I’ve been fascinated by the Mary Rose, ever since I watched the wreck being raised from under the Solent as a child, so getting to see this Tudor ship is always a highlight of a visit to Portsmouth – but with so much to do at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with kids, it’s really only the beginning.
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Home to Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, as well as HMS Warrior, once the world’s largest warship, plus a string of other attractions, it’s no surprise that the Historic Dockyard‘s tickets includes a 12-month Ultimate Explorer pass to give you enough time to fit them all in.
But if you’re only you’re only visiting Portsmouth for one day, as we were, and squeezing in a visit to the Spinnaker Tower as well, just what can you manage to see at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with kids? Really quite a lot…
The Mary Rose Museum
Needless to say, our first stop had to be the Mary Rose – I remember seeing the ship here back in the 80s with my own parents, but by the time I next visited as an adult, a major £5 million project was underway to give her a new home and put more exhibits on display.
Reopened once again in 2016, I couldn’t wait to see her in all her new glory and introduce my daughter to the story of the ship, her wrecking and salvage.
And the Mary Rose Museum could hardly be more different than my memories of my first visit – which, let’s face it, were still impressive enough for me to remember it vividly for decades! Then, visitors were kept on a walkway under low lighting with water jets spraying the ancient timbers.
Today’s high-tech, in-depth exhibition is a world away, and if I hadn’t wanted to see more of the Historic Dockyard’s attractions, I suspect I could have spent all day here.
To start off, you walk through an interactive presentation narrated by Henry VIII himself, giving some of the background about the Mary Rose. His own flagship during the wars with the French, she sank in 1545 as the king watched from the shore, with more than 400 men killed.
It’s a really fun way to bring the story to life for kids, before stepping into the exhibition galleries. And with plenty of interactive touches throughout, there’s little chance of younger visitors getting bored by the mass of historical detail.
In the first room alone, my daughter was engrossed in a painting of the sinking of the Mary Rose, with touchscreens allowing you to choose particular details to learn more about, from people pictured to everyday life, as well as more about the ships moored in the harbour.
Then there’s dressing up to enjoy, in between learning more background including theories on why the Mary Rose sank, why so many of her crew were drowned, and a few artefacts including the ship’s bell.
But around the corner is your first sight of the wreck herself, with several viewing galleries on different levels. With parts rotted away, you can see the whole skeleton of the ship – and it feels astounding that anything has survived, although the solid oak used in the construction is still tough enough to walk on.
Not that visitors can do that, of course, but with new glass panels by the walkways and an unobstructed line of sight to the ship, the views are better than ever.
As with the rest of the displays, it’s all been done very cleverly – after gazing onto the darkened and silent ship for a few minutes, the wreck unexpectedly sprang to life, as certain spaces on board were illuminated with projections of their inhabitant going about their daily business.
It gives you an idea of how crowded, noisy and generally full of activity and bustle the ship must have been, with wood being sawn, a dog barking, voices echoing; suddenly instead of a historic wreck, you see the Mary Rose as very much a living ship.
Part of me hardly wants to spoil the effect, which took us by delighted surprise, but as one of my favourite elements, it’s too good to keep secret.
As you then explore the different themed galleries with more exhibits and information, you keep having a chance to see the Mary Rose from the various levels as you go, which is an added bonus.
But there’s now far more to explore than merely the wreck. Some of the first displays introduce you to people or occupations on board – even including the skeleton of the ship’s dog.
Along the way, you’ll learn everything from what the furniture and tools you’d have found in the cabins, such as the surgeon’s equipment, right down to the clothes the master gunner was wearing, complete with gunpowder stain.
The displays even recreate the faces of some of the crew, as well as intimate details discovered from their skeletons – the master gunner had terrible teeth and a healed fracture on his left hand, for example, while the master carpenter probably came from Spain, was in his 30s and had the beginnings of arthritis.
Plus there are notes with added bits of trivia, and tips on details to look out for, such as carved dragons in one particular case – another bonus for families.
There’s more interactive fun here too: a game to see if you could disable enemy ships rather than sinking them, a chance to get hands on with stone shot used in the guns, and even a replica of a jar from the surgeon’s cabin, which still smelled of menthol centuries after it was lost beneath the waves.
Elsewhere you could excavate items from beneath the sand with a paintbrush, or see if you’re strong enough to pull back the drawstring on a longbow – not so easy, no wonder the archer found on board had a damaged elbow from doing that over and over again!
There’s so much information, this review could easily become a book if I tried to mention everything, but believe me when I say allow plenty of time to soak it all in! You’re recommended to allow two hours at least.
To finish, there’s a 4D cinema experience, Dive the Mary Rose 4D, which is new for 2023 covering her more recent history with the finding of the Mary Rose in 1971, the long excavation and the intricate salvage operation to raise the wreck in 1982, a feat that’s almost as impressive as the ship herself.
Nelson’s flagship is the other best-known highlight of a visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with kids, the oldest naval ship still in commission worldwide.
And while the ship is currently covered in scaffolding, you can still go aboard to look around.
Only ever designed to last for around nine years before needing repairs, starting active service in 1778 during the war of American Independence, then famously taking on Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory has survived for over 250 years.
With many of her timbers rotting, a £45 million pound revamp has removed the decayed sections and is aiming to restore the rest of the ship over the next 10 years or so – which does mean that if you visit now, you’ll get to see sections of Victory which have never been on display before.
It’s easy enough to dodge the scaffolding, and while there might be a few detours on the route, we didn’t feel that we were missing out on any of the key parts of the ship either.
And what brings HMS Victory to life is the fantastic audio guide. Normally we tend to skip these as my daughter either wants to race through or quickly gets bored of listening to the recorded info.
On Victory, it was quite the opposite: she insisted we didn’t leave until she had listened to every last section (as well as replaying the one on the poop deck several times over!)
The narration builds up a picture of events leading up to Nelson boarding the ship, the journey to meet the Franco-Spanish fleet, through to the Battle of Trafalgar until the Admiral’s death after a sniper’s bullet, as well as details about life on board – which was home to over 800 crew members.
Strolling through the relatively luxurious captain’s cabin (designed to be transformed at a moment’s notice if the cannon were needed), the surgeon’s quarters, the lines of guns below decks and the kitchens, there’s everything from maps and drums to ornate rugs bringing Victory to life.
Once you’ve explored inside, you can even head down to look at Victory’s hull. You’re suggested to allow around an hour to look around, which is approximately how long we spent.
If you want to learn more about the restoration project including details of the challenges involved, there’s also Victory Live: The Big Repair, which takes you onto the scaffolding, including a family trail.
You can also visit the Victory Gallery, which tells the ship’s complete story beyond Trafalgar, with film and artefacts plus interactive exhibitions. And to complete the set, the Nelson Gallery at the National Museum of the Royal Navy has more on the Admiral’s life, including his scandalous love life, triumphs and defeats.
With limited time left to explore the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, our big question was what else to fit in, as we weren’t short of options to finish our visit.
Torn between a harbour tour and the chance to explore the dockyard’s third famous ship, the massing clouds and the desire to see the ship we’d spotted earlier that day from the top of the Spinnaker Tower, meant that HMS Warrior won out.
The newest of the three great ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, HMS Warrior was once the world’s largest warship, the jewel of the Victorian Navy when she launched in 1860, and the most advanced ship of her time.
Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured battleship, she is steam-powered – although also has masts and enough sails to cover 13 tennis courts!
Unlike the other two ships, there isn’t an audio guide or a huge amount of information on board – instead you learn more about HMS Warrior from the characters on board, from Victorian tourists strolling on deck to the crew below.
Unfortunately, during our visit, there were only a couple of people around – perhaps because we were exploring late in the day – so it did feel like we probably missed a lot of the information available.
While we got a peek into the brig, with one character sharing some details on what could see you banged up in the cell, and spotted an engineer as we peered at the glow of the fires from the engine room, we didn’t bump into anyone else along the way.
It’s still impressive to wander around though. The deck felt huge by comparison to HMS Victory, with the masts towering above, although the hanging beds and practical opulence of the captain’s quarters felt very familiar.
We did spot a few fun details as well, including the yearly pay for different ranks – amusingly the paymaster ended up going home with the biggest salary – and afternoon tea laid out for the officers, as well as the communal bath with three tubs lined up next to each other.
There was even a chart with tips on how to tie knots, and a menu with some rather unappealing dishes including celery seed soup, or preserved potato. Definitely somewhere to revisit to discover more of Warrior’s stories.
More things to see at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with kids
We could easily have filled our entire day at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and a second one too – and while we did manage to see all three famous ships, the Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, there was plenty left including the following attractions.
After so long exploring ships in dry dock and learning the tales of some of the Navy’s most famous moments, you can get on board yourself with a harbour tour around Portsmouth harbour.
As well as seeing the city from the water, you can also get a look at some of the modern Navy’s ships up close, including frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers, all based in Portsmouth, with commentary from the harbour tour captain, plus more stories from Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s past and present.
It’s worth knowing that there are no buggies or pushchairs allowed on board, although there is a buggy park by Boathouse 4 nearby, and tours may be cancelled if the weather is bad. The tours are included in Ultimate Explorer tickets (or you may be able to buy individual tickets on the day), and places on board are limited.
HMS M.33 is one of the few surviving British First World War ships, built in 1915 and the only British survivor of the Dardanelles Campaign, including the Gallipoli campaign.
Guides on board share what life would have been like for those fighting on the Eastern Front, along with film, exhibition and recreated cabins from the ‘lucky ship’s’ wartime service.
Action Stations: Commando Experience
If your kids are looking to burn off some energy after exploring the other attractions or fancy themselves as a future Royal Marine, Action Stations is perfect, with plenty of play and adrenaline-fuelled fun in the adventure zone.
For the smallest adventurers, there’s Sky Tykes, aimed at kids aged 2-7 with rope bridges and balance beams, while for age 7+, there’s a 40m assault course designed to test speed, agility and balance – the record stands at 24 seconds!
Or if you’ve got a head for heights, tackle the 8.4m climbing wall, with adjustable levels of difficulty. Action Stations is open at weekends and during Hampshire school holidays, while there’s also Laser Quest for an additional fee.
National Museum of the Royal Navy
The National Museum of the Royal Navy tells both the story of the Navy over the last 350 years and the men and women who have served over the last 100 years, both in peacetime and war.
There are some gruesomely fascinating facts (why are there always so many weevils?), exhibits on the way the Navy has influenced communities around the world, as well as a gallery dedicated to Admiral Lord Nelson.
Boathouse 4 focuses on the history and craft of boatbuilding, with experts sharing their knowledge, interactive displays and a collection of historic small boats.
With information on everything from 18th century cutter ships to Second World War submarines, it’s perfect if your kids are fascinated by boats large and small.
Rather than the ships, Dockyard Apprentice is all about the people who worked at the Dockyard over a century ago, with touch-screen technology and some immersive recreations helping you learn their stories.
There are lots of chance to get hands on, testing your knot-tying skills and holding traditional ship-building tools, as the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought class ships were brought from the drawing board to reality. Entry is free for all visitors.
Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum is at the Dockyard’s second site in Gosport – you can take a waterbus from the main site to reach it (scroll down for more details) – where visitors can explore Second World War sub HMS Alliance, as well as seeing the Royal Navy’s first submarine, HMS Holland 1, as well as the tiny 15m long X24.
As well as peeking through working periscopes, you can discover what life was like at sea – or rather, under it – plus the part submarines have played in British naval history.
Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, Gosport
The Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower is devoted to weapons and armaments – if it goes bang, it’s probably here.
Set at Priddy’s Hard in Gosport, a site once used to store munitions too dangerous to be kept at the main dockyard, ships including HMS Victory would have loaded their guns and ammunition here over the centuries, right up until the Falklands War in 1982. You can also spot missiles, torpedoes and hear stories of those involved in making them.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with kids: Need to know
There are three tickets available for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, including a one-day single attraction option (which also allows entry into some of the smaller free attractions) – useful if you have very limited time to explore.
Otherwise, there are two 12-month options, including access to three attractions (plus Action Stations) and the Ultimate Explorer Pass, which gives you unlimited entry to all the Dockyard’s attractions for the full year.
The Ultimate Explorer Pass is slightly more expensive for children, but the same price for adults, so realistically, it’s worth buying if you have at least one day to explore and want to see more than one sight.
Opening hours vary for the different sites and throughout the year – check the details in advance, as the Gosport sites are not always open 7 days a week.
There’s paid parking very close to the Dockyard site in Portsmouth, or you’re only a short walk from Gunwharf Quays which also has lots of parking in its multi-storey car park. The Dockyard is also walking distance from Portsmouth Harbour railway station, and The Hard bus interchange, plus a Park and Ride option which stops here too.
To travel between the main Portsmouth site and the Gosport sites for the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, and Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, there’s also a waterbus running from Wednesday to Sunday between April and October. In Hampshire school holidays, it runs seven days a week while the Gosport attractions are open daily, but outside those times, the waterbus runs at weekends only.
The timetable is available online and it’s included with an Ultimate Explorer Ticket. There are limited places aboard, and the waterbus may not run in bad weather. Only umbrella fold stroller pushchairs are allowed on board; all other pushchairs and buggies can be left at one of the buggy parks at Boathouse 4, the Warrior jetty and on the pontoon.
There are several places to get food and drink around the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard site, as well as picnic areas if you want to bring your own food. There are also toilets with baby changing in various locations around the site.
Disclosure: My entry to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard was free for the purposes of review – all opinions, including a lifelong obsession with the Mary Rose, remain my own. This post contains affiliate links – any purchases you make are unaffected but I may receive a small commission
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