Now that the Medway town of Chatham is home to two major tourist attractions, it's important to visit the correct one. Both are accessed via the new trading estate on the riverside above the Medway Tunnel. One's been open for 400 years, and the other for two months. The new kid on the block is Dickens World, a literary visitor attraction based upon the life and works of the town's most famous resident. It looks like an extra-large branch of Carpet Warehouse, housed in an aluminium hangar and sandwiched inbetween an Odeon multiplex and an M&S Factory Outlet. You don't want to waste your time here, really youdon't. You want to cross the access road to the naval dockyard where Charles Dickens' father worked as a pay clerk - now a maritime museum far more worthy of your £12.50 admission money.
Back in Tudor times Chatham was home to the largest dockyard in the country, and the Medway estuary was the hub of Britain's naval strength. Chatham's influence declined steadily as ships grew larger, and as the river grew siltier, although ship building and maintenance continued here until a last post-Falklands hurrah in 1984. Today the Chatham Historic Dockyard houses a most impressive collection of sea-going craft, historic buildings and industrial archaeology [photo]. There's absolutely tons to see (even when it's chucking it down with rain), and not just a bunch of old sailing ships. Here are the six things that most made me go "wow!".
Wow!1 HMS Ocelot
20 years ago this Royal Navy submarine was top secret, gliding unseen beneath the polar icecaps keeping an eye on Russian nuclear capability [photo]. But today any civilian can take a 30 minute tour from forward to aft, leaping through the circular hatches from cabin to cabin, taking as many photographs as they like. It's damned cramped down here, with not a inch of space wasted. Torpedo bays side by side with packed-in bunk beds. Tiny flushing toilets beside claustrophobic pipe-filled gangways. There's even an opportunity to peer through the attack periscope, like in all the best war films, and to stand in the heart of the diesel-electric engine room. [photo] Just mind your head as you pass, and be glad you're not spending four months down here. Wow, I'm below decks on a secret submarine!
Wow!2 The Cutty Sark
You might have thought that most of the Cutty Sark was destroyed by fire a couple of months ago. But no - almost all of the non-hull bits had already been removed for restoration and were safely tucked away on the quayside at the Chatham, so they survived. The hollow metal masts are here, laid out unceremoniously beside the anchor, some capstans and the odd bulwark [photo]. The best view of these maritime tresures is from the aft deck of HMS Gannet, the sailing ship nextdoor [photo]. Here you can gaze down on the Cutty Sark's two teak-lined Deck Houses, the scaffolded roof of each now swarming with a small team of busy workmen [photo]. Wow, I'm looking at the uncharred bits of the world's most famous tea clipper!
Wow!3 The Ropery
This sounds like it ought to be really dull, but "making rope" provides one of the highlights of a visit to the dockyard. Sailing ships needed as much as 30 miles of rope each, so there had to be extensivefacilities on site for turning hemp into extra-strong cable. Today an actor dressed as a Victorian worker guides you through the entire process, in character, his jovial commentary mixing social injustice with technological knowhow. By the end even the 8-year olds on my tour understood how rope was made, mainly because they'd had a go at powering the machinery that twists it together. No, really, it's better than it sounds. Most impressive is the gobsmackingly-long Ropery, reputedly the lengthiest brick building in Europe, which stretches off a quarter of a mile into the distance (and where rope is still being made to this day) [photo]. Wow, I just found rope-making interesting!
Wow!4 A Blue Peter lifeboat
There had to be a Royal National Lifeboat collection somewhere in the UK, and it's at Chatham dockyard. Sixteen lifeboats have been retired here, spanning a century of inshore civilian bravery, from early rowing boats to more modern multi-decked marvels. Most you can only look at, but some you can clamber over and peer around inside. Some not terribly convincing mannequins attempt to bring the boats alive, and even the attraction's attendant has been forced to walk around in less-than-flattering period costume. And at the back of the back of the display there's a small piece of television history - one of the first four Blue Peter lifeboats[photo]. This is Blue Peter III, stationed at North Berwick, and paid for courtesy of the programme's 1966 appeal. The boat's a lot smaller than I expected (maybe things just look bigger on television) but this mini inflatable has still saved 42 lives over its career. Wow, see what collecting unwanted paperback books can do!