Boat tours off the coast of Portsmouth and Gosport giving a whole new perspective on the area
PUBLISHED: 09:56 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 09:56 11 August 2014
Portsmouth and Gosport have witnessed plenty of naval action during their long and illustrious history. While today's waterfront might see more shoppers than sailors, cast-off on a harbour boat tour and it's a view on events from a whole new perspective
“Welcome to Gunwharf-sur- Med!” shouts Jason, one of the three-man crew on the good ship Solent Cat that’s bobbing about at the bottom of the slipway. Banter perhaps, but today we are indeed embarking on this whistle-stop tour of the harbour under azure-blue skies and a gentle breeze. Perfect conditions, it appears, although heading for the upper deck to secure a bird’s-eye view, I notice the saloon roof. A welcome retreat, should the British weather exhibit its usual unpredictability and drench those venturing into stormier waters.
You don’t need to be a maritime anorak to enjoy this boat tour around Portsmouth Harbour and the Naval Dockyard. The boat maintains a distance (of 50 metres for safety reasons) but you get a real insight into the modern Royal Navy.
Our skipper, Dan, fires off enough facts during his live commentary to fill the pages of a history book with no shortage of statistics on the latest stealth technology on board some of the vessels around us.
I must admit, that aside from learning about ‘range’ and ‘firepower’, for me the back stories are sometimes just as interesting. HMS Daring for instance is just back from helping out with the typhoon relief effort in the Philippines. And we pass by HMS Mercury, one of the fisheries protection vessels in the enduring ‘cod wars’.
Spotting my camera primed, Jason suggests moving to the starboard side and it’s good advice, as tracing the three miles (4.8km) of coastline on an anti-clockwise course, you certainly get a good view of the Royal Navy’s finest - from frigates and destroyers to helicopter carriers. The scale of some of this military might remains awe-inspiring.
And we’re not the only ones inspecting the fleet today, with Her Majesty the Queen reputedly keeping a lunch appointment on HMS Lancaster. Some of the other ships and yards have also been under the spotlight: the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies saw HMS Westminster become a stand-in for the fictional HMS Devonshire; while just a couple of years ago Portsmouth’s drydock was packed with local extras, as well as Hollywood A-listers Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe for the filming of Les Misérables.
With the announcement that The North West Wall is approaching, you might be forgiven for thinking we’re in the middle of an episode of the TV series Game of Thrones. Instead, there are startling reminders of past campaigns. Ships whose names once became familiar during the 1980’s Falkland’s War have been recycled as cadet training vessels for the next generation of budding mariners. Or, perhaps less ceremoniously, are now consigned to scrap. As Dan quips, with a price tag of upwards of £750,000 you’d get a lot of razor blades out of one of those.
While the commercial port with its cranes, and the cross-Channel ferry terminals might lack the warships’ splendour, they remind us of Portsmouth’s role as a working harbour.
There’s an enormous variety of craft that navigate its shipping lanes and keeping a watchful eye around the clock is the Queen’s Harbour Master. Assisted by a police marine unit and volunteer patrol vessels, the safety of the 50 square miles (80.5sq km) that includes Portsmouth Harbour and the eastern Solent is in their hands.
Heading towards Fareham Creek, all eyes turn to admire Porchester Castle, standing resolute against the incoming tide since Roman times, and still one of the nation’s best preserved monuments.
As Gosport’s Royal Clarence Victualling Yard and Haslar Marina come into focus, the luxury apartments and yachts still honour the memory of the former site of the Navy’s store cupboard, and the legendary Camper and Nicholson boatyard.
As we reported in Hampshire Life last month, Gosport also has plenty to shout about when it comes to its role in deploying troops and vehicles into enemy-held territory during the D-Day landings.
With Portsmouth’s 557 foot (170m) high Spinnaker Tower calling us back to shore and collars turned-up against the prevailing wind, there’s just time to catch a glimpse of Palmerston’s famous Solent forts, now the Spitbank Fort Hotel.
Who’d have thought, these bastions of our Napoleonic defences would one day become a luxury retreat for the wealthy traveller?
Yet it’s only by being out on the water and becoming part of this great natural harbour, that you begin to make sense of it. Whether it’s pulling-up alongside the iron-clad bulk of HMS Warrior or passing the watchful ‘eyes’ of the Navy’s latest protégée, HMS Defender, such sights impress.
Over on Spice Island, Lord Nelson is said to have drunk ahead of his fateful voyage to Trafalgar. Were he alive today, it’s tempting to imagine a glass might be raised to this living heritage.
I have reached the end of my 45-minute tour. But Dan is getting ready to welcome some new passengers.
“People ask if it gets boring just going round and round the harbour, but there’s always something new to look at.”
Need to know
Where: Departs from both Gunwharf Quays and Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, follow the brown and white signs from M27 (Junction 12), use the Park&Ride service from the M275, SW Trains service to Portsmouth Harbour from London Waterloo and Southampton Central, alternatively the Hard Interchange coach and bus station, the Gosport Ferry and Wightlink passenger terminal are minutes away.
When: Daily April to October, first tour departs Gunwharf Quays 10:45, the Historic Dockyard 11:00; visit www.portsmouth-boat-trips.co.uk or call 01983 564602 for winter operating details.
How: Buy tickets on arrival from the corner of Waterfront/Canalside at Gunwharf or at the Historic Dockyard visitor centre; adult fare £7, child £5, family tickets £20 (included within Historic Dockyard’s All Attractions ticket, visit www.historicdockyard.co.uk).
Other harbour tours
-Portsmouth Harbour Waterbus links the four major attractions of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower, Royal Navy Submarine Museum and Gunwharf Quays. Waterbus/attraction tickets are available to purchase at each of the three museums. The round trip takes 1hr. First waterbus departs Gunwharf Quays 10:30; visit www.portsmouth-boat-trips.co.uk or call 01983 564602.
-Four Forts Cream Tea Cruise takes in Horse Sand, No Man’s Land, Spitbank and St Helen’s forts before returning for a harbour tour (3hrs total). Departs Gosport Pontoon 14:00 Sunday 20 July and Wednesday 20 August; adult fare £18.50, child £9.25, inc. cream tea, visit www.gosportferry.co.uk or call 02392 524551.
-High speed powerboats whisk adrenalin junkies on 45 and 60 minute blasts around the Solent forts and also over to the Isle of Wight. Fares start from £25 per person, visit www.onboardcharters.com or call 02392 006427.
5 unknown facts
- King Richard The Lionheart sailed from here bound for the Crusades.
- The city’s nickname is said to have come from approaching shipping making the log entry Pom.P. referring to Portsmouth Point. The alternative view is that it’s named after the harbour guardship, Le Pompee captured from the French in 1793.
- The dockyards once comprised an area of about 336 acres (136ha), almost half of which was built on land recovered from the sea.
-At its shipbuilding peak in the early 20th century over 20,000 ‘dockies’ were employed here.
- Today, around 117,000 annual shipping movements make it one of the country’s busiest harbours. Vessels over 65 feet (20m) must obtain permission to enter port, for a daily list visit www.qhm.mod.uk/portsmouth/home