Plunge into Naval History

By Calder, Simon | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Plunge into Naval History


Calder, Simon, The Independent (London, England)


"Best reinvention of a de-commissioned dockyard" - I'm not sure if there is such a prize, but if there is, then I have no doubt of the winner. One good reason that Britain ruled the waves (mostly) from Elizabethan times to the Second World War was Chatham Dockyard, a place of tremendous energy and innovation. HMS Victory was just one of the ships that was launched here.

This vast site closed in 1984: a traumatic time for the Medway towns, yet from which one of the leading attractions in South-east England has emerged.

You appreciate the weight of history as soon as you arrive, because the old gates are still standing. You can plumb the depths of life aboard a Royal Navy submarine, and - some weekends - watch steam trains fizz, splutter and rumble along the dockyard's ancient tracks.

Perhaps the Dockyard's greatest strength is the way the essential fabric of the naval base has been so assiduously preserved. The exhibits are curated into the marvellous muddle of historic buildings that range through Tudor, Stuart and Georgian eras, and which supported the Royal Navy right through from the Spanish Armada to the Falklands War. A favourite of mine is No 3 Slip, whose prosaic name only hints at the magnificent space beneath a canopy so broad that, when it opened in 1838, was Europe's widest timber structure.

Starting this year, a brand-new attraction claims to be an "all- round treasure house". No 1 Smithery brings together many great naval treasures that, until now, have been split between Chatham Historic Dockyard, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, south London. In a sense, this added dimension to the dockyard is a cultural rationalisation - but with plenty of inspiration in the way that previously unseen maritime artefacts are displayed alongside great naval art and intricate model ships.

There is also a programme of touring exhibitions, starting with Stanley Spencer's vivid pictures of "Shipbuilding on the Clyde" (until 12 December). These paintings - breathtaking in scale and detail - depict the decades when the banks of the river west of Glasgow comprised the centre of the maritime world. They are on display alongside tools from the Chatham Smithery of the kind that the Clydeside workers would have used.

Chatham Historic Dockyard (01634 823807; thedockyard. co.uk). Open 10am-6pm until 30 October; 10am-4pm from 31 October until 12 December 2010. Admission 15.

A glimpse into the past:

Hampshire's museums

Dotted throughout Hampshire are a host of museums providing a fascinating insight into the county's past.

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