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Shipshape Portsmouth

As Hampshire prepares for this year’s International Festival of the Sea, Craig Roberts reports on the rejuvenation of Portsmouth Harbour.

The International Festival of the Sea is the country’s largest maritime festival and is the first tri-service event to officially replace The Royal Tournament. This celebration of maritime heritage now held each year in Portsmouth, was first seen in 1996 in Bristol and it attracts more than 700 vessels including 30 tall ships as well as numerous exhibitors, water-sports and Georgian markets. There are also due to be themed ‘islands’ around the dockyard each having their own unique entertainment.

What makes this year's show so special though is the completion of the ‘Renaissance of Portsmouth’ projects. This 86 million development scheme has been part funded by the Millennium Commission as part of its 12 schemes around the country to mark the new millennium. What this means for Portsmouth is a total rejuvenation of its Historic Dockyard as well a new harbour complex, new museums and improved landscaping and development on both the Portsmouth and Gosport sides of the harbour.

The Gunwharf Quays is the main centrepiece of the new development. This exciting new complex sits proudly on the waterfront and is based on the delightful Victoria and Alfred waterfront in Capetown, South Africa.

The site for Gunwharf dates right back to the 12th Century, when in 1194 Richard I leased the land for the development of a dockyard for royal galleys and was then known as Richard’s Docks. With improvements made to the defensives in 1551 and 1680, the site was eventually established as the first main Ordnance yard for the navy in the 17th Century. It was from here that ships including Nelson’s Victory, collected their cannon balls, gunpowder and weapons before setting sail.

In 1919 it was taken over as the Naval Torpedo School and known as HMS Vernon. After the Navy moved out in 1986 the site remained largely unused until 1997 when Portsmouth City Council approved permission to completely redevelop the area.

The developers pledged to uphold with the tradition and heritage of Portsmouth when designing the quays, yet were given a free reign to design a contemporary environment and this is evident in the finished complex. Divided into three regions: Waterfront, Town Square and City Quay, it features stylish cafes, restaurants and trendy bars. It’s a place to unwind in, as well as shop till you drop, with designer outlets and an exclusive range of shops, plus a cinema and 26-lane bowling.


You can now dine ‘al fresco’ on the Waterfront whilst taking in the fantastic views across the harbour and wandering around the wooden decked walkways is more akin to being on a luxury cruise liner than in a shopping centre. It also promises a year round programme of festivals and events. This includes the finish of the Times Clipper Race which set off from Southsea Castle in October 2000 and then the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race in 2002.

The icing on the cake for the site is the long awaited millennium tower. Known as the Spinnaker Tower, this 165 metre structure will feature two high-speed lifts that will whisk you up to the viewing platforms for panoramic views across Hampshire, whilst you stand on glass floors for that “walking on air” feeling. The actual design was chosen by the people of Portsmouth and is due to become the internationally recognised symbol of Portsmouth.

Just a short walk from the Quays is the Historic Dockyard, where Portsmouth’s real heritage lies and this has now been given a whole new facelift. This mainly Georgian dockyard containing three famous ships from Britain’s maritime history, now features new landscaping, lighting, museums and refurbishment’s to the ships themselves.

The Mary Rose was the pride and joy of Henry VIII and sank in 1545 off Southsea in front of Henry and the captain’s wife. The ship was raised in 1982 and now lies in dry dock just yards from where she was originally built. The current separate museum is superbly laid out showing the history of the ship including the raising and restoration, as well as many of the objects found from the wreck. It is hoped that a new hall can be built for the ship together with its artefacts to be displayed under one roof.

HMS Victory is probably the most famous attraction in the dockyard. Launched in 1765, it was Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. It was opened to the public in 1928 and you can go aboard and imagine yourself as an old sea-dog or indeed Nelson himself standing in his fully restored cabin. The ships restoration work is nearing completion and is now fully floodlit at night.


The other ship in the dockyard, HMS Warrior, my personal favourite, has also seen the benefit of new lighting. She was the largest, fastest and most formidable ship of her time and was unique in having both engines and sails and visitors are now invited to explore her four vast decks. Highly recommended!

The most extravagant project in the dockyard though, is the new prodigious Action Stations attraction. Housed in the Victorian Boathouse No. 6 this hi-tech experience puts you in the front-line with the modern Royal Navy.

Here you can take command of warships, as well as ski, climb and canoe with the Royal Marines, testing your skills and abilities on interactive exhibits. There is also a movie, ‘Command Approved’ specially filmed in the Bahamas and shown on one of the biggest large format screens in the south. Finally, take a white-knuckle ride in the 19-seater simulator, putting you right on board a Sea Harrier or a Lynx helicopter. Definitely not one for the feint hearted!

The refurbishment, whilst still keeping its historic origins alive, gives the dockyard a fresh new look, which blends seamlessly with the modern architecture of the Gunwharf Quays.

Portsmouth isn’t the only area to receive the makeover treatment though. Take the regular ferry across the harbour to Gosport, which has seen whole new areas, previously inaccessible, opened to the public for the first time. This includes the area known as Priddy’s Hard.

Up until 1770 this land was owned by Jane Priddy but was acquired by the Board of Ordnance to construct a new powder depot for the Royal Navy. Over the years it became the Royal Navy’s principal armaments depot, supplying naval fleets from the time of Trafalgar right up to the Falklands conflict. This 22-acre Heritage Area was acquired by Gosport Borough Council from the MOD in 1994 and is made up of extensive parkland and historic buildings that will eventually feature bars, restaurants and an antique/craft centre.


Explosion! is the exciting new attraction here, housed in a former powder magazine and traces the history of naval firepower from gunpowder to Exocet, from the 18th Century right up to the Gulf War. It includes attractions such as the Red Beard atom bomb and Schwartzkopff torpedo. There is also a 21 inch Mark 20 torpedo set into a glass floor giving the illusion of it passing right beneath your feet. An audio-visual show describes the history of Priddy’s Yard plus there are numerous interactive and hands-on displays, certainly one for the kids!

This is a great museum worthy of a day trip on its own. You can tell that time has been spent crafting a sense and feel of the history of a menacing, yet vital area of naval life.

A two-mile Millennium Promenade crosses over the new Forton Lake Opening Bridge from Priddy’s Hard to Gosport’s waterfront. The route is highlighted by a chain motif set into the pavement. It symbolises the defensive chain that once stretched across the harbour to protect Portsmouth from impending attack, last raised in 1801 fearing an attack by the French. The people of Gosport have also been given the opportunity to have their names engraved into these motif bricks and its fun spotting all the family connections as you walk the route.

This Promenade takes you along the newly landscaped Gosport Esplanade. This area has been given a new lease of life thanks to beautiful new gardens, seating and also custom lighting which creates a ‘blue necklace’ of light around the waterfront. Well worth staying after dark for. A new pier next to the Haslar Marina, cleverly making use of an existing wave barrier, stretches 183 metres into the harbour, giving superb new vistas across Portsmouth Harbour. This gives unique views of Gunwharf contrasting with HMS Warrior in the background. Also, those continental ferries look so close from here that you could almost reach out and touch them!

The focal point of the promenade though, is the Time Space. This striking sundial and light clock spans 120ft with a 50ft mast at the centre indicating the time during the day. You might get a shock, as I did, when it chimes out the hour through stylishly designed loud speakers! Events in Gosport’s history will be depicted in the paving of the sundial while L.E.D lighting allows it to function as a light clock at night.

A water bus network is due to link all the attractions around the harbour together and eventually a road train will operate the entire length, from Priddy’s Hard to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, which has also seen refurbishments.

Looking to the future for Portsmouth, further developments include a proposed light rapid transport system, which will run under the harbour between Portsmouth and Gosport linking the communities together, as well as a spectacular ‘arc of water’ feature over the harbour.

These new attractions all add to the already established attractions of Portsmouth including the D-Day Museum and Castle at Southsea, and The Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum.

Dickens, the author famous for his books David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby was born here on 7th February 1812. The house was opened in 1903 as a museum has been fully restored to its regency best and contains a few of Dickens’ own personal possessions as well as first editions of his novels.

There are also the historic sights and sounds of Old Portsmouth at The Camber Harbour and ‘Spice Island’. Here you should try some of the delightful seafood from the man on the harbour and picture yourself amongst the old sailors in the 18th Century.


It’s worth ending your day back at Gunwharf and watching the sunset over Gosport, whilst drinking a cool beer on the Waterfront and reminiscing over your day.

I have been to Portsmouth on numerous occasions in the past, which I have always enjoyed, yet, this visit was particularly special. It makes a fantastic day out, as the transformation has given Portsmouth new self-esteem, making it a world-class waterfront in its own right.




All images and text copyright  © Craig Roberts 2001


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