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It struck me as I walked through Portsmouth’s Victory Gate into the historic dockyard that 2009 was a particularly appropriate time to visit. For this year marks the 150th anniversary of the laying down of the keel of HMS Warrior, the 250th anniversary of the beginning of the construction of HMS Victory at Chatham and, probably, the 500th anniversary of the start of work on Henry VIII’s doomed warship, Mary Rose.
These historic ships are the dockyard’s best-known attractions but there’s a lot more to see in this fascinating place. Grey warships are anchored nearby, naval personnel and dockworkers mingle with visitors, gilded statues and brightly painted ship’s figureheads seem to muse on past glories, while elegant storehouses now house museums, shops and cafes.
Portsmouth harbour had been a haven for shipping and a base for naval operations for over a thousand years when Richard I ordered the construction of a dock here in 1194. Three hundred years later the world’s first dry dock was constructed at Portsmouth, cementing its importance as a centre for shipbuilding and repair.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw the Royal Navy expand until, by the Napoleonic Wars, it was Britain’s largest single employer with over 500 ships, 150,000 officers and men and an army of administrators and dockyard workers. Many were based at Portsmouth, which developed into one of the world’s most extensive industrial complexes employing the latest technology of the Industrial Revolution.
As ships grew larger and steam replaced sail, the dockyard was enlarged and new basins, storehouses and factories were added. Major extensions were completed in 1848 and again in 1876. 1906 saw the launch at Portsmouth of HMS Dreadnought, at the time the world’s most powerful warship, and more battleships were to follow in the ensuing years.
Heavy bombing in the Second World War meant that it was unsafe to dry-dock large ships at Portsmouth but thousands of smaller craft were repaired and fitted out here, and the dockyard played a major part in the preparations for D-Day. We now have a much slimmed-down navy but Portsmouth is still home to almost two-thirds of its surface ships and it’s well worth combining a visit to the dockyard with a harbour tour to view those that are in port.
Portsmouth Tourist Information Centre,
The Hard, Portsmouth PO1 3QA,
Tel 02392 826722 www.visitportsmouth.co.uk
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard,
Tel 02392 839766 www.historicdockyard.co.uk
Except on special event days, admission to the dockyard itself is free. Tickets are available for single attractions but an all-inclusive ticket allows entry to HMS Victory, a harbour tour and unlimited entry for a year to HMS Warrior, the Royal Naval Museum and Action Stations.