So the long Easter weekend saw us embark on a lovely little mini-break in Southampton. You can read all about our first day and where we stayed here – it was a real bargain and we’d definitely recommend it. Day two of our trip saw us head out of the city. We’d originally planned to go to the toddler magnet that is Peppa Pig World at Paulton’s Park but the weather wasn’t playing ball. We didn’t think any of us would fully appreciate a day of wet rides and soggy attractions – Little Miss complains if her sleeve so much as gets a bit damp! – so we opted for somewhere it would be easier to duck the showers. We set off to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard instead to see some big boats…
It was about a half hour drive away, in the right direction for home once the day had finished. The Dockyard is less than a ten-minute stroll away from the Gunwharf Quays shopping centre, which is great for a spot of bargain-hunting and a bite to eat, with plenty of choice of child-friendly restaurants including our default options of Strada and Pizza Express.
The centre hosts a lot of outlet stores, with parent-friendly highlights including Clarks, Gap, Marks & Spencer and Next (although I was a bit disappointed with the latter on the day we visited). There are also a number of more premium shops that all seemed to have great deals on, stores like Hobbs, L.K. Bennett, Kurt Geiger and AllSaints. On the homeware front there’s a cut-price Denby crockery store – handy for us as we need to replace some of our chipped wedding china! And perhaps most importantly there are Cadbury and Lindt chocolate shops!
It is also home to what is billed an ‘award-winning’ car park! I didn’t know such a thing existed but to give it its due, the car park was easier than usual to use, with a clever lighting system to show you exactly where the spaces were – hubby was very impressed!
Anyway, shopping aside, first port of call was the Historic Dockyard, home to HMS Victory, The Mary Rose Museum, HMS Warrior 1860, WW2 submarine HMS Alliance, the National Museum Royal Navy Portsmouth and several other naval-themed attractions.
I’d cunningly picked up a leaflet in our hotel the night before giving us a 20% discount coupon. You can buy separate tickets for each individual attraction BUT it’s really not good value for money, probably deliberately so. The alternative is a ticket covering all attractions, which may seem pricey at £28 for an adult (full price, we paid £22.40 each) but you can use it as many times as you like on all the attractions for a whole year. I’d say most people would struggle to get round everything in a single day, so there’s a real incentive to come back. Plus children under five are free.
Other attractions covered by the annual ticket include Action Stations, which sounds like great fun and we’re looking forward to visiting that another time. It’s billed as a series of interactive displays and experiences to suit kids of all ages, including physical challenges, simulators and technological experiments. It include Sky Tykes, a new rope course, designed specifically for children from ages two to seven, with rope bridges and balance beams. Basically a chance to pretend you’re a mini marine! Harbour Tours boat trips and the Explosion! and Royal Marines museums across the water in Gosport, for which a free waterbus runs, are also covered in the annual ticket price, making it a great deal if you plan to come back.
We set off first for HMS Victory, the outside centrepiece of the yard, famed as the flagship of Lord Nelson and for her role in the Battle of Trafalgar, one of Britain’s greatest naval victories. It’s a proper, old-style, wooden ship, perfect for little adventurers to explore and with plenty of climbing up and down little staircases, which Little Miss loved (although something to bear in mind for those with restricted mobility). As you can see from the photos, the tour starts with a walk up the gang plank. Once aboard you can see how the 18th century crew would have lived – from the Grand Cabin occupied by the Admiral to the Lower Gun Deck where hundreds of men ate, slept and fought together.
Little Miss especially loved looking into the ship’s kitchen and meeting the pretend chickens! Everything is quite small – it being a ship I suppose and also because people were smaller in those days – but I suspect that makes it all the more appealing for younger visitors.
On the main deck there’s a gold plaque commemorating the spot where Nelson was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar. I can’t say Little Miss showed much respect for the site of this moment in history, she prodded it roughly with her foot then darted off to further explore the Quarter Deck and peer up at the higher Poop Deck – yes, the name made us snigger too but apparently has nothing to do with, er, poop! Either way, the Poop Deck was out of bounds.
After lunch we headed into the new Mary Rose museum, where entry appears to depend upon visitors posing for a cheesy tourist photo with a Henry VIII waxwork – it costs £8 if you actually want to buy it, we declined.
The museum looks great and is a vast improvement on what was there when I last visited, aged seven, with my grandparents back in the 1980s. The only problem is – as it was back then – that to a small child the Mary Rose just doesn’t look like a real boat. It is, after all, the remains of a wreck that spent almost 500 years at the bottom of The Solent. All I’d wanted to do on that first visit was to get on the Victory, which for reasons I’ll never understand didn’t appear to be on the old folks’ agenda! At last I managed to fulfill that childhood wish today!
Anyway, the new facilities housing Henry VIII’s favourite battle ship are just under a year old and, apparently, cost a cool £27 million. It’s now a proper, posh museum with loads of Tudor artefacts recovered from the ship to see. At the centre of it all is the Mary Rose itself, which is now in the final stages of its conservation. When I saw her last she was in little more than a glorified shed, constantly being sprayed with water to stop her from drying out and disintegrating. The view you get now is so much more impressive – much closer and better. However, it was still a struggle to hold Little Miss’s interest. Pretty much everything, understandably, is behind protective glass so unlike the Victory, there’s much less to explore. It’s fine if you’re old enough to read and understand the displays – and there are computerised games and gadgets that older children will enjoy – but for toddlers, less so. It didn’t help that by this time she was tired and really needed to sleep but refused to go in the buggy!
So let’s just say Little Miss was less than enamoured with the Mary Rose and we became ‘that family’. The one with the noisy, slightly out of control toddler who regularly descended into floods of tears at the slightest thing. Oh and she also had a bout of post-lunch wind too, so you could smell her coming! We ended up scooting round the museum before deciding to call it a day and head for a stroll back to Gunwharf Quays and a coffee, while Little Miss finally succumbed to her nap.
Toddler tantrums aside though, it was still a fun day, especially given the weather, and I’m sure we’ll be back soon to make use of our annual ticket and see the things we missed, including the Harbour Tours boat trip.
You can find out more about Portsmouth Historic Dockyard here. It’s worth looking out for discount leaflets/coupons to save on the ticket price. Discounts are also available if you book online in advance (although these are currently less generous).