The big idea

Portsmouth’s the kind of place that conjures up images of action on the high seas and of a strong naval history. It’s got the most fascinating history of adventure, and a huge historical importance; an emphasis on story-telling, both of world-famous tales, and of the history and geography of the world via exploring and mapping.
It’s no surprise then that this place is of deep naval importance and that its craft skills are legendary (this place should be twinned with Venice by the way; both masters at naval manoeuvres); and more, that so many greats of the literary world were inspired by the city on the waterfront.

Life on the ocean wave

OK, so it’s practically impossible to talk about Portsmouth without mentioning the Navy. In fact, it would be doing the place a disservice to not mention it, as not only has its naval past and present shaped the city, but the city has played a part in so much of the country’s history and fortunes. It is, of course, where Britain’s greatest naval hero, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, died; where The Mary Rose is based (the event of the ship’s raising in 1982 was a national TV event, and a new museum that will house her will open in 2012); and where The Royal Navy held most of their Fleet Reviews (traditionally where the reigning monarch would inspect the fleet before going off to war, it is now only of ceremonial significance).

And then there’s the Historic Dockyard, drenched in 800 years of history and home to HMS Victory and HMS Warrior 1860 (truly magnificent; they must be seen to be believed), The Mary Rose Museum, the National Museum of The Royal Navy and many historic buildings. The dockyard was once one of the country’s biggest employers and the most productive shipyard in the country; it is still a working dock today.

A whiff of adventure

Look at some of the place names in and around Portsmouth: Spice Island, Rat Island, Whale Island; they’re not your usual English monikers and they give us a nice little peek into the place’s adventurous past. You see, as well as its naval history, many an explorer has set sail from here to discover new lands and map the world, such as William Bligh and Ernest Shackleton (and it was to Portsmouth that Captain Cook returned aboard the Endeavour after circumnavigating the world).

And the adventure doesn’t stop there, it continues in the pages of classic books penned by some of the finest authors the country has produced, all of whom were either born here, lived here or were inspired by a visit here: Rudyard Kipling, who moved here with his family as a young child and gave us The Jungle Book, The Just So Stories and the magnificent poem If; Charles Dickens, who was born here; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived here; Nevil Shute (who gave us On the Beach, among many others, and was also an aeronautical engineer), who lived here; and Jane Austen, who was inspired to write Mansfield Park after visiting her officer brothers here.

The essence

This city feels like a real Boy’s Own adventure, best summed up in one word: Swashbuckling

Who’s it ideal for/ how it can make you feel:

With a sense of history, adventure and derring-do, this is a great place for young families as it’ll fire the kids’ imaginations and give them a valuable yet fun history lesson.

It can also make you feel immensely proud of the country, and stir a bit of the adventurer in all of us, and, for any budding writers, what a place for inspiration.

Interesting bits in the history

Although there is evidence of settlements in the area much earlier, we know there was a harbour there following the Norman invasion of 1066 as it was an important transit point for royal traffic between France and England. However, Portsmouth was founded as a town in 1180, and by 1194 it had been granted a Royal Charter that allowed it to hold markets and fairs. It was the 13th century, however, that saw the building of the docks that would shape Portsmouth’s future and fortunes: in 1200 it was established as a permanent naval base and in 1212 the royal dock was fortified; over the next hundred years it became the prime embarkation point for troops fighting the French.

By the 14th century trade was also booming with an import market including wool, grain and its main item, wine, from Bordeaux and Bayonne, but the town also sustained many attacks from France. It was during the 15th century, in 1415, that the first Fleet Service was held, and that the first dry dock was built in 1495, on the orders of King Henry VII. The dockyard was a place where Royal ships could be built or repaired, and from then on it became a naval port. It was in the 16th century that Southsea Castle was built to strengthen Portsmouth’s defences, and that The Mary Rose capsized after a campaign against the French: nearly 700 crew lost their lives as a mortified King could only watch on from the coast.

By the 1700s, the town was booming again thanks to the dockyard, which was one of the country’s largest employers, and it was during this century that Captain Bligh set sail for Botany Bay. 1805 saw Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson killed at the Battle of Trafalgar; the sad news to the nation delivered via Portsmouth Square Tower. The rest of the 19th century not only saw the dockyards grow, but also the brewing industry, with over 300 pubs and over 500 beerhouses open across the town. This was the time when three famous writers of their day lived in the city- Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells; not only that but Charles Dickens was born in here in 1812 (only six years previously another legendary Briton was born in Portsmouth, Isambard Kingdom Brunel- must be something in the water!)

At this time, Portsmouth was very popular with tourists; it had the seaside, the unique Fleet Review, was seen as a healthy place; and, uniquely, positioned as the patriotic holidaymakers choice!
It was in the early 20th century, 1904, that Scott sailed for the Antarctic, and 1906 The Royal Navy unveiled HMS Dreadnought, a new and fearsome breed of battleship that used advanced technology to dominate the seas. Almost overnight other warships were obsolete; the speed at which the boat was produced also made Portsmouth the most productive dockyard in the World.

At this time, the British Empire was vast, and Portsmouth was playing a pivotal role in the defence of it: this in turn led to greater strengthening as the strategic importance of the town grew. In 1926, Portsmouth received city status; and during World War II, the city, very much on the front line, played a massive part in the largest amphibious landing in history, D-Day (a pride that’s reflected in the Overlord Embroidery at the D-Day Museum).Yet again, this city was out-punching its’ weight (a popular poster of the times featured the headline “Let Hitler feel Pompeys’ punch”!).

 In 1982 the Mary Rose was raised and was observed by a watching world; and today Portsmouth is still thriving, still home to The Royal Navy and still has working docks.

How to experience

Probably best to plunge right in and start at the Historic Dockyard. There’s actually six attractions in one place here, so be prepared for quite an experience.

First up is the fact you’re coming face-to-face with ships that have helped save the country and shape it’s history: you can explore three of the most important warships ever built, the Mary Rose, HMS Warrior 1860 and HMS Victory. Then explore 800 years of the Royal Navy at the Royal Naval Museum, one of the country’s leading maritime museums; learn about the heroism, the dedication and triumphs and tragedies. And why not test yourself on the action-packed sea adventure that is Action Stations? This playground for adults and children combines simulators, the highest indoor climbing tower in the country, giant cockpits and nearly 30 large interactive exhibits to really test your skills, bravery and intelligence.

All wrapped up in the Historic Dockyard, that’s quite an awesome experience!

From the Dockyard, head along Queen Street and into the city centre. You’ll soon see St John’s, one of the city’s twin cathedrals; restored in 2002, there’s a striking sculpture of St John the Evangelist at the front of the cathedral. Behind here is the large Cascades shopping centre, where you’ll find most of the big High street names and a pedestrianised area. Carry on up the road to the Mile End Road and on the left look out for Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum; this was where the man who would go on to become one of the worlds’ most famous writers was born- it’s been furnished in the same style of the early 19th century, and now serves as a museum.

Head back down to the waterfront, along Park Road, and you’ll find Gunwharf Quays. Sandwiched between the dockyard and historic Old Portsmouth this is a cracking location for the city’s flagship shopping experience. But there’s a lot more to it than nearly a hundred designer outlets and a great location. It’s also got nearly 30 bars and restaurants, with some not bad views (!), the aspex gallery, for contemporary visual arts- all housed within the inspiring Vulcan building, as well as cinema, comedy clubs and bowling. Quite a draw.

And right next door is what’s proving to be quite a tourist attraction on the south coast, the (already) iconic Spinaker Tower; 170 metres tall, and with the largest glass floor in Europe, this is a cracking (hopefully not!) view of the city and out to sea.
At this point, why not hit the water with a relaxing harbour cruise; or, to really experience the city, take a RIB tour out to the Solent, weaving amongst the Napoleonic sea forts at speeds of up to 50mph?

Back on solid ground, from here locate Gunwharf Road and head for the atmospheric Old Town area of Portsmouth. With cobbled streets, an old fishing port, and historic pubs this place can take you right back to a bygone maritime era (around here you’ll also find Portsmouth Cathedral, dating right back to the 12th century); try guiding yourself around the waterfront following the Rennaissance Trail set in the pavement.

After admiring the Cathedral head up the High Street and onto the Museum Road; appropriately enough you’ll find the City Museum here. Home to the Portsmouth Picture Galley, this also has an intriguing exhibition about the author of Sherlock Holmes- ‘A Study in Sherlock: Uncovering the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection’.

Back down to the waterfront and stroll along Southsea common. Until 1922 this was actually owned by the military and used for assembling armies prior to battle, and you’ll find no shortage of memorials and military monuments along the way (look out for Victory’s anchor and the Royal Navy War Memorial- identical to the monuments at Plymouth and Chatham); as well as some great views over the Solent. Make sure though that you visit the D-day museum; this is Britain’s only museum dedicated solely to all aspects of those heroic events in 1944 that made such an impact on the country’s fortunes. It’s also where you can see the magnificent Overlord Embroidery, hailed as the 20th century’s Bayeaux Tapestry, and board a real landing craft.

Following this quite moving place (and that’s the beauty of a visit to Portsmouth; it literally moves you), next door you’ve got Southsea Castle, where Henry VIII stood and watched in horror as the Mary Rose tragically sank over 500 years ago.

Head east from here and you’re on Southsea seafront, with four miles of open seafront promenade and beautiful green spaces, this stretch has some stunning vistas, as well as South Parade Pier and all the usual attractions you’d look for at the seaside (at the far eastern end you’ll also find the Royal Marines Museum, yet another example of the extraordinary history and importance of the city).

In the evening, you’ve got a choice. Either stroll into classy Southsea, which boasts an impressive range of independent specialist retailers, has a stylish selection of bars and distinctive restaurants; as well as the Wedgewood Rooms; or head back to the historic waterside, for al-fresco drinks overlooking the historic harbour.

Well deserved, after such an adventurous visit.

When to visit

City pics