Thursday 27 November 2014

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and Spinnaker Tower

At the weekend we were invited to try out some of the visitor attractions in Portsmouth. We decided to return to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and we enjoyed our first family visit to the Spinnaker Tower.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

We started our day at the Historic Dockyard. We've visited a couple of times (you can read about one of our previous visits here) so we are pretty familiar with it and knew what we wanted to see. If you are visiting it's worth doing some advance planning, because there is a lot to do. As well as the three historic ships you can also take a Harbour Tour by boat, and there are also a number of individual museums on the site. We didn't do the Harbour Tour on this visit as the weather wasn't great, but it's a great way to see the harbour and there are always some interesting ships to see accompanied by knowledgeable commentary.

HMS Warrior

We began our day with a visit to the warship HMS Warrior, the first ship that you see as you enter the Historic Dockyard and which also greets you as you arrive in Portsmouth by train. She was the world's first iron-hulled and armoured warship powered by both steam and sail, although with new technology she very quickly became obsolete and has been used for various things before she was restored as a museum ship. She has been restored to how she was in 1861, and there is a lot to see across four decks. You are given a leaflet with deck plans and suggested touring route so you have plenty of help in interpreting your visit.

There are also crew and volunteers to answer questions. They were really friendly and helpful, and even offered the children the chance to have a go in a hammock, although they were far too suspicious and declined!

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard visit

HMS Victory

While our previous visits to HMS Victory have been self-guided, in the winter months the visit is by guided tour. Although we had enjoyed exploring the ship by ourselves, the tour really was fantastic as we learned a lot and our attention was drawn to things which we had previously missed.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard visit

There is quite a lot of renovation going on to the outside of the ship, and the topmasts and rigging have been struck, but it doesn't affect what you see inside. You can explore the crew's living areas on the ship, see the place on deck where Nelson was injured at the Battle of Trafalgar and then where he died shortly afterwards. You also visit the massive hold where food, drink and supplies were stored. My favourite area of the ship is the Great Cabin, Nelson's living quarters and where he apparently spent an entire two years without leaving those few rooms!

The Mary Rose

It is the Mary Rose which fascinates Harry in particular so we spent most of our time here. The Mary Rose was a Tudor ship, built in 1510, and in service for 34 years before sinking in 1545. The new Mary Rose museum opened in May 2013. Since the Mary Rose was raised from the seabed in 1982 there has been an ongoing process of conservation. Currently you can only see the Mary Rose through windows along a corridor as she continues to dry out, which means it can be a bit difficult to get a sense of the true scale of the ship. In a few years though it is planned for the walls to be removed and you'll be able to see the ship much better. The most impressive part of the tour comes towards the end  of your tour when you board a glass lift which takes you from the top of the ship to the bottom and gives you an amazing view.

Mary Rose ship behind glass

There are lots of exhibits spread across the three floors, based around the artefacts recovered from the wreck. Several key members of the crew are picked out, for example an Archer, the Carpenter, the Cook and the Purser, with skeletons on display alongside a reconstructed model. This is paired with fascinating information that has been gleaned from the remains, for example the geographical area in which the men were brought up and the work that they did for a living. The skeletons are displayed alongside the men's possessions, which have been remarkably well preserved and are fascinating to see. There is plenty of information to tell you all about them.

The museum is very modern and there are some interactive exhibits for children, for example little computer games that they can play and which teach them various things, both about the Mary Rose and about Tudor seafaring in general. There was a brass rubbing area which they loved, and Harry took great pride in his finished work.

Child doing brass rubbings

National Museum of the Royal Navy

Out of all the other attractions on site we particularly enjoyed the National Museum of the Royal Navy as it is well set up for younger visitors. There are ship models to see and plenty of interactive exhibits like a short lesson in Morse code. Harry was fascinated by these biscuits which we were told about during our tour of HMS Victory, and he loved using a magnifying glass to hunt for weevils.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Museum

There is also a nice play area with a little ship for the children to play on, along with costumes and hats for dressing up fun. It's a large museum, so if you are visiting with young children it's worth concentrating on the areas that will interest them the most.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Museum

The Spinnaker Tower

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

When we had finished at the Historic Dockyard we headed for the Spinnaker Tower. It's a short walk away, and located in the Gunwharf Quays shopping centre. The tower is 170m in height and you can see it from all around. You ascend the tower in an internal lift, and once at the top there are three floors to visit.

It was quite a gloomy day when we visited, so I was concerned that the view wouldn't be great. Perhaps it wasn't quite as good as on a sunny day, but it was definitely worth the visit as there was still plenty to see. Most of the more interesting things to see are quite close by anyway, like the car ferries unloading and the ships moving through the harbour, so it doesn't really matter if you can't see a great distance. We could still clearly see the Isle of Wight in the distance.

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

The highlight of a visit to the first viewing platform is a glass walkway where you can look straight down to the pavement below. Ignore the cross look on Harry's face, he was just annoyed that I was stopping his fun by making him pose for a photograph! I thought that the children would be worried about the glass floor with a huge drop beneath, but they absolutely loved it. In fact the walkway was full of children happily running about while the adults watched on nervously before venturing delicately across!

The second floor up is a cafe with a selection of coffee, tea and cakes, then the very top floor is open to the elements (albeit with big glass windows in front of you!) and offers the most impressive views.

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

We finished our day in Portsmouth with a quick visit to the shops in Gunwharf Quays (we couldn't pass the Cadbury shop by!) and then stopped for pizza on the way home. A great day!

For more details about events, local attractions and where to stay, and a copy of the free visitor guide call the Portsmouth Visitor Information Service on 023 9282 6722 or email; details can also be found on website Follow Portsmouth on Twitter for all the latest news and events @visitportsmouth; visit the city’s Facebook page or experience Portsmouth on YouTube searching for Visit Portsmouth. 

We received complimentary family admission to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and the Spinnaker Tower in exchange for this review.


  1. We have done the Dockyard several times while the boys are growing up and the last time we were visiting they were building the new Mary Rose attraction so we haven't seen that yet- that will probably be another jaunt there sometime next year LOL

    1. I'd definitely recommend the new Mary Rose museum, it's very good, beautifully displayed artefacts and very interesting.


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