is to tell the stories of the people who would have been on the ship on the day it sank. They’ve reconstructed faces from skeletons found on the wreck, and created descriptions of the typical lives of the different characters and tradesmen who would have been on board a gun ship of the time. Thanks to the quantity of artefacts recovered from the wreck site the resulting displays contain meticulous details and it is these stories, of the surgeon, the cook, the carpenter and many others, that really make this exhibition special. The modern gadgetry enhances the stories but it is the piecing together of the many clues and creating those stories that for me is the real success of this exhibition.

HMS Victory

Next to the Mary Rose Museum is the relatively young HMS Victory, more than 250 years junior to Henry VIII’s favourite boat. Nelson’s ship looks magnificent from the outside and the crowds on board clearly enjoyed exploring the ship’s many decks and dark corridors, connected by steep ladders and narrow gangways. The ship has been set up to resemble how it appeared at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and as with the 1860 HMS Warrior at the other end of the Dockyard, the most striking memory is the contrast between the different worlds in which the officers and lowly crew members lived while on board the same vessel. Astounding levels of opulence existed a few steps from very cramped and basic conditions.

HMS Warrior

A visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard requires proper advance planning, as seeing all there is to see would certainly take longer than a full day. And let’s face it, most of us have a tolerance level of 2-3 hours, four at a push, before we reach a saturation point at even the most enthralling of attractions. This to me is the frustration with sites such as the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: there’s just too much there to realistically do in a single day. It’s not their fault of course, but you need to make a choice what to see and it’s always the high profile items, in this case the Mary Rose Museum and HMS Victory, which most people choose to visit. Those two visits alone will take 3 hours even at a brisk pace, with the crowds (especially during holidays) preventing you from going round quicker even if you wanted to.

Tickets allow for repeat visits within a 12-month period and many will no doubt leave Portsmouth with a wish to return and use their ticket again within that window to see the other attractions; I wonder how many people actually do come back.

Spinnaker Tower Portsmouth

The other new(ish) attraction in Portsmouth is the Spinnaker Tower. The 170-metre tower has been open since 2005 and looks out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight and across the dockyard. There’s a glass floor on the first viewing deck on which children were happily jumping around while adults approached the same space with visible trepidation. There’s also a free audio-guide which tells you a little bit about the various places visible from the deck.

Glass Floor Spinnaker Tower Portsmouth

We could easily have spent the full day at the dockyard but I was keen to wander around Old Portsmouth, towards the old pubs and painted houses by the harbour which I’d spotted while looking down from the Spinnaker Tower. And it was down here that I found some of the town’s most interesting historical sites. We took a walk along the wall past the Square and Round Towers, defensive structures that have stood here since the 14th and 15th centuries. As late as the Second World War, a chain was tied from the tower across the harbour to Gosport to protect the port from naval attack.


Statue of pioneer family in Old Portsmouth

Old Portsmouth tells its story through the medium of public art, with statues in the area commemorating Nelson and the pioneers who left to America. While the houses have been renovated you can still spot many of their original features – I found the old fire mark below on one. As elsewhere this run-down port district is now probably one of the town’s most desirable areas.

Old Portsmouth fire mark


Many thanks to Visit Portsmouth for providing us with complimentary passes for the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and Spinnaker Tower.

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