diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 11, 2012

Seaside postcard: Gosport
Great name for a town. Gosport sounds vibrant and physical, like some well-meaning Government campaign to get schoolkids to exercise more. Alas no. This is a naval backwater on the western edge of Portsmouth Harbour, playing perpetual second fiddle to its sister city acros the water. There are two Gosports - one the aspirational marina community along the waterside (think yachts, and apartments to match), the other a less uplifting residential hinterland. The contrast between Portsmouth's Gunwharf Quays mall and Gosport's High Street is stark - less than a mile apart across the harbour, but one gets designer labels while the other gets the charity shops. Nipping between the two is the Gosport Ferry, a regular and efficient hop across the water with fine views of HMS Warrior and the Spinnaker Tower on the way. And there are at least two reasons to take the trip across...

Gosport presents... Royal Navy Submarine Museum
As weapons of destruction go, submarines have a particularly alluring fascination. Maybe it's their ability to lurk underwater, maybe it's that little periscope that pokes up above the water, or maybe it's the unimaginably cramped conditions that sailors enured during months of underwater voyaging. So the existence of a national submarine museum should be of interest, especially a museum which allows visitors to go aboard two proper submarines. To gain entrance head towards the mouth of the harbour, adjacent to the Royal Navy's submariners' training school, in the shadow of the 100m tower where they practice emergency evacuation ascents. I found the place surprisingly busy for a Saturday, and not just because a coachload of teenage naval cadets had turned up for a day out (plus packed lunch).

The museum's star attraction is HMS Alliance, a full-size Navy submarine which saw decades of services following World War Two. Wait for your timed tour, then join a former submariner for a 45 minute guided squeeze from aft to stern. Yes, it is ridiculously cramped inside - essentially one long narrow passageway along which dozens of men lived, worked, ate and slept. The main torpedo storage bay, for example, doubled up as main entrance, escape hatch, food store, chapel, even cinema with the aid of a white sheet across the bulwark. To get from the tiny sleeping cabins to the fairly primitive toilets meant walking through the main control room, sometimes in darkness. There were no showers on board, to save water, so the entire crew stank to high heaven by the end of their deployment. You'd think the galley impractically small, but the chef had only these few surfaces to prepare food for everyone on board. All the metal on board is brass, to avoid giving away the craft's position via magnetic interference. Our guide gave illuminating commentary throughout, although this might not be the case for much longer. There's apparently a row brewing regarding how much these guides are paid - currently minimal, whereas the trustees would prefer nothing at all. The museum needs every penny it can get - urgent repairs to HMS Alliance will cost millions, for example - but it would be a shame to sacrifice human excellence to save money.

The second submarine to explore is very special. It's HMS Holland, the Royal Navy's first submarine, and dates back as far to 1901. It looks precisely as Jules Verne might have imagined the Nautilus in 20000 Leagues Under The Sea - a cross between a bulging fish and a metal zeppelin. So fragile is the Holland that it has to be stored in a special ionised room... which I had all to myself on my visit, which was fantastic, especially when poking around inside the belly of the beast.

And there's plenty more to see in the main building, certainly your money's worth, so long as you're the sort to find an in-depth look at the history and science of submarine warfare fascinating. I'm not sure the naval cadets fully appreciated the tail end of their day-trip, they'd clearly been here too long and were wandering aimlessly or pressing buttons on the displays to stay engaged. But allocate a couple of hours and you'll be entertained, and enlightened, and probably very relieved you were never conscripted to the inky depths for several constricted weeks.

Gosport presents... Explosion!
Its proper name is the Museum of Naval Firepower, but Explosion! sounds so much cooler. If you didn't know what the place was you then might be baffled by the brown sign in the High Street pointing towards Explosion!, like there was some security incident up the road or something. Instead a 20 minute walk up Weevil Lane awaits, past barracks converted to private housing, then across a long footbridge over a harbour inlet. This headland's a bit out of the way, I thought, but I guess that's precisely why the navy chose to build a Armaments Depot here on Priddy's Hard in the first place. Relative isolation also explained why the museum was terribly quiet, that and being the middle of winter which isn't exactly peak season for heritage tourism. The ladies on the desk took my money, watched intently to see whether I'd enter the museum or the cafe first, then went back to chatting when it became evident no fresh-brewed tea nor sandwiches were required.

This old naval facility's been a museum for over a decade now, ever since the council stepped in to ensure an important chunk of local history wasn't lost. The first section tells the story of the people who used to work here, in an industry that's been ever-so health-and-safety conscious for a couple of centuries. Complete changes of clothes, plus special slippers so as not to create a deadly spark, all of this was critical when packing gunpowder into shells. I was looking forward to the immersive audio visual presentation in the Grand Magazine (an impressive large vaulted brick hall) but it had broken down, and the only sight to see was a woman attempting to hire out the space for weddings.

The remainder of the exhibition focused on naval munitions through the ages, which I had thought might be dull, but was delivered with a Reithian flair. A cabinet of guns to satisfy the most ardent shoot-em-upper. A roomful of hanging mines, like some twisted challenge from the Crystal Maze. A large collection of heavy calibre guns, plus as much of the associated physics as you care to take. A selection of torpedoes, which are an older invention than you might think. A room of atomic missiles, thankfully decommissioned, as a jolting reminder of how far aerial weaponry has developed since the measly cannonball. And all with interactive audio-visual press button screens, because it's the 21st century now.

And finally the cafe. The menu was up, the tables were ready, the view across the harbour was enticing, but the room was entirely empty. There wasn't even a nice lady behind the counter to stare at me expectantly in case I'd like a hot chocolate and/or a pastry. An hour round Explosion! and I'd been the only visitor they'd had, which was great for me, but must have been mindblowingly tedious for the staff of a top class visitor attraction. Two Gosport museums, one rammed, one dead... and deserving better.

» Royal Navy Submarine Museum (£10)
» Explosion! (£10)
» Combined ticket (£12.50)
» Combined ticket, plus waterbus from Portsmouth Harbour (£12.50, May-September)

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