Nautical but nice

Carrie Drage goes in search of our seafaring heritage with a round-up of some of Britain’s most group-friendlymaritime attractions.

The ss Great Britain berthed at Bristol harbourside

The ss Great Britain berthed at Bristol harbourside

As an island nation, the sea has played a pivotal role in our history. It has been the site of famous battles, the source of wealth, the gateway to exploration and colonisation, and inspiration for generations of artists. Figures such as Admiral Nelson and Captain Cook were national heroes of their time and yet their legacy still prevails today. Those interested in discovering Britain’s maritime links would be well advised to visit one of the many maritime museums, historic ships, naval dockyards and shipbuilding villages that can be found around our shores, some of which we have highlighted throughout the following post.

HISTORIC SHIPS

From warships to record-breaking passenger liners, there are a number of historic ships that have been preserved as visitor attractions in the UK, providing groups with the opportunity to experience a piece of British history firsthand.

For instance, discover the ship that revolutionised world travel, Brunel’s ss Great Britain, on a visit to Bristol’s historic harbourside. Step onboard and learn what life was like for Victorian passengers and crew, with a look inside the sumptuous surroundings of the First Class dining saloon and cramped bunks in Steerage among other areas. Visitors can also enter the fully-operational Engine Room and descend into the dry dock to view the ship’s hull and impressive propeller. A costumed Brunel actor is available to lead your group on a private guided tour of the ship.

Meanwhile, berthed on the River Thames, HMS Belfast is a large light cruiser that has seen action in both World War II and the Korean War, and is now a branch of the Imperial War Museum. On a day out here, visitors can walk around the ship’s nine decks, discovering the stories of those that served on her and imagining how her 950- strong crew lived while at sea. From 31st July, the new Gun Turret Experience will give visitors the chance to see what fighting at sea would have really been like, with lights, audio, videos and projections recreating this experience. There are special admission rates for groups of 10 or more.

Offering visitors a rare glimpse into the public and private lives of the British Royal Family, the Royal Yacht Britannia is berthed alongside the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith harbour in Edinburgh. The audio tour takes visitors round five decks at a leisurely pace with highlights being the State Dining Room, Sun Lounge and Garage, complete with Rolls-Royce Phantom V. You can even see inside the Queen’s bedroom; something that is not possible at any other royal residence! Plus, don’t miss the chance to explore the racing yacht Bloodhound, berthed alongside Britannia. Owned by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip in the 1960s, it is the centrepiece of the ‘Royal Sailing Exhibition’ opened at the site last year. Groups of 15 or more are eligible for discounts.

MARITIME MUSEUMS

A photograph from the exhibition ‘On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration’, currently on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

A photograph from the exhibition ‘On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration’, currently on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Located on the edge of Falmouth harbour, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall has 15 galleries illustrating the past, present and future of this island nation. Three of these are dedicated to Cornwall’s maritime history and there is also an interactive Nav Station that explains everything you need to know about the weather at sea and navigation. Added to this, there is an underwater tidal gallery and a 29-metre high Lookout Tower, with panoramic views over the surrounding area. As well as the permanent displays, there are also a number of temporary exhibitions to explore including ‘On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration’, on display at the museum until 9th October. This exhibition honours the historic and modern day achievements of iconic polar explorers, such as Scott and Shackleton, using photography, objects and personal ephemera. Plus, don’t miss ‘Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks’, running until 31st December, which uses hands-on exhibits and interactive displays to illustrate the power of oceans, explore feats of daring and learn how these beacons of light have saved and touched lives. Groups of 10 or more receive a discount.

The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College

The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College

Set in landscaped grounds beside the River Thames, the Old Royal Naval College is the centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich, the World Heritage Site, and its twin domes at the front of Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque masterpiece are among some of London’s most well-known landmarks. The Old Royal Naval College comprises two ‘unique’ buildings; the Chapel is a rare example of a complete and unaltered neoclassical period piece, while the Painted Hall, created by Sir James Thornhill, a leading artist of the 18th century, is a homage to Britain’s maritime power, and also reflects the changing face of the British monarchy. While the ceiling of the Lower Hall depicts the Stuart dynasty, under whose reign the work was commissioned, the West Wall features Britain’s new royal family – the Hanoverians. It was originally created as the dining room for the Royal Hospital for Seamen, which occupied the site until 1869, shortly after which it was turned into the Royal Naval College, remaining in use until 1998. Entry is free; however, groups can book a package that includes a guided tour with exclusive access to the Victorian skittle alley and Jacobean undercroft, as well as the Chapel and Painted Hall, with lunch in the King William Undercroft, for just £19.50 per person.

A view of Queen’s House

A view of Queen’s House

Also at the Maritime Greenwich site stands the recently opened Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, which acts as a good starting point for a visit to the borough. Over 500 years of royal and maritime history is presented here through rare artefacts, film footage and interactive models. For instance, learn about the Tudor Palace of Greenwich, which used to occupy the site and was the birthplace of Henry VIII.

The free-entry National Maritime Museum also forms part of the World Heritage Site, and is the largest museum of its kind in the world. Its galleries uncover Britain’s seafaring history, charting important discoveries through maps, photographs and artefacts from the 15th to 20th centuries. The museum will open its brand new wing – the Sammy Ofer Wing – in July, featuring a special exhibitions gallery, restaurant and café, state of the art library and archive, and permanent gallery, Voyagers. This will act as an introduction to the depth and range of the Museum’s collections, combining over 200 objects, including a diary of a 19th century whaler, Nelson’s last letter to his daughter and a toy pig that survived the sinking of ‘Titanic’.

Artefacts at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Artefacts at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Also of interest at the site is the Queen’s House, built in 1616 for James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark. The rooms are the setting for various maritime art collections under the care of the National Maritime Museum.

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, the free-entry Merseyside Maritime museum occupies a seven-acre site next to the historic Albert Dock, with displays reflecting the history of the merchant navy and shipping from the 13th century, and the development of the port of Liverpool and its international links. There is also an open-air section containing full-size historic vessels. Also housed in the building is the national museum of HM Revenue & Customs and the International Slavery Museum is on-site too.

LIVING HISTORY FROM THE HIGH SEAS

Britain was once the world’s greatest naval superpower and visitors can re-live this period of the island’s history with a visit to some of the UK’s maritime living history attractions.

A group in front of HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

A group in front of HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Groups can come face to face with some of the ships that helped shape British history at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – alongside modern warships of the Royal Navy. Discover first and what it was like to serve and fight onboard three of the most famous ships in the world – Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, ‘HMS Victory’, Henry VIII’s beloved ‘Mary Rose’ and HMS Warrior 1860’, the world’s first iron-hulled, armoured warship powered by steam as well as sail. The hull of the ‘Mary Rose’ is currently withdrawn from public view as part of a £35 million heritage project to build a brand new museum, due to open in autumn 2012; however, while this is being constructed, be sure to visit the existing Mary Rose Museum to view artefacts recovered from the wreck. Groups can book exclusive tours of the museum, as well as ‘HMS Warrior 1860’ for the chance to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes. Other major attractions at the Dockyard include the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Action Stations, here you can fly the Royal Marines into battle in a helicopter flight simulator, and 45-minute harbour tours that bring visitors up close to modern Royal Navy warships. Groups of 15 or more people are eligible for discounts.

A similar experience is on offer at The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, in Kent. Attractions here include three historic warships, a Victorian ropery tour, Royal Dockyard Museum, documenting 400 years of history, and the RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection, bringing together stories of remarkable heroics. There is also an impressive programme of touring exhibitions at No. 1 Smithery. Special guided tours are available for groups.

Inside a shipwright’s cottage at Buckler’s Hard

Inside a shipwright’s cottage at Buckler’s Hard

Set on the banks of the Beaulieu River, in the heart of the New Forest, Buckler’s Hard is the site of an 18th century shipbuilding village where ships for Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar were built. Historic displays in the labourer’s and shipwright’s cottages, and the New Inn show how the village would have looked in the early 1800s, while the maritime museum, which re-opened with new interpretation at Easter, brings to life the characters that lived here at the time of master shipbuilder Henry Adams, the man responsible for many famous ships including Admiral Nelson’s favourite ship, HMS Agamemnon.
Groups can learn about the building of Nelson’s warships, as well as other key events in the history of the village, on a ‘Hearts of Oak’ themed tour. River cruises also operate out of Buckler’s Hard, revealing the wildlife that inhabits its riverbanks.

Meanwhile, in the north east of England, Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience is an authentic recreation of an 18th century British seaport. Here, visitors can explore the replica historic quayside, step onboard Britain’s oldest floating warship, HMS Trincomalee, tour the restored paddle steamer, PSS Wingfield Castle, and experience the fighting frigate HMS Prosperity in the year 1800 through an impressive audio-visual display. There is a charge for some attractions, although groups receive a discount and GTOs get in free.