Monday, 25 November 2013

Visiting Chatham

To be honest I don't get out much; well, not locally at least, and certainly rarely visit the many places of interest in my part of England. I spent a few days in Portsmouth two years ago: paid my respects to Victory, and Warrior and wandered round the various museums. Last year, on a cold winter's day, I also trudged through the ruins of Newhaven's Tide Mills while researching Turn a Blind Eye, but that's about it. Visiting local attractions is something you do when you travel to another part of the country, not on your home turf, so when two readers from Australia dropped by last month I was at a loss as to know where to take them. Then I remembered the Historic Dockyard at Chatham; I'd been there three times in the past, although the last time was several years ago; still I thought it would be a safe bet.
And we were not disappointed; it was a cracking day, and my guests, who I only knew from email correspondence, soon became firm friends. The place is easy to find, being well signposted, parking right outside – far better than Portsmouth – and free! Ticket prices are lower as well, and there is the added advantage that they effectively act as a season pass, allowing as many visits as you wish for a year (certain special events excluded). This is especially useful as to cram everything into one day would be difficult, and a waste of what are some fascinating exhibits.

We started with an indoor exhibition of The RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection. This I remember from past visits, but it still took a good hour. Platforms and walkways are set at different levels, allowing some of the interiors to be seen, and there are information phones, as well as one large craft that can actually be entered. From there one of the newer exhibits to me was a covered workshop area, evocatively named The Big Space that contained various locomotives (steam and diesel), industrial machinery, a mixture of ordinance from the past, and the only XE midget sub I have seen. There are also various smaller vessels, including a newly restored “admiral's barge”.

Moving on, HMS Gannet is a sloop, built in 1878 at nearby Sheerness and now on permanent display at Chatham. Powered by both sail and steam, she was used throughout the world where she carried out several anti-slavery patrols and generally flew the flag. Gannet has just emerged following a three million pound restoration, and is in splendid order. Sadly there are few furnishings, which would have made it easier to imagine life on board, and her engine is missing, but free access is allowed, and there are helpful guides on hand if any explanation is needed. At the break of the poop, just above the binnacle, there is the legend: “Deeds Not Words” (very Victorian). By the way, you can also get married on board, but I understand it is not obligatory.

Next to her is Ocelot, an O class sub and the last warship built at Chatham for the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1962 and served through the height of the Cold War until finally being paid off in 1991, (when the O's were replaced by the Upholder/Victoria class). The boat is open by guided tour, and on every occasion I have visited this has been conducted by an ex submariner, which certainly adds colour – if any were needed. By nature it is cramped, and there are three small hatches to negotiate, but it is an experience not to be missed. Incidentally I note that Ocelot can now also be visited remotely, via Google Street maps.

Beyond the sub. is for me the star of the dockyard. Cavalier is a C class destroyer that saw service during WW2 – she has been designated as the official National Destroyer Memorial and her 70th Anniversary will be commemorated in April next year. She has classic lines, and is a joy to look at. I have seen her several times, (and once, at a different location, when looking at her was pretty much all you could do), but in the present berth she has been totally
opened up, and free access is available to the wardroom, bridge, forecastle, engine rooms: just about everywhere.
There is music of the period playing as you wander about, plenty of ephemera to set the scene and, once again, a good deal of explanation. To my mind visiting this ship is worth the entry price alone – the atmosphere is tangible.

The last time I visited the Victorian Ropery was just a large, old building; steeped in history, of course, but a good deal of imagination was needed to envisage it as a busy manufacturer of naval line. Much has changed since then – not the structure of course (apparently it is the longest building in Europe), but there is a new exploration centre, as well as a costumed guide who gives an informed and entertaining insight into the workings of a ropery. Rope is still made on original machinery, and you are invited to try; a true hands on experience.

The above took us all the morning and most of the afternoon. There was time then to grab a quick meal at the on site restaurant (good food, well presented and not expensive, and with the bonus of eating in yet another historic building), before taking the Hearts of Oak “guided” tour.
Now these automated tours can be very good, or very bad; Chatham's is the former. You are led through a series of galleries depicting the dockyard of old by back projected films, telling the (unlikely) story of a potential apprentice being taken to meet Sir Robert Seppings, the master shipwright responsible for so many important innovations in ship construction and repair. The presentation is effectively portrayed, gives a good overall impression of the dockyard at the turn of the nineteenth century, and closes with a small museum of ordinance and shipwreck finds. Okay, it is a bit “Disney”, but gets the story across well.

And that was about all we had time for – apart from a quick rush round the Smithery, which contains a good display of ship models, many on loan from both the NMM (now known as Royal Museums Greenwich) and Imperial War Museums, as well as art work, and a demonstration of pipe bending (more interesting than it sounds). There were other galleries, a bookshop specialising in rare nautical books, plus the ubiquitous play and picnic areas and a souvenir shop (no, my books were not on offer, so the least said about that the better). We were lucky, it was a quiet day in October, but I have been at busier times, and the sheer vastness of the place means it is rarely crowded. I think the one year ticket is an excellent draw; we have further guests due in the spring and I understand more exhibits and displays are being planned. It is good to see a truly historic site being used in a way that is both educational and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Full details of The Historic Dockyard, Chatham
are available here:

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