Maritime tales

Joe Bates goes on the trail of the UK’s many maritime and sea-faring connections, and provides a round-up of the most group-friendly sites.

An authentic period setting awaits at the Hartlepool Maritime Experience

An authentic period setting awaits at the Hartlepool Maritime Experience

Great Britain has a world famous maritime heritage. It boasts many seafaring heroes, from Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, to Lord Admiral Nelson and intrepid Antarctic explorer Captain Scott.
Although Britain is no longer the naval superpower it once was, there are still many interesting and entertaining museums, historic vessels and dockyards located around the country’s coastline for those interested in exploring Britain’s rich maritime history.
A lot of these attractions offer GTOs discounted admission prices for pre-booked groups, private group guided tours, excellent parking facilities, and even special group catering options. Many more meet the needs of the twenty-first century group visitor with multi-lingual audio tours, exhibitions and special events too.

The ss Great Britain in Bristol

The ss Great Britain in Bristol

Museums

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is the country’s leading maritime museum. Encompassing the Royal Observatory, this UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts more than two million objects, including maritime art, maps, model ships, navigational instruments and the world’s largest maritime library. Must-see exhibits include the battle-scarred uniform worn by Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, the famous Meridian Line and the stunning golden state barge built in 1732 for Frederick, Prince of Wales. There are also some exciting changes in the pipeline. A new main entrance, a library and archive, a permanent exhibition and 800 metres of temporary exhibition space are being planned as part of the museum’s new £35 million Sammy Ofer Wing. Set to open in 2012 in time for the London Olympics, the project was made possible by a huge donation of £20 million from international shipping magnate Sammy Ofer. While the new wing is being constructed, a number of areas of the museum have been closed permanently including the Nelson Gallery (Nelson’s uniform has been moved to the Maritime London gallery).
Also part of the mix is the nearby 17th century Queen’s House, which was commissioned by James I’s wife Queen Anne of Denmark. This houses the National Maritime Museum’s extensive fine art collection, which runs to over 4,000 paintings. One of the highlights of any visit to the Queen’s House is ‘Art for the Nation’ – a selection of 200 of the museum’s finest oil paintings, including scenes of shipwrecks, seascapes and battles from famous artists such as Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner and Van de Veldes. Admission to the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and Queen’s House is free but group visits and guided tours should be booked in advance.

The new Discover Greenwich cultural centre

The new Discover Greenwich cultural centre

Greenwich is also home to a new maritime attraction – the £6 million Discover Greenwich cultural centre, which opened this March at the Old Royal Naval College. A mix of museum, exhibition centre and tourist information centre, the venue uses rare artefacts, film footage and models to tell the 500-year history of the Old Royal Naval College, as well as the other major Greenwich maritime attractions. Admission to Discover Greenwich is free and guided group tours can be booked in advance.
Also in the capital, why not book a visit to the Thames Barrier Information Centre, where you can learn about the River Thames, the role of the Environment Agency and the Thames Barrier. Free coach parking is available onsite.
In the south west, The National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth positively welcomes groups. Guided tours are available on a number of specialist subjects such as Cornish history. Discounted entry is available for groups of 10 people or more, and there are dedicated drop off and pick up points for coaches.
At the free-entry Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, the story of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s famous 1915 voyage to the Antarctic on the Endurance is the fascinating subject of a major new exhibition, which runs from 16th July this year to 3rd January 2011. ‘Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure’ comprises more than 150 images taken by the expedition’s official photographer and puts a new slant on Shackleton’s epic attempts to rescue his crew from the doomed, ice-bound ship.
In the north east of England, Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience expertly recreates the sights and sounds of an 18th century British seaport. It is home to the country’s oldest floating warship, the ‘HMS Trincomalee’. The attraction also boasts a restored paddle steamer, the ‘PSS Wingfield Castle’, costumed guides and a high-tech recreation of life aboard the fighting frigate ‘HMS Prosperity’ using audiovisual aids. GTOs are offered a free familiarisation visit and admission on the day of the visit.
Portsmouth’s D-Day Museum tells the epic events of 6th June 1944 when the Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches. It houses some of the craft used on that momentous day, including a Beach Armoured Recovery tank and a full-scale reconstruction of a Horsa glider, as well as the Overlord Embroidery. The museum offers GTOs a complimentary familiarisation trip, and discounted admission prices are available for groups of over 15; every ticket includes entry to nearby Southsea Castle. There is free parking for coaches.
Also in the naval city of Portsmouth is the Royal Marines Museum. Based in a lavishly decorated former Royal Marine Artillery officers’ mess, the museum charts the Royal Marine’s origins in 1664 through to their recent deployments in the Falklands and the Gulf. The museum offers a number of group incentives, including a 10% entrance fee discount for 10 or more people, free coach parking and entry for the GTO and coach driver, a free optional welcome talk, and access to the museum’s grounds and gardens.

Captain Cook's travels are depicted at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum

Captain Cook's travels are depicted at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum

On the Yorkshire coast at Whitby, The Captain Cook Memorial Museum is currently mounting an exhibition called ‘Northward Ho! A Voyage Towards the North Pole 1773’, which finishes at the end of October this year. It shines light on a little-known polar expedition led by an associate of Cook, Captain Constantine Phipps. Visitors to the museum will also find original letters written by Cook while on his voyages, paintings and drawings by artists who went with the explorer to the Pacific, as well as maps, charts, models and native artefacts brought back from his expeditions.
Hull was the most important port for whaling in the entire country and in the East Yorkshire city’s Maritime Museum visitors can explore in-depth this fascinating part of the town’s industrial history. Attractions include ship models, maritime art, a full-sized whale skeleton and examples of ‘scrimshaw’, the whaler’s craft of carving whalebone and ivory. Based in the city’s old Dock offices in Queen Victoria Square, admission to the Maritime Museum is free.

Between 17th and 18th of July, Hull will host its annual Maritime Festival, which coincides with the finish of the 35,000-mile 2009/10 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. A presentation will be made to the winners and the city’s waterfront will be the stage for a range of food stalls and entertainment, including a jazz festival.

Endurance: Shackleton's Antartic Adventure

One of the images on display as part of the 'Endurance: Shackleton's Antartic Adventure' exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Historic vessels

Hull was also famous for its once thriving fishing industry. Visitors can learn about the hard life of fishermen in recent times by taking a guided tour of the Arctic Corsair, which is berthed between Drypool Bridge and Myton Bridge, at the rear of the city’s Streetlife Museum. A veteran of the Cod Wars, the Arctic Corsair has attracted over 20,000 visitors since it was first opened to the public in 1999. Guided tours for groups of eight or more can be pre-booked for Thursdays only. Each tour starts with a short 10-minute film and then a tour of the vessel follows, which explores all areas of the ship above and below deck.
In the Scottish city of Dundee, meanwhile, the former ship of Antarctic adventurer Captain Scott, RRS Discovery, has recently undergone a £700,000 revamp and is now open once again to the public. Visitors to this imposing three-masted sailing ship, the last of its kind to be built in Britain, can follow in the footsteps of Scott and his crew, see what it was like to live onboard, and retrace the explorer’s ill-fated quest to reach the South Pole. Discounted ticket prices are offered to groups of 15 or more and the GTO and coach driver are given free entry.

Enjoying an audio tour of the Royal Yacht Brittania

Enjoying an audio tour of the Royal Yacht Brittania

The luxurious Royal Yacht Britannia took Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family on nearly 700 foreign visits before spiralling running costs saw it decommissioned in 1997. Britannia is now a fascinating museum housed in Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal and special admission rates are available for groups of 15 or more. The focal of any trip onboard the yacht has to be the self-led audio tour (handsets are given to every visitor).
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s passenger steamship, the ss Great Britain, was a technological marvel in its day and one of the largest ships afloat. It is now one of Bristol’s top visitor attractions and does a great job of accommodating the needs of GTOs. For example, it offers a reduced admission price for pre-booked group bookings of 20 people or over, and 40-minute private guided tours for groups of 20-30 people at a time. This summer sees the opening of a new visitor centre and gift shop. Special group catering options can be booked in advance and coach parking is conveniently available right next to the ship itself, but is not free.
In London, HMS Belfast is the last remaining big-gunned warship to have seen service during World War II to be moored in European waters. Visitors can explore almost every inch of this massive nine-deck vessel from her huge boiler and engine rooms below the waterline, up to the flag deck to the top of her bridge. Last December saw the launch of a new exhibition at HMS Belfast called ‘Launch! Shipbuilding Through The Ages’, which runs until the end of December. Using computerised interactive displays and engaging film footage, the exhibition focuses on the science, engineering and social history of shipbuilding in Great Britain. Discounted entry rates for groups of 10 or more people are available. Only two of the ship’s nine decks can be accessed without climbing up and down ladders. It should be noted that there is no coach parking in the immediate vicinity, but there is a drop off and pick up point in Battle Bridge Lane, just off Tooley Street.

Historic dockyards

'HMS Victory' at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

'HMS Victory' at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

One of the country’s most visited maritime attractions is The Historic Dockyard, Chatham in Kent. It boasts no fewer than three British warships – the Victorian naval sloop ‘HMS Gannet’, the World War II destroyer ‘HMS Cavalier’, and the last navy submarine built in Chatham, the ‘HMS Ocelot’. Other popular attractions include the Victorian Ropery Tour, which entertainingly explains why rope was once so important to the Royal Navy, and cruises up the River Medway on Britain’s last coal-fired paddle steamer, the ‘Kingswear Castle’. As you may have read previously, this summer a major new venue, No.1 Smithery, opens at The Historic Dockyard Chatham. Described as a ‘fusion of museum, heritage and culture’, this new venue will house over 4,000 exhibits loaned from the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum. It will also house a temporary exhibition gallery and the first display will be devoted to English artist Stanley Spencer’s epic pictures of Clyde ship workers and their families during World War II. The Stanley Spencer Exhibition runs from mid-July to the end of the year. Pre-booked groups of 20 or more to The Historic Dockyard, Chatham get a 25% discount on admission. A group meal offer, which guarantees 15% off the normal price, is also available. There is also free ample coach parking adjacent to the main visitor entrance.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard offers a discount of 25% for pre-booked groups of 15 people or more. The all-inclusive ticket allows visitors the chance to see Nelson’s iconic ‘HMS Victory’ and ‘HMS Warrior’, the navy’s first iron-plated warship, as well as the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Action Stations, an interactive attraction showcasing the work of the modern navy. Henry VIII’s ill-fated warship the Mary Rose is currently withdrawn from public view as a new £35 million museum is built around her, which will open in 2012. However, the existing Mary Rose Museum, which contains thousands of artefacts rescued from the Tudor ship, is still open.

Lighthouses

Longstone Lighthouse in Northumberland

Longstone Lighthouse in Northumberland

Lighthouses have been keeping ships navigating British shores safe for centuries and several of these historic buildings are open to the public. The country’s general lighthouse authority, Trinity House, runs no fewer than 11 visitor centres such as Longstone in Northumberland, Portland Bill in Dorset and Southwold in Suffolk.
One of these visitor centres, at the Lizard lighthouse in Cornwall, expanded last year thanks to lottery funding. At the new Lizard Heritage Centre visitors can engage in a wide range of fun activities such as sounding the foghorn, tracking ships in the local area, climbing the lighthouse tower and even sending a message in Morse Code. A discount is available for pre-booked groups of 10 people or more, but a guided tour of the lighthouse will cost extra. It is worth noting that entry prices and opening times differ at Trinity House’s 10 other visitor centres.