Learning by Being there: Portsmouth Historic Docks

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

After visiting the Eden Project in Cornwall, I didn't think I would find another place that could teach my boys so much. I was wrong. Welcome to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard! First things first, I didn't buy my tickets via the Portsmouth Historic Docks website, instead, I booked through a website called Picniq where I got them discounted. Use this link if you want to do the same.

For a family of four, it cost £108 for the Ultimate Dockyard experience which gets you into all the major attractions and the harbour tour boat ride. The next one up from this was the 3-day ticket but I dismissed it because I didn't think I would need that long. Boy was I wrong! You can easily spend three days here exploring. In fact, we couldn't finish it all in one day and we were so shattered we left at 6pm having just about managing to squeeze in the most important things we wanted to see.

Where else in the world can you see three of the most important ships in history and actually walk on board two of them? The price is well worth the visit but I would highly recommend making a weekend of it and staying over in Portsmouth, making this a 3-day visit if you can. Especially if you have younger children. You can see a list of Portsmouth holiday homes here.

First things first, be wary of the sat nav postcode, it might try to take you to the actual naval base which it did us. Get as close to the postcode as possible and then follow the brown tourist signs. Secondly, if you're travelling in anything bigger than 2.1m high, you might struggle for a car park. We have a van that has a roof rack fitted making our van too high for most barriers and we struggled for a good half hour before we managed to park on St. George's Square, (PO13AT) just before you get to the docks and only a 6 or 7-minute walk.

Once you get inside, there's a harbour boat tour every quarter past the hour which comes with live commentary from the Captain and is really informative. The best thing to do is either head for it straight away, or go at the end and get off at the Gunwharf Centre if you fancy a bit of retail therapy, visiting the Spinnaker Tower, or a bite to eat without having to walk there.

The boat tour is not only a lovely way to see the docks from a different perspective, but it's also great to learn more about the boats in the dock, a bit of history on the HMS Victory, and facts about any ships or cruise ships currently in port. Queue up early and get a seat at the top of the deck if you can and if the weather is favourable. If not, the inside cabin is lovely and there's a refreshment bar too. All in all, the trip takes around 50 minutes.

Next up, you'll want to visit the amazing HMS Warrior, a ship that has never fired in anger despite the unbelievable cache of ammunition it holds on board. You will never watch Pirates of the Caribbean in the same way again, realising just how big these ships really are, and how wide their decks are, in comparison to what you see and the perspective you get from TV.

I'm not going to lie, if you do the trip right, you will spend at a minimum, one hour at each attraction (HMS Warrior, HMS Victory, and the Mary Rose), if not more depending on how interested in it you are. We spent at least 90 minutes on the HMS Warrior due to its sheer size, how much of it there is to see, and if you're lucky, the volunteer actors playing Victorian roles who will answer your questions and teach you all you need to know.

We had a great twenty minutes or so with a member of staff who let my boys climb into one of the hammocks, and then proceeded to tell us just how important the hammocks were onboard a ship. Not only were they used for sleeping but also once rolled up and stored on deck, they would make great cushions for catching stray bullets. If you didn't wake at 4am because you had died, you would be sewn up inside your hammock and thrown overboard. What a multi-purpose use if there ever was one!

Walking around Warrior it almost feels a pity she never got to fight in battle, instead used for training amongst other things. The pride of Queen Victoria's fleet would only ever fall at risk of sinking due to accident or war, but never through battle.

There's plenty to keep the kids entertained if you don't lose them first, including trying their hand at fencing (with inflatable swords) and spelling out their name using semaphore. If that's not enough just taking in the quarters the men used to sleep in, understanding what eating at that time must have been like, and learning about the hard work of the men in the boiler room and what it took to keep a ship like that floating, is an education in itself.

After our time on the HMS Warrior, we were feeling rather hungry so we skipped Boatyard 4 and headed to Boathouse 7 for the restaurant and toilets. They serve nice food both hot and cold with options for children too. Otherwise, take a packed lunch and enjoy it on the picnic benches next to the HMS Warrior.

Inside Boathouse 7, as well as the restaurant and souvenir store, there is a small museum which is worth a visit, giving more information about the boatyard, historic ships, and craftsmen of the past. The children can even have a go at learning how to tie different knots.

The learning experience just seems to be never-ending here, with so much thought and attention wherever you go, into making sure both adults and children get the best out of the whole experience. If you're lucky, you might even get to see the armed military police patrolling as we did on our visit. After our spot of lunch, we skipped the navy museum and headed over to the HMS Victory, where you can learn all about Admiral Nelson and his death in battle. More importantly, how he wasn't thrown overboard but instead preserved in a barrel of brandy and brought back to England for an elaborate burial.

The HMS Victory is the Royal Navy's most famous warship and if you're teaching your children about Admiral Nelson, it's sure to come up. In fact, the HMS Victory still has an important role not only as a museum but as Flagship of the First Sea Lord. Known best for her role in the Battle of Trafalgar, Victory is now dry-docked in Portsmouth and those who visit her can only feel honoured to be able to walk upon her decks.

You will be offered a hand-held audio guide before you board Victory and I highly recommend it. My children loved it and learned so much more than trying to read information boards. They had great fun running from one point to the next to find out what they would hear.

If you're tall, be prepared to bend down...a lot! The ceiling beams are extremely low, it's hard to believe the captain of this ship was 6 foot 4 inches tall!

Via the audio guide, you will learn all about Nelson's final battle and how he led his men to Victory before taking his final breath. The entire story is really quite fascinating and it makes you appreciate the privilege of being aboard the might survivor even more.

Next to Victory, you will find the Mary Rose Museum. There's a small cafe you can visit before you go around which might help if you are feeling the need for a rest.

Being inside the museum and seeing the fateful Mary Rose behind glass, home to a tempered environment to ensure she survives after 400 years on the ocean floor, is really quite special. The pride of King Henry the VIII's fleet, the Mary Rose held with her hundreds of treasures that were discovered and brought to the surface including dog and human bones that have been used to make incredible artist impressions of the people those skeletons belong to.

Just as with the HMS Victory and Warrior, everything has been well thought out, and there's plenty for the children to enjoy so that the adults can immerse themselves in finding out more about the artifacts found with the Mary Rose.

From making paper rubbings to lego buildings and interactive games, the children will enjoy their own learning experience as they travel the three floors to see the Mary Rose and the belongings that went down with her.

There are rest areas and lift access should you need it as well as toilet facilities. Before you enter the museum, there's a fun experience for the children as they go through a virtual journey aboard the Mary Rose as she fights valiantly before she meets her fate.

For me, this was a great day out and my children loved it too. Before you leave, make sure to visit the Horrible Histories Exhibition where the kids can learn all about pirates and even fire some canons! If you can, spend two to three days exploring, it's well worth it and certainly beats reading about these important historical events from books. Let me know if you decide to go and what you thought of it!

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