Mechanisms Of War - Portsmouth's Historic Naval Bases

By Jon Pratty | 06 July 2001

From the wreck of the Mary Rose to the splendour of HMS Victory: from the graceful HMS Warrior to the menacing black bulk of the submarine HMS Alliance - this trail leads you around some of the historic and fascinating attractions in Portsmouth and Gosport.

On a sunny day the Gosport ferry (from Portsmouth Harbour station to Gosport Esplanade) is a quick way to get a glimpse of the great naval yards all around - keep an eye out for the looming presence of HMS Warrior next to the ferry berth.

Back on dry land, turn left out of the ferry terminal and walk along the millennium promenade towards the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Haslar.

It's about a ten or fifteen minute yomp (in Royal Marine lingo) - past the site of a wartime Motor Torpedo Boat base, now Haslar marina. There are plenty of signs to direct you. All around are the remains of hundreds of years of fortification - here and there are pillboxes, barracks and barbed wire protecting the remaining installations.

Soon you will see the black bulk of HMS Alliance dominating the skyline - this World War Two era British submarine is the star attraction of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

Not so long ago the museum was an active Navy base, the nerve centre of Britain's submarine force, called HMS Dolphin.

Now the museum has some of the rarest and most historic underwater vessels in the world. The newest exhibit is Holland 1 , above, at sea. This was Britain's first operational submarine, and she's now on show to visitors for the first time in a purpose-built building. (Photo courtesy RN Sub Museum.)

Inside Holland 1 there was no toilet, just a bucket to be emptied topsides. Submariners relied on canaries to tell if the air was foul!

If you want to know what it's like to live, work and fight a war under water, take a guided tour on the Alliance.

These fascinating tours are led by real submariners: retired now, but you really get from them a sense of what it must have been like to serve on these cramped and claustrophobic craft.

On the day I joined a tour, guide Terry Chamberlain related how he and his HMS Dolphin-based crewmates during the Cold War were sent on a 'mystery tour' early one morning.

After days submerged in silence the crew found themselves eavesdropping on a Soviet naval base in very unfriendly waters. The sub was spotted and subjected to many hours of depth charge attacks.

They escaped by the skin of their teeth and got back to Portsmouth, only to be told to keep the whole episode under wraps.

These were exceedingly brave men - a breed apart from other mariners. In retirement they keep in touch, even with old enemies, by using the web.

There are lots of websites dedicated to submarines and the men who crewed them: try the links page on the RN Submarine Museum site for a start, and the Royal Navy site as well.

Left, a very noisy place - the engine room on HMS Alliance.

To do justice to the Sub Museum you should allow a few hours at least, but once you've done, walk or get a bus back to the ferry terminal. From here you walk up the prom in the other direction. Now the path is marked with a distinctive inlaid brick which guides you all the way to Explosion! at Priddy's Hard.

Beyond Camper and Nicholson's boatyard walk for ten minutes along a busy road, past decaying barracks and old parade grounds. Turn down Weevil Lane and pass the ornate entrance to Royal Clarence Yard, another old Admiralty site, soon to be redeveloped.

Now cross the suspension bridge over Forton Lake to the entrance of Explosion!, The Museum of Naval Firepower.

This attraction tells the story of the Navy's big guns since the days of Nelson, the story how they were developed, and the story of the people who worked at this historic armament depot.

Above, 4.5 inch shells.

Three hundred years ago the Navy moved its vulnerable stores of gunpowder, arms and ammunition away from bustling Portsmouth over the river to Priddy's Hard, then a remote peninsula, which could be fortified and protected from attack.

Above right, Air to air missiles

Priddy's Hard was the Royal Navy's main armament depot from 1771 right up until 1989.

Left, breech of 15 inch gun.

The site grew from a core of explosives magazines, buildings and gunpowder loading wharfs until it eventually covered 100 acres.

Visitors to the museum can now see and hear stories about the human side of working at the base, and also about the devastating effects of the weapons the workers made.

Conflict after conflict kept workers at Priddy's Hard busy right up until a last, extraordinary, valiant effort during the Falklands War.

Workers who are still around to tell the tale can be heard in a host of interesting and touching interactive exhibits.

On the other hand, if the machinery of war is what you came to see, you can stroke a 1970's era WE 177 free-fall, air-launched nuclear bomb and have a Dr Strangelove moment!

Explosion has two nuclear bombs, the WE 177 and an earlier Redbeard bomb. If you are of a nervous disposition, you'll be pleased to know these nukes are both de-activated!

You can also see torpedos, mines, giant naval guns and a real Exocet missile, the scourge of the Royal Navy in 1982. Right, a real Exocet missile chills the blood at Explosion!

Visit the cafe and make sure you look out across the water to the still bustling naval base - there are many older warships laid up for disposal anchored adjacent to Priddy's Hard.

Above, Looking out to a mothballed frigate across the Powder Quay, where for hundreds of years ship's boats would be rowed in to pick up barrels of powder, ammunition and supplies.

From Explosion make your way back to the Gosport Ferry - your ticket is a return fare.

Back on dry land, make for the Victory Gates, and the Dockyard - it's marketed as Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and it's signposted from the ferry, an easy stagger on sea legs!

Here's a guide to the Dockyard if you get lost! Close the window to return to this trail.

In the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard visitor centre you can buy tickets for individual attractions, or alternatively there are deals such as the £25 Passport ticket, which gives you one visit to any of the eight venues or tours in the dockyard, valid for one year.

The revelation of this heritage site could well be the Mary Rose. The Ship Hall is the home of the only preserved 16th century warship in existence - one of the first ships built to have gun ports.

She foundered in 1545 and laid in deep mud for 450 years, until she was raised in 1982. Visitors can view the hull of the Mary Rose as it undergoes an active conservation programme. (pics courtesy Mary Rose Trust)

The climate-controlled coccoon that houses the wreck of the ship is a supremely ghostly and atmospheric sight. It looks just like a modern cutaway drawing of a warship.

Everything is laid bare, from the deck level right down to the gunnels. A commentary can be listened to in most European languages using a high-tech listening device.

When you've seen the hull, go to the adjoining Mary Rose Museum, where a vast range of artifacts from the wreck are diplayed.

For many viewers this is the best part of the Mary Rose experience. Within the museum are objects so well preserved it's like they've just been lent by the original owners!

Exquisite combs, made from intricately carved bone can be seen, as well as shoes, shoulder bags, muskets and pikes.

Even dead insects and peppercorn seeds were found - as well as the only Tudor period Longbows in the world.

The sheer diversity of finds re-inforces the impression that these warships were giant sea-going communities. There's plenty to see online too - view the virtual tour of the ship on the Mary Rose Trust website. It's got some excellent resources for teachers too.

Shows a photograph of HMS Victory's stern, which bears the sign 'Victory'.

When you've seen the Mary Rose, travel forward in time and visit Nelson's famous flagship, HMS Victory.

Here visitors can walk through a complete ship-of-the-line and compare her to the earlier Mary Rose. After the heroic battles of the Nelson era, these vast war machines only ruled the seas for a few more decades.

On the Victory, just as on HMS Alliance earlier, old salts tell the story of fighting these giant ships at sea.

By the mid-19th century steam-powered warships armed with breach loading guns and fitted with composite armour began to change the balance of power at sea.

HMS Warrior, berthed on the left of the dockyard as you enter, was the first of these iron and wood ships: launched in 1860 she saw years of active service. Warrior is the last remaining example of 45 iron and wood warships that were built for the Royal Navy in the second half of the 19th century.

The pride of Queen Victoria, the iron-hulled Warrior revolutionised warship construction. Powered by steam and sail, she was the largest and fastest ship of her day.

The main armaments were protected in an almost impregnable citadel of iron and teak armour - another first. Warrior was also one of the first ships to have watertight compartments.

The Warrior was launched in a period of transition from sail power to steam power - and also a change in the way power was projected.

In Warrior's service lifetime there were no great sea battles. One of the most powerful warships in the world, she was a deterrent force: a century later, in a similar way, the great powers used the atomic bomb in the same way.

Shows a photograph of two Invincible class aircraft carriers as seen from across the historic dockyard.

When you've looked around the other attractions at the dockyard, such as the Royal Naval Museum and the Dockyard Apprentice, take a boatride around the harbour (it's called Warships By Water) and see at close quarters the ships of the modern Royal Navy.

Back on dry land, why not visit Action Stations?

This visitor attraction is housed in Boathouse No. 6, a handsome Victorian brick and stone structure. Built in 1846, its massive cast iron frame revolutionised construction technology.

Action Stations is all about life in the modern Royal Navy, and is full of interactive displays and things to do. There's also an action packed film about life on board a modern frigate.

Don't forget to have a look at the Great Ship Basin. This is the site of the world's first dry dock, built in 1495: nearby is the oldest surviving stone dock in the world, built in 1698.

This view looks across from the edge of the basin towards HMS Victory.

Adjacent to the Great Ship Basin are the Block Mills, the first steam powered factory in the world. In the Nelson era this factory turned out 130,000 pulley blocks a year to keep the sails of the fleet pointing into the wind.

That's the end of this trail. It's impossible to see all the attractions in the Portsmouth area in one or two visits. Print out this trail and come back for another visit.

Don't forget - Portsmouth has many other historic sites, and they are not all to do with ships, bombs, guns or submarines! Here are some links to other attractions in the area:

Military attractions

The Royal Armouries Museum, Fort Nelson, Fareham, Hants

Southsea Castle

D-Day Museum and Overlord Embroidery

The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney

General interest sites

Gosport Museum

Havant Museum

Treadgolds of Portsea

City Museum and Records Office

The Natural History Museum, Southsea

Portsmouth Harbour: Things to do!

International Festival of the Sea (Aug 24-27, 2001)

City of Portsmouth Preserved Transport Depot

Eastney Industrial Museum, Henderson Rd, Eastney, Portsmouth. Tel 02392 827261 (no website)

Contact details for museums on this trail:

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