Ahoy There: A Nautical Trail Around the South-East

By Ben Miller | 16 September 2010
A photo of a large naval ship
Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent© Chatham Historic Dockyard
The South-East is awash with museums and sites offering a myriad of different slants on maritime history, whether it’s the rich ecology of the Isle of Wight coast, the part the Cinque Ports set of towns played in defending the nation or the sweaty glory of Steve Redgrave and his fellow Olympic rowing heroes. Follow our regional guide for a journey of your own through some of the best of them – click on the links to find out more about each venue…

Getting into the flow

Start off your nautical journey in leafy Oxfordshire, where the David Chipperfield-designed River and Rowing Museum can be found in Henley-on-Thames. After being opened by the Queen in 1998, the building won the Royal Fine Art Commission Building of the Year award and the UK National Heritage Museum of the Year in 1999.

In 2006 it completed an extensive refurbishment of its Rowing Gallery, telling the story of the discipline from ancient civilisations to the Olympics and the annual grunting duel between the fearsome Oxford and Cambridge crews.

Follow the meandering history of the River Thames and learn more about the riverside town of Henley-on-Thames in two themed galleries, or head to the permanent Wind in the Willows exhibition for 3D models of Mr Toad, Ratty et al which are sure to thrill young visitors.

Down by the riverside

To Reading next, where another riverside treat resides in two rather more worn but no less impressive buildings. The Riverside Museum occupies the Screen House and the Turbine House, using the two former industrial sites to tell the stories of local arteries the Kennet and the Thames.

A photo of the inside of a museum with green walls and wooden floors and doors
Experience the industrial past at Reading's Riverside Museum© Reading Museums
When the town's shiny modern-age shopping centre The Oracle was being built investigators found a Medieval mill wheel, brought to life here by interactive shows alongside a gypsy caravan and a video about gypsy life.

Take an unbeatable view of the town centre from the Turbine House in between gawping at preserved turbine machinery, then take a Riverside Trail leaflet to the Museum of Reading and follow a pedestrian route to The Oracle and the other side of the river bank.

Change the Locks

Completed at the end of the 18th century to link Basingstoke with the Thames, The Basingstoke Canal connects Surrey and Hampshire via a 32-mile stretch of 29 locks. By 1950 it had failed in its mission to entice commercial boats from East London, but it was fully reopened in 1991 after a few decades of dereliction.

These days it’s a beautiful nature reserve, and the Basingstoke Canal Visitor Centre is the perfect place to start exploring it.

The resurrection of England's canal system, so the story goes, was in no small part due to Narrow Boat, a book written by traveller Tom Rolt in 1944 documenting the sorry state of our inland waterways. Rolt spent three months working with the Tooley family in Banbury, converting an old horse-drawn barge – going by the name of Cressy – into a pleasure boat.

A photo of a plaque on a brick wall
A plaque on the Basingstoke Canal path commemorates Tom Rolt's contribution to UK waterways© Wiki Commons user Redrose64
The space where he worked forms part of Tooley's Boatyard, the oldest working dry dock in Britain. Part of the Banbury Museum, it offers insights into the workings of the boatyard, workshops and even a blacksmith's forge, topped off with the chance to take a trip on the 100-year-old Henry II boat.

War and Peace

Next stop Hampshire, where Buckler’s Hard positions itself as a sleepy village "haven". Rather less peacefully, the warships for Nelson's Navy were made here in the 18th century, turning sheets of timber into invincible juggernauts used in the Battle of Trafalgar.

The village was later used as a base for landing craft during the Normandy invasion of World War II, but it's all a bit more peaceful in this idyllic hamlet now, layered with Georgian townhouses atop a yachting marina and maritime museum.

A photo of a large grass plain leading to a shore
Buckler's Hard might look idyllic, but it was a production line for warships in Nelson's time
It lies within striking distance of Southampton Maritime Museum, where you can envisage the catastrophe of finding yourself onboard the Titanic in a permanent display inside the early 15th century Wool House. The Grade I-listed building itself has a story to match the Solent's captivating naval past, having once been used as a prison for Napoleonic French prisoners of war.

Eling Tide Mill is still in use today, having been restored in the late 1970s, 30 years after its 900-year history as a water mill was abandoned. It now produces flour on a daily basis, accompanying a Heritage Centre hosting Bronze Age daggers, a display of shipbuilding and more stories from the Titanic.

A photo of an old milling device
Eling Tide Mill in Hampshire is still in operation almost every day, following a 900-year-old tradition© The Eling Experience
You will probably have learned a few tips on how to build boats at both of the last two venues, and over at the St Barbe Museum in Lymington you can find out how the likes of Thomas Inman and Dan Bran perfected the art.

Complete with a full-size pilot boat wheelehouse courtesy of the Berthon Boat Company, the centre concentrates on the local and New Forest coastal area, where ancient cliff fossils suggest the region was once covered by a sub-tropical sea welcoming sharks, whales and alligators.

Predators aside, sunseekers have always enjoyed a trip to the local beaches, and the Bathing Beauties section charts sea water bath fads from the 18th century to the "modesty" of the Victorian period.

Salt making in Lymington, efforts by Henry VIII and others to defend the coast at times of war and the ruthless brutality of smugglers are just a few other topics traversed, alongside a gallery space with revolving exhibitions.

A mottled brown image of a class from a Victorian school
Lymington past at the St Barbe Museum© stbarbe-museum.org.uk
Pompey Times

In the 13th century, King John decided he fancied invading Normandy. His decision meant Portsmouth became a permanent naval base with docks conveniently stationed for cross-channel attacks. The rest is definitely history.

Imagine Henry VIII ordering the construction of Southsea Castle in 1527 as you grab a break there all these centuries on, gaze out from the Round Tower where watchers would raise the alarm for Henry V in the mid-15th century or feel the breeze on the harbour where embarkations from the D-Day Landings took place in 1944.

A photo of guards standing in line on a bridge leading to a castle entrance
Built in 1527, Southsea Castle is a key highlight of Portsmouth's maritime history© thinred.co.uk
Portsmouth's place as a key port meant it got a rough time from the Luftwaffe, but Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum are almost peerless when it comes to the vessels involved in defending our shores. Whether it's the wreck of the Mary Rose, Nelson's Victory or tours of the shore, there's much to enjoy at both.

If all that sea air tires you out then invigorate yourself at the Royal Marines Museum, charting the 346-year story of commandos with a rumble through the 32-week training course recruits must suffer and a collection of more than 8,000 medals.

A photo of a dimly-lit room full of military medals
See thousands of medals at the Royal Marines Museum© Royal Marines Museum
Don't forget the smaller venues such as the Emsworth Museum, either – dozens of oral histories give deeply personal accounts of the history of the town there, visiting old sea-faring families and people and events of local interest.

A Sandwich Short of a Victory

At 2.30am on a May morning in 1672, the inhabitants of Southwold Bay received an unwelcome wake-up call. A Dutch fleet had been sighted making murderous progress toward the shore ahead of a battle which would signal the start of the third Anglo-Dutch naval war. A bloody battle raged throughout the day, with both sides claiming a victory which was truly hollow given the casualty count.

The flagship of the Earl of Sandwich, the largest and newest addition to the English fleet, was set on fire, and his body was only recognisable by the star and garter he wore after he drowned trying to escape. His portrait now hangs in Sandwich Guildhall, a 1579 building where the town council still meet twice a month.

An image of a painting of an 18th century earl
Edward Montagu, the 1st Earl of Sandwich, drowned trying to escape a battle with Dutch ships on the Kent coast. He now looks over the town's Guildhall
There are all sorts of wonders inside this imposing hall, from a grand jury room built in 1912 to ancient courts of justice and portraits of fleets belonging to the Cinque Ports series of coastal towns.

Deal is one of those, and the town's Timeball is the product of astronomer George Biddell Airy's 1855 design, falling at 1pm precisely on a count triggered by an electric signal from the Royal Observatory. The navy used it to thwart smugglers in the 1820s and 1830s, and the four-storey tower remains an atmospheric vantage point with accompanying displays.

Deal's Maritime Museum also brims with character. Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra and a woman who could drink any man under the table, greets you at the entrance, having previously been the carved figurehead of a ship owned by John Willis, the owner of the Cutty Sark.

A photo of a tall white tower
Shoot for the stars in an astronomical wonder at Deal's Timeball Tower© Ron Strutt
Willis owned a house in Deal and loved to pay it a visit, and he would undoubtedly have found much to relish here. The wheel of SS Biarritz, the first ferry fitted with geared turbines, balances just inside the door, joined by photos of old heroes and the ships they fought for.

You can also meet models of the Deal luggers, a raft of beach boats which allowed local boatmen to earn a living by ferrying provisions, beverages and tackle around and recovering spars, masts, rope and other equipment or rescuing shipwrecked marines.

Occasionally they'd even tow stranded vessels and indulge in "the odd bit" of crafty smuggling.

These are the less glamorous, more scurrilous, seaweed-plunging sides of maritime history, of the sort the Whitstable Museum and Gallery wins awards for. It currently has "special features" on diving and oysters – the trade the town has been synonymous with for centuries – although its largest exhibit, Whitstable's first horse-drawn fire pump, was presented to the town in 1867. Its antiquated pudding pan pots were chosen for the BBC's A History of the World in 100 Objects project earlier this year.

A photo of a model of a woman in front of a case containing a miniature ship
Smugglers and sea maidens inside Deal Maritime Museum© Deal Maritime Museum
Civic Duty

Built in 1687, Rochester Guildhall was given plaster ceilings by Rochester MP Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell in 1695. An 18th century copper and lead warship on the roof has clearly been built to last, serving as a spectacular weather vane since 1780.

The museum moved here in 1979 and features a reconstruction of a Medway prison hulk, a 200,000-year-old axe you can grasp, Roman artefacts, a model of Rochester Castle under siege and the most complete set of 18th century cabinet maker tools in the world.

Paintings and prints, a Victorian drawing room, temporary exhibitions and the Dickens Discovery Room also set it out, although it's best known for homages to local sons Thomas Aveling and Richard Porter, the British agricultural engine and steamroller manufacturers.

A photo of a large brick building
Hold a 200,000-year-old axe inside Rochester Guildhall
Their diesel road roller is on display at the Brook Pumping Display in Chatham, the town which is also home to the incomparable Historic Dockyard Chatham.

There are far too many adventures to describe on a humble trail at the 80-acre Medway sprawl, where the No 1 Smithery recently reopened in a suitable triumph for a site which has overseen 400 years of shipbuilding, but suffice to say you should set most of a day aside to get lost in it.

The White Cliffs

As much as you might associate Dover with picture postcard tradition, the South Forelands Lighthouse has been nothing short of a pioneering, state-of-the-art beacon when it comes to communications.

On Christmas Eve 1898 it was the recipient of the world’s first ship-to-shore transmission, going on to alert lifeboats to ships in distress. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1899 it became the first lighthouse to exchange wireless messages across the Channel.

Take a walk to it, and then go and see the Dover Bronze Age Boat at the Dover Museum, an award-winning project to preserve an enormous wooden prehistoric vessel found in 1992. Radiocarbon dating suggests it’s around 3,550 years old and could have carried supplies, livestock and passengers across the channel via the propulsion of 18 paddlers.

A photo of the wreckage of a ship
Dover Museum's most famous boat was used to carry livestock during the Bronze Age
Plenty of wrecks were found at St Margaret's Bay, a haunt for smugglers off the Goodwin Sands lying just 20 miles from France. You can still spot some of the fortifications from the Napoleonic Wars here, but put your mind at rest with a stroll through its organically-managed Pines Garden, encompassing six acres of lakes, waterfalls, grass labyrinths and even a statue of Winston Churchill.

Inspired by the sight of a war-winning leader, cross to Dover Castle to find out about some of the invading forces who failed to capture the symbol of English fortitude. As a Medieval defence it was unsurpassed, and it then witnessed the only underground barracks ever known in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, housing more than 2,000 men.

A photo of the inside of a large brick tunnel
Dover Castle hides a network of underground tunnels© dover-castle-friends.org
The tunnels were abandoned for more than a century before being converted into an air-raid shelter, military command centre and subterranean hospital during the Second World War. They also formed an emergency escape for government leaders in the event of attack. The renovations it has consistently enjoyed under the auspices of English Heritage have made it a major tourist attraction.

Sussex by the sea

"This is a story of storm, mutiny and wrecking," says the Shipwreck Museum in Hastings gleefully. In 1749 the Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam was wrecked on the Hastings shore and swallowed up by the beach. It's one of the wrecks you can take a tour of – given the right weather – at the fishing town which once supplied more than a third of the ships making up the Cinque Ports navy.

An image of a painting of a warship at sea
The Amsterdam was wrecked on the Bulverhythe shore near Hastings in January 1749© shipwreck-heritage.org.uk
The sea water of Hastings was bathed in and even drunk for medicinal benefit in the 18th century, and the town became incredibly popular at the end of the 19th century. There was controversy when it split into Old and New sections at the start of the 19th century, but the importance of Fish (or Fisher, now known as All Saints) Street reflected the prominence of the fishing community at the time.

Theirs is a history of imperious luggers, the threat of the sea they depended on battering their own coastal defence into smithereens and visitors interrupting the business of fishermen. Want to know more? Visit the Fishermen’s Museum.

A photo of men on a lifeboat at sea as a helicopter flies overhead
Decades of heroics courtesy of the RNLI museums in Eastbourne and Selsey© Eastbourne RNLI
Just as Hastings was changing most dramatically, Eastbourne was getting its first lifeboat station. Eleven years after it was founded, local MP John Fuller left a boat to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1833. The RNLI Museum charts the boats which followed and the epic roles they and their crews have played in saving stricken ships and stranded sailors in the centuries which have followed. Along the coast, Selsey's Lifeboat Museum is liable to leave you with a similarly heroic sense of euphoria.

Seaford could have done with saving when the French burned it down several times between 1350 and 1550, and the locals gained something of a reputation for looting from their beautiful beaches.

The Martello Tower was one of 103 built as part of defences to ward off Napoleon when he threatened to hop over the Channel with his forces, constructed with 500,000 bricks between 1806 and 1810.

A photo of the inside of a museum display showing a mock-up school
The Seaford Museum lives in a tower built to ward off Napoleon's menacing advances at the start of the 19th century© Seaford Museum
It later became a storage area and gunpowder magazine, living area for troops and cannon point, but fell into disuse after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. The Seaford Museum took it over in 1979, filling it with goodies from its colourful history.

Nearby Newhaven was known as Meeching until 1539, when the cutting of a new entrance to the river Ouse changed its course. The Harbour became the main port for transporting troops and munitions to France during the First World War, and the Dieppe Raid of August 1942 sprang from Newhaven.

A black and white photo of soldiers at sea during war
Newhaven was the depature point for the Dieppe Raid in 1942
You can see the original Combined Operations Battle Plans signed by the generals in charge at the Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum, mapping detailed timings and code words for the ill-fated battle.

There's German film footage videoed from the conflict, news reports and a copy of the German report, all adding up to the true story of how the mission was accomplished. Newhaven Fort is nearby.

In common with Hastings, Brighton (or Brighthelmstone as it was then known) saw tension between holidaymakers who increasingly viewed the resort as fashionable in the 1700s and the fishermen relying on the seaside for their trade.

The Fishing Museum fights their corner with a look at the city the Prince Regent was so besotted with, helped by a 27-foot punt boat at the centre of their cavernous home.

A photo of the inside of a nautical museum
Set in a beachside cavern, the Brighton Fishing Museum stars an enormous boat© Brighton Fishing Museum and Quarter
Part of a fishing quarter with an art gallery, locally caught fish and shellfish and a workshop, it unleashes 180 years of maritime history within pebble hurling distance of the waves where it all took place.

Things were more industrious in Winchelsea Beach, where a project known as the Western Solution was supposed to revive the fortunes of the harbour. Failing six months into a project which took 60 years to devise, you might afford this planning disaster a quick chuckle at Rye Castle Museum, although the shipbuilding industry in the town continued to thrive between 1840 and 1918, with many of the tools and ship models on display.

Paintings also depict the changes to Rye's seascape and, implausibly, the museum’s East Street site also hosts seals from the days of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria as well as a Captain Pugwash Treasure Hunt for kids.

A photo of a castle on a green
Ypres Tower is one of two sites forming the Rye Castle Museum© Rye Castle Museum
Its second home, The Ypres Tower Museum, was built in 1249 and is the oldest building open to the public in Rye. The town’s harbour was England's seventh busiest port, but now the sea has been replaced by farmland, and you can get an unrivalled view of it from the tower, which is full of exhibits including many brought to the region from France.

The Isle of Discovery

HMS Pomone was a 38-gun ship deployed in the Napoleonic War before it was wrecked off chalk stacks The Needles in 1811. When it was discovered in 1969, it sparked a spate of investigations into the surrounding seabed, and now forms part of a set of wreckages at the Isle of Wight's Underwater Archaeology Centre, a five-site fort run by the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology.

An image of a painting of a ship
The HMS Pomone Napoleonic was discovered off the Isle of Wight in 1969
Most recently reopened in 2006, the centre also features submerged landscapes from the history of the Solent and excavations at Bouldnor Cliff, as well as an exhibition on the role of Fort Victoria as a defence site for the Needles Passage.

One of several excellent museums on the island, including the Cowes Maritime Museum at Cowes Library and the Classic Boat Museum, it's a must-see if you want to understand the rich history of finds around there.

A photo of white chalk mounds at sea
The Needles have witnessed a few wreckages over the years© Remdabest at en.wikipedia
Trawling the net
Here are some websites you might like to check out for more information on the maritime history of the South-East:

Southampton –
Gateway to the World
A comprehensive account of D-Day, American soldiers in Normandy, oral accounts of port life, games and galleries of bygone coastal imagery…it's all here.

Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology
Find out about all the latest seabed archaeological discoveries. Includes chances to get stuck in yourself.

Cinque Ports
In the end there were slightly more than five, so learn more about the picturesque spots involved in this confederation of crucial sea ports.

Seafarer Books
From treasured islands to sea poems and disastrous naval quests, brush up on the yarns you need to read in books full of passion and adventure.

Ships on the Solent
Thousands of images of ships on the waters of Southampton, Portsmouth and beyond – this one does exactly what it says on the cask.

World Naval Ships
A no-frills, highly searchable site which probably has the largest database of ship pictures anywhere on the web, as well as paintings and histories.

Roll of Honour
An extensive list of detailed information related to ships, shipping and the fortunes of the Royal Navy.

Friends of Dover Castle
A virtual tour of the castle featuring plenty of pictures and everything you need to plan a trip to the iconic site.

Naval History
So much to see here you could spend a whole day negotiating it. Run by the British Library, US Library of Congress and the National Maritime Museum, among others.

Dover – Lock and Key of the Kingdom
From churches and railways to people and wartime maps, a history of maritime Dover with plenty of interesting pictures.

Smuggler's Britain
The history of the nefarious chancers, starring famous smugglers, a comprehensive history and a guide book.

Southsea Castle tour
A brief 3D flythrough of the famous old fortress.

Shipping dates

Whistable Oyster Festival
Takes place every July.

Armed Forces Day
A great success in June, full of spectacular displays in support of the troops.

Kent's Coastal Week
Takes place in October.

Ramsgate Week
Planned for July 2011 at the Royal Harbour and Marina.

The Cowes Week
Regatta which has been taking place since 1826.

The Isle of Wight Walking Festival
Runs 270 walks for thousands of visitors each May, including a 24-hour stroll along the coastal path.

Banbury Canal Day
Takes place at the start of October, celebrating the achievements of Tom Rolt this year.

Dover Days Festival
Hosts a huge schedule of events relating to the history of the region at the end of April.

Hastings Carnival Week
Takes place at the end of July, featuring tours and talks on the nautical industry the town once depended on and stories of smugglers and swashbucklers from Sussex past.

Heritage Open Days
From boathouses to coastlines, always unlocks coastal gems in September.
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