Once a pivotal player in ensuring the UK’s navy remained on top at sea, the Historic Dockyard in Chatham has been involved in preparing ships involved in some of history’s greatest naval engagements – everything from England’s defeats of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Located 35 miles south-east of London on the River Medway, these days the dockyard plays host to tourists rather than hundreds of craftsmen who once worked there, eager to gain an insight into its rich history (as well as two film crews for movies and TV series).
While the history of the dockyard on its present site goes back to the 1600s, most of the surviving buildings date from between 1700 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, during which time the Chatham Dockyard built and launched 125 ships including Nelson’s Victory (which can now be found at Portsmouth).
The dockyard officially closed in 1984 and is now under the care of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.
Attractions these days are many and range from the chance to ramble over historic warships permanently docked there – these include the sloop, the HMS Gannet – launched in 1878 it served as an anti-slaver and later as a training ship, the HMS Cavalier – launched in 1944, it was one of 96 emergency destroyers built during the Second World War and, having served in various places around the world until being ‘paid off’ in 1972, is now preserved as a memorial, and the last vessel built for the Royal Navy there, the Oberon class submarine HMS Ocelot – launched in 1962.
Other features include the Wooden Walls of England – an interactive walk-through looking at what life was like aboard England’s timber-hulled vessels of the mid-1700s, No 1 Smithery which now houses the maritime model collections of the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum as well as paintings and other artefacts, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s collection of historic lifeboats and The Royal Dockyard Museum which houses a large range of artefacts.
Also well worth a visit is the still working Victorian Ropery. Its curmudeonly attendants who provide a fascinating insight in what life was like for those formerly employed there and you can see how rope is still made in the 346 metre long rope house which, when constructed, was the longest brick building in Europe.
There’s also a cafe on site and a range of other odd artefacts at various locations – including the railway carriage used by Lord Kitchener in Sudan in 3 Slip – The Big Space – as well as the historic buildings of the dockyard itself.
There’s certainly more than can be seen in a day but thankfully all tickets are valid for a year.
WHERE: Chatham, Kent (nearest railway station is Chatham). For detailed driving instructions see website; WHEN: Open everyday until 12th December from 10am-4pm (check for times after that); COST: £15 an adult/£12.50 concessions/£10.50 children (aged five to 15 years)/£42.50 for a family; WEBSITE: www.thedockyard.co.uk