I’m not sure how things work in your family, but when it comes to my 12 and 10 year old, three words inspire fear (of death-by-boredom) and/or hesitation. They are, in no particular order, “Museum”, “Historic”, and “Brussel Sprouts”. As was expected, when my wife and I announced to them that we were taking them to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, you can imagine their initial reaction. Visits to the dentist inspire more excitement than we received on that day, mainly because at least when you’re finished with the dentist, you get a toy. We tried to explain to them that they were going to see wonderfully restored warships with more cannons than the eye can see! We told them of the Mary Rose, built in 1510, sunk in 1545, and salvaged over the course of hundreds of years, rebuilt and turned into a breathtaking museum. You may have noticed that both of the no-no words were used, and that’s where we lost them. As is often the case, the only way to change their minds is to have them see it in person.
There are a dozen things to see at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, and I highly recommend spending two or more days there if you’d like to come close to seeing it all. Depending on your fascination with Naval history, you could easily kill off a few hours on just the HMS Victory or Warrior alone. When we arrived to the Dockyards, and the kids began to see with their own eyes the majesty of these restored ships, pretty much all of their doubt went out the window instantly. They’re breathtaking to behold. Phrases like “You didn’t tell us we were going to see cool ships and get to walk around them!” were uttered if I recall correctly. After you get your tickets to walk around the Dockyards, the HMS Warrior, built in 1860, is immediately on your left. My kids were able to walk around the ship on their own, and explore all of the decks. I loved hearing the excitement in their voices when we met back up on the top deck and they told me of all of their favorite discoveries on the ship! Both of my kids loved going as far down in the hull as was allowed, and seeing all of the exposed pipework. We were all overwhelmed by all of the ropes and riggings on the top deck. Being assigned to one of these ships was no joke.
The next ship we visited was the HMS Victory, debatably the most famous British ship of them all. Similar to the Warrior, almost the entire ship is available for you to explore, but there were two significant differences. First, my kids were not allowed to walk around on their own. Even though they were quite respectful, the staff insisted that they stay with their parents. None of us were too pleased about this, as they wanted to go at an entirely different pace than me, or my wife, but knowing that all kids are different, I can understand the museum’s concern. Secondly, on the Warrior, you can walk freely wherever you’d like, but on the Victory, you follow a preset path. There’s an excellent reason for this though, and it was one of everyone’s favorite parts of the Victory. When we boarded the ship, we were given an audio guide, with a laser pointer. Throughout the ship are places where we shined our little light, and the audio plays a reenactment of the Battle of Trafalgar, where Vice Admiral Lord Nelson was shot and killed! We really enjoyed the audio guide and felt it added an excellent dimension and depth to the HMS Victory while we explored every gorgeous detail it had to offer.
My wife and I, being the savvy parents that we are, knew that there would come a point where the kids would hit “peak-museum-overload”, which is typically followed by “ridiculous-meltdown-overload”, and sometimes by “why is daddy’s face turning red”. The Portsmouth Historic Dockyards offer something wonderful in that respect, and it’s the Action Stations and Laser Quest. This place was a godsend. What a brilliant idea, to have a place for the kids to get out some of their energy, and run around an obstacle course, climb any of the four faces of a 28’ rock wall, or engage in team battle with a laser gun and vest. You can also choose to embarrass your wife in a life-size game of Connect 4. I think from this picture you can see how that went for her.
I saved the best of what we visited for last, which to me, was The Mary Rose Museum. Books have been written about the history of this ship, the mystery surrounding why it sunk, and sunk so quickly, and the myriad salvage operations that took place over centuries. Those salvage efforts eventually lead to the stunning museum which we walked through. There have been two times where I visited somewhere, and upon standing in its presence, and I got goose-bumps. One, was when we visited Kilauea, an active volcano in Hawaii (I can still smell the sulfur to this day). The other, was when I saw The Mary Rose. I felt like I was transported into Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s masterful.
You can spend hours reading all of the information they’ve gathered and put on display. I enjoyed a wonderful interactive computer with an overview drawing of the Battle of Solent, where the Mary Rose sank, that allows you to tap on dozens of pictures. Each picture provided extended details about what was happening in the battle. The museum is multi-level, which gives you great vantage points for every salvaged deck. In front of you are the remains of the ship, and behind you are belongings and parts of the ship that were found in that section. For example, as you picture what was happening on the gundeck when you’re looking at the Mary Rose, you turn around, and there are the guns themselves so that you can get a closer look. I could go on and on, and I’ll never do it justice. You have to go. It’s a day you won’t soon forget.