Day out at The Historic Dockyard Chatham
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When the gates closed on the Royal
Naval Dockyard at Chatham on 31 March 1984, it marked the end of 400 years of shipbuilding
on the banks of the Medway in Kent. But
the end of one era marked the start of a new one and today The Historic Dockyard Chatham covers 80
acres and numbers more than 100 buildings and structures, most of them built
between 1704 and 1855.
The first warship built at Chatham
was the Merlin, launched in 1579, and nine years later, the shipwrights of
Chatham prepared the Queen’s ships to face the Spanish Armada. In 1618, the Dockyard moved to its present
site, where Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory would be built in 1759. The Industrial Revolution brought steam ship
technology and in 1908, the first of six submarines was launched from Chatham’s
No 7 Slip, but after a vital role in two World Wars, the need for Chatham’s
facilities and expertise diminished as the Royal Navy gradually downsized.
But the glory days of Chatham
Dockyard will never be lost, thanks to the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
which now runs this unique site. Naval
history not your thing? You don’t need
any particular knowledge or interest in ships or shipbuilding to enjoy an
absorbing day out here as I found out on a recent visit. Fan of Call
the Midwife perhaps? The ‘washing
line street’ scenes were filmed here, along with other television and cinema
productions including Les Misérables
and Mr Selfridge. There’s social history to intrigue all ages
and the chance to see how ropes are still made commercially in a building
nearly ¼ mile long.
We visited midweek in early September beneath blue skies, but there is plenty to see and do under cover for less clement weather. Just wear warm clothing and a waterproof for the walk between attractions. Apart from a few obvious exclusions like the submarine and battleship visits, the site is widely accessible – download the comprehensive access guide as a PDF here.
Arrive by car and you park under the vast canopy of one of the construction bays, then follow a path marked with a timeline of the Dockyard’s famous ships, to the entrance, shop and cafe area. Adult entry is £22 (£19.50 for over-60s and serving of former members of HM Forces) and tickets allow unlimited entry for 12 months.
Visitors explore at their own pace
and in any order they like, but you’ll need a timed ticket for HM Submarine
Ocelot and the guided tour of the Victorian Ropery – just go to the Command of
the Oceans area to book your free place.
This is the best place to start
your visit anyway and we were instantly swept up by Hearts of Oak, a 35-minute multimedia walk through the glory days
of wooden warships. Follow retired Master Shipwright John North,
Carpenter on the Valiant, as he guides his grandson through the processes of
traditional shipbuilding, hoping to dissuade him from following his hero Nelson
into the Navy and taking up shipbuilding instead. Does he succeed? I won’t spoil the story …
Then emerge into the Victory
Gallery and discover the battle for supremacy of the seas through both
artefacts and two short films fronted by Fiona Bruce, with the addition of a
sign language transcription in the corner of the screen.
Outside, go on board Chatham’s
three historic warships for a real flavour of life at sea through the
ages. HMS Gannet, a Victorian sloop
built at Sheerness in 1878; HMS Cavalier, built in 1944 and serving till 1972;
and HM Submarine Ocelot, launched in 1962 and the last Royal Navy warship built
Beyond the historic ships, the Victorian Ropery is the only one of the original four Royal Navy Ropeyards still in operation. Here you are in the heart of the Dockyard’s atmospheric manufacturing buildings from the 18th century. Visit the Steam, Steel and Submarines gallery next door for the story of the Dockyard through the industrial revolution and two World Wars. You’ll find lots of enthusiastic volunteers here, eager to point out gems you might not have noticed. My attention was drawn to a fascinating handwritten account of an accident that led to the death of a dockyard worker hit on the head by a plank!
Our last stop was No 3 Slip, which
isn’t known as The Big Space for nothing. Built in 1838, this immense covered slip was the largest wide span
timber structure in Europe. Nearly two
centuries later, it still packs a pretty powerful punch. The ground floor is home to all manner of
small ships and heavy equipment, as well as the evocative collection of
historic vessels commissioned by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. But don’t forget to take the stairs or lift
to emerge above the mezzanine floor beneath that extraordinary wooden roof,
shaped like an upturned boat with more than 400 windows. No nautical knowledge necessary to
appreciate its symmetrical beauty and craftsmanship.
Allowing for a short lunch stop in
the Mess Deck beside the shop and main entrance, we spent a very relaxed four
hours touring all the main attractions. Real enthusiasts could easily spend longer if they wanted to study all
the information panels. If you’re
wondering about a three-generational visit, you’ll find lots to intrigue
younger visitors, including interactive displays, outdoor play areas and an
indoor soft play zone. And at the end
of the day, I defy any visitor, of any age, not to come away feeling
entertained, informed and downright overawed!
For more information visit thedockyard.co.uk.
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