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Explore a naval treasure trove

World

Few countries celebrate their past with quite the determined pomp and style of the United Kingdom.

Generations of school children will have been forced to sing Rule Britannia at the top of their lungs, in memory of a time when Britain’s navy did just that.

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A must for anyone who wants to know how war was waged on water over the ages, writes Kevin Ritchie

By the end of World War I, the the Royal Navy had reached its zenith, but if you visit Portsmouth’s Historic Naval Dockyard, it’s like stepping back into a time warp which is understandable given that the dockyard traces its history to the construction of the world’s first dry dock in 1495, all the way through to the height of World War II when 45000 people went to work there every day and beyond almost to the present.

This is no ordinary museum. For a start, it’s highly interactive. There are warships aplenty, some in dry dock, others on permanent mooring, to go aboard and explore beyond decks.

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There is an entire building for children, aptly called Action Stations, with everything from rope climbing to puzzle solving.

Even in the static traditional museum settings there are interactive moments where parents and children can test their morse code skills.

The dockyard is flanked by two major attractions. At the main gate is the lovingly restored HMS Warrior, a combined steam and sail warship, which in 1860 was the largest, fastest and most powerful warship in the world. Built to counter French developments in ship-building, it never fired a shot in anger.

At the other end of the dockyard is HMS Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship, from which he commanded the fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1815 and in which he died after defeating the French and ending any Gallic pretensions as a naval power.

The Victory is 95 years older than the Warrior, but there’s not much difference in the way the crews lived, cheek by jowl with their guns, hammocks slung above them.

If anything, there’s marginally more headroom in the Warrior, but it is always the Victory that holds all the drawcards, if for no other reason than the fact that the tour retraces Nelson’s last moments: from the place which he fell after being shot on the quarterdeck to his day cabin at the stern and his own cabin, then deep into the bowels of the ship, to the Orlop Deck with the surgeon’s macabre operating table (complete with a model of a severed hand and forearm in a bucket) to his final resting place against a bulkhead, permanently, starkly lit, by a ship’s lantern placed on the deck.

Alongside the Victory is the fascinating display of the Mary Rose, the Tudor flagship which was lost with all 500 hands, when it capsized off the coast of Portsmouth during the Battle of the Solent in 1545.

She was in service for 34 years and it’s taken 34 years to date to excavate her from the bottom of the Solent.

The ship is the only existing one of its kind and has yielded a treasure trove of artefacts which are displayed alongside interactive dioramas and audiovisual presentations filling the gaps where the rest of the ship was eaten away by the ocean as it lay undiscovered for more than four centuries.

These three ships, though, aren’t the only special displays.

There’s also the Royal Barge, which was used to ferry Nelson’s body up the Thames, a collection of some of the most truly bizarre figureheads that adorned the old Royal Navy sailing warships, a display devoted to how the navy has broken down barriers, particularly in relation to female advancement in the once-fiercely male-dominated environment.

But always there’s the ships, boats and assorted vessels to climb on, explore and physically experience, from the hastily built shore bombardment monitor, which was built in just over a month and had to be towed to the Dardanelles, to the nippy working Royal Air Force rescue launches, used to fish downed pilots out of the English Channel during the Battle of Britain, and the “Spitfire of the Sea”, a working motor gun boat.

Alongside is a waterbus, which can take you on a tour of the impressive harbour or across the water to the Royal Navy submarine museum at Gosport and a tour of HMS Alliance, the imposing post-war sub that’s up on blocks.

There, the old submariner, who served on the Alliance, will regale you with tales of how the crew kept their beer chilled in the torpedo tubes. And you can marvel at life in what is little more than a tin can, beneath the surface of the Atlantic for weeks on end, as the Alliance set up a record for an entire voyage at snorkel depth between the UK and the US.

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In the crowded control room there’s a depth meter marked to 750ft (225m), the maximum depth that the sub is built to dive to and where the sub’s hull contracts by five inches (12.5cm) at that pressure. Anything deeper is known as “crush depth”, implosion.

There’s a great museum to the side, with more exhibits, including the Royal Navy’s first sub in 1901 and the midget submarines that wreaked havoc in World War II.

Upstairs, though, the picture is more sombre: an explanation of the Jolly Roger or pirate flag and the number of bravery medals awarded to the men of the “silent service”, many of whom are among the thousands who lie at the bottom of the ocean floor, their fates unknown after they submerged and never returned.

Back at the dockyard there’s time to grab a bite to eat and still visit Boathouse No 4, with its mast climbing experience for youngsters, and its homage to the forgotten skills of boat builders of yore.

Then spend a moment appreciating the 36 hours of the Battle of Jutland that forever changed the course of World War I at a cost of 6000 British sailors and 2500 German sailors.

It costs £35 (R560) for an all-access ticket. It seems like a lot of money, but it’s actually a saving of almost 80% compared with paying separately to see each of the big attractions and using the waterbus.

The ticket is for multiple entries and it’s valid for a year from the time of purchase which is a good thing because you can’t do justice to the scale and scope of this museum in one visit.

* To find out more go to www.historicdockyard.co.uk

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