It was that time of year again … coming up to the man-human’s birthday and so holiday plans were, of course, afoot – or indeed, a paw, as the case may be?
We came to be in Portsmouth because we were going to the Isle of Wight but it seemed a shame to just bypass it and jump on the ferry to Fishbourne so we decided to stay for the weekend beforehand. Although I am obviously usually one for travelling on the cheap I don’t mind one bit if the humans decide to splash out a bit (comparatively) which they did on this occasion. We stayed in a lovely 4-star B&B on “Spice Island” in Old Portsmouth called Fortitude Cottage, run by Maggie and Mike.
A slight faux pas occurred when the humans paid £20 to park the car all weekend opposite Fortitude Cottage only to be handed a pass when they checked in which would have given them free parking for the duration of our stay. They admitted that they probably hadn’t read the B&B website properly and silently congratulated Portsmouth Council on £20 well made. Maggie gave us a helpful map of the area and pointed out various options for food and things to do and key in hand we went up to our room; room 1, a very pleasant double en-suite with a cool views across the harbour. They had even supplied binoculars so we could do some seagull spotting or ship spotting or something. To be fair the Wightlink ferry comes so close you hardly need binoculars to see it but you could probably use them to lip read what the people are saying on the viewing gallery of the Spinnaker Tower at Gunwharf Quays. (Incidentally, Maggie says that the building site over the road has been that way now for about 7 years and it doesn’t look as though anybody will be building on it in the near future, which is good as it would ruin the view).
This is the view back towards Fortitude Cottage from the Spinnaker Tower viewing deck (more about that shortly). You can see what a lovely location it is, right out in the harbour in old Portsmouth on Spice Island as it was known historically.
THE MILLENNIUM TRAIL
We didn’t want to waste any daylight so headed out straight away to explore. Maggie had pointed out a useful walking route which follows a chain motif in the pavement that would take us to Gunwharf Quays in 10 minutes and the Historic Naval Dockyard in about 20 minutes. The Millennium Trail walk went right by Fortitude Cottage on the other side of the road so, after stopping to eat our sandwiches out on the point overlooking the harbour mouth, we headed toward the Spinnaker.
This is a brilliant booklet, audio guide and family activity sheet by Discovering Britain (that we only found when we came back – oh well!) that features the millennium trail and Old Portsmouth in detail with pictures and explanations of the landmarks … OLD PORTSMOUTH GUIDE. The walk is flat so it’s really easy for everyone to do and there’s lots of places to stop on the way.
A TRIP UP SPINNAKER TOWER
When we got to the Spinnaker Tower we decided, since it was a nice sunny day, to go up it to the viewing gallery. On a murky day there wouldn’t be a lot of point but on a clear day you can see for, they tell me, about 23 miles. For those of you who like facts and figures, it opened in 2005, is 170 metres high, weighs more than 30,000 tonnes and is taller than Big Ben. A lift takes you up to the first viewing deck at a height of 100 metres. There are audio guides, interactive screens and things and most exciting; a big see-through section in the middle of the floor that you can walk across (you have to take your shoes off, unless you don’t wear shoes like me, which is useful). It’s pretty hair raising: you can see straight down to the floor below.
They have a cafe on the next floor up and then another viewing deck above that. It usually opens from 10am – 6pm but do check their website HERE. They have a big information board by the entrance too. You can book tickets online and save a bit of money but if you want to visit any of the things at the dockyard they do a variety of joint tickets you buy on the day instead which include the Spinnaker and/or HMS Victory, the Mary Rose Museum, HMS Warrior, Harbour Tours, the Museum of the Royal Navy and Action Stations. It is a good saving if you know you want to see lots of other things and the tickets are valid for a year – a whole year! So you can come back and visit again and don’t have to pay … how great is that?
THE HISTORIC NAVAL DOCKYARD
Portsmouth is a working Naval base and there are lots of exciting ships there of all ages and types. If you are planning to visit, although the official websites are really helpful, my biggest advice is to ignore any suggested visiting duration times: whatever it says – double it. And if you are only 6 or 7 inches tall like me you’d better hope someone with longer legs will carry you around! If you want to see all the historic dockyard attractions properly without rushing and missing bits you really need to have 2 or 3 full days at it. So many people must just come to see Mary Rose or HMS Victory and that is a shame because you miss such a lot of other really interesting things to do and see. These are the things we managed to do in a day and a half:
- HMS Victory
We got to HMS Victory later in the afternoon and it was nice and quiet. You follow a set route round each of the decks which is helpful. There is lots of information as you walk round so take your time. Also the lower decks have pretty low ceilings so you need to mind your head – here my diminutive stature is a bonus! Look out for the small plaque up on the quarterdeck marking the spot where Nelson fell having been mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805.
If you want to learn about the Battle of Trafalgar THIS is a brilliant animated map of the battle from the BBC History website.
- Mary Rose Museum
On our second day we aimed to be at the gates just before opening which turned out to be a good plan as you have to do battle with queues of people coming off coaches at the nearby bus station; you really don’t want to get stuck behind hundreds of people as you still have to go through the ticket office to re-validate your ticket for the day. Many people seem to head for Victory or the Mary Rose first so if that is your plan too then you need to beat them to it at the gate. There was already a small queue by the time we had walked up to the Mary Rose museum but as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long.
You can have your picture taken with Henry VIII just as you go in. I declined as he looked a bit gruff and probably had little time for a small bear such as I to be honest. We didn’t really know too much about the ship itself or the Battle of the Solent so the first bit is really interesting. There was a lady there who knew heaps about history and we listened to her for ages. After that we went off down one of the galleries that runs the length of the shipwreck. It has been sprayed for years with a chemical solution that will strengthen the wood and now it’s got to spend years drying out which is what the big black pipes are in the picture below. Take your time looking round the artefacts and cabinets as there’s lots of interesting things to read about. You have to be patient if it is busy as some people can be quite rude and push in front of you. Incidentally, the windows along the galleries are all set at different heights for big and small people, which is thoughtful.
- Museum of the Royal Navy
The museum is huge and I think spread across a few buildings; we went in the smaller building directly opposite HMS Victory. I must confess we didn’t take any pictures in here and we didn’t have time to explore all of it, but what we did see was excellent. Lots of hands on exhibits, touch screen quizzes and learning how to fire a cannon (which was fun) and videos about life in the navy. There were lots of old models of ships and paintings too. When we go back one day we will spend some more time in there and in the bigger building next door.
- HMS Warrior
HMS Warrior is a quite beautiful looking thing. It is powered by steam and by sail and was Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured warship. In its day it was the biggest and most powerful ship but after only a short time, technology and shipbuilding advanced and it became totally outdated. After nearly being scrapped it had a bit of a sad life until some people decided to restore it to how it would have looked in its heyday. It’s really interesting to walk around inside and you can go up and down onto all the decks.
- Dockyard Apprentice
The Dockyard Apprentice exhibition is in the large cafe and shop building near the main dockyard entrance (or exit depending on how you look at it). It shows all kinds of skills that people who worked on the dockyard might need. The people at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical trust have put together a useful rundown of all the exhibits on this document, though there are information boards and plaques all the way round. People might have needed to be carpenters, blacksmiths, electrical fitters, painters, flag makers, been able to make and/or look after sails and rigging or rope. You can get a dockyard apprentice passport at the shop and have it stamped when you leave. Somebody once upon a time carved this rather sad looking lion!
- Harbour Tour
The last thing we did at the dockyard. It takes about an hour I guess and goes all round the harbour and was really interesting. We saw a massive container ship carrying bananas – imagine that many bananas! They told us about all the ships in the harbour and the surrounding area as we sailed around on their boat, the Solent Cat. You can stay inside on the boat or you can go up and stand on the roof which is better for taking pictures, if a little windy. You can board the harbour tour either at the dockyard or, like we did, from the marina just by the Spinnaker.
In the centre there is aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. She went out on manoeuvres the next day along with HMS Kent and we missed them leaving the harbour as we were sat in the queue for our ferry. Humf!
Where we had dinner and things
We were a bit spoiled for choice to be honest as to where to have dinner. There are some great looking pubs by the B&B but also the lovely shopping and leisure complex at Gunwharf Quays. Both evenings we stopped for a drink at Gunwharf Quays because we had to walk past it to get back to Fortitude Cottage. We went up to the first floor and sat in the window at the Slug & Lettuce overlooking the marina.
The first night we walked back toward one of the pubs by the B&B which we had been told did some impressive fish and chips, the Still and West. We had not thought to book a table in the restaurant so we sat downstairs in the pub and ordered from the bar menu. We decided to go for the large fish and chips each (which we had been told was enormous) and waited with excitement. And then it arrived at our table, wrapped in paper like it would from a chippy. It was very nice but she-human couldn’t finish it all, try as she might.
The next evening we had a drink in the Slug & Lettuce, then went next door (or next door but one, I forget) to Wagamama. She human had never been to a Wagamama before and spent half the evening trying to decide what to have, having sent the waiter away on two or three occasions before ordering. No idea what any of this is in the picture but it is what we had for dinner and very nice it was too.
After that we walked back along the millennium trail for the umpteenth time this weekend and popped into the Spice Island Inn near our B&B for a quick drink before bed. Tomorrow we leave Portsmouth and head off on the Wightlink ferry for 5 days on the Isle of Wight and that will be the subject of my next post. Thank you so much for reading.