diamond geezer

 Friday, November 08, 2019

A Grand Day Out: The Historic Dockyard, Chatham
Location: Chatham, Kent, ME4 4TZ [map]
Open: from 10am (closed December, January)
Admission: £25.00 (free with an Art Pass)
5-word summary: four centuries of maritime history
Website: thedockyard.co.uk
Time to set aside: a day

In Tudor times Chatham was home to the largest dockyard in the country, and the Medway estuary became the hub of Britain's naval strength. Chatham's influence declined steadily as ships grew larger, although ship building and maintenance continued here for centuries until a final post-Falklands hurrah in 1984. Today the Chatham Historic Dockyard houses a most impressive collection of sea-going craft, historic buildings and industrial archaeology across an extensive site. There's tons to see, not just a bunch of old sailing ships, and November's a particularly quiet time to visit.

A lot of extra stuff has opened since I was last here in 2007, thanks to a generous Lottery grant, including a much spruced-up entrance building. Now your welcome includes barcode-operated entry gates, a ramp down to a tour-booking desk and a series of spacious interactive galleries. One gallery looks at general maritime dominance stuff, another lets you try your hand at dockside skills and a third celebrates the evocative ship's timbers they found under some floorboards. Fiona Bruce narrates throughout. A costumed lady tried to nudge me inside Hearts of Oak, an extensive audio-visual adventure, but I didn't have the requisite half an hour to spare.

At the heart of the site, within the dry docks, are three historic warships. One's a sailing ship, HMS Gannet, not especially overdressed but worth an explore. I was much more intrigued by HMS Cavalier, a naval destroyer launched just in time for the end of World War 2. It ended up here after being decommissioned in 1972, so below decks still has the feel of life afloat in a lightly-technological era. Wandering the corridors I eventually found the radio room, the galley, the captain's quarters and some fairly basic urinals. Most exciting was the Naafi, stocked with Imperial Leather, Golden Virginia and tins of creamed chicken soup. Checking the pricelist outside I can confirm that in 1972 a finger of Fudge cost 1½p, a packet of Spangles 2p and a Cadbury's Bar Six 4p.

But the most amazing of the trio is HMS Ocelot, a Cold War era submarine, and the last ship to be built here at Chatham. You don't often get to see a giant black tube out of the water, let alone the chance to climb through its hatch down into the bowels. An informative tour leads you from the torpedo deck to the silent engines, and along the way you get to swing yourself through the hatches like a pro. There are switches and dials everywhere, and bunks tucked in wherever possible, and I can confirm that the attack periscope works because I looked through and spotted Chatham. I cannot imagine how a crew of 69 men spent months aboard without resurfacing, or shower facilities, but I loved my half an hour below.

Alongside are the covered slips, giant sheds within which ships could be built or repaired in the dry. The finest is No 3 Slip, in 1838 the largest wide-span timber structure in Europe, which resembles an upturned hull with chequerboard skylights. Ground level is covered by oversized military machinery, but the real treat is to climb up (and up) to a suspended timber platform where boats were once stored, and admire the intricate roof close up. In the slip nextdoor is the RNLI's historic lifeboat collection, which contains a greater variety of lifesaving craft than you ever dreamed possible, one of which is an actual Blue Peter lifeboat your unwanted paperbacks might have paid for. My favourite RNLI anecdote is that the organisation was originally called the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, an acronym that definitely needed changing.

The Dockyard's other great treasure is the quarter-mile-long Ropery, at time of construction Europe's longest brick-built building. It was here that men spun and wound the ropes for great ships like the Victory, which needed 31 miles of the stuff, making this a crucial Empire-building trade. A fascinating tour of the building runs every day just after noon, and if you come on a weekday you get to watch a modern ropemaking company using the old machinery. They ride the full length of the gallery aboard a machine which braids the three threads together, tar each end to seal it then coil the resulting 220m rope ready for sale. If your tall ship, theatre or gymnasium needs ropes, Chatham can still provide.

Other things to visit within the Dockyard include a museum (Steam, Steel and Submarines), a fine collection of Georgian residential buildings (Call The Midwife often films here) and a store of hundreds of model ships loaned by the Imperial War Museum. The latter looked like it was going to be much more interesting than it turned out to be. Food is taken care of in the Wagon Stop canteen, which doubles up as a diner for the students and office workers stationed across the site, or in the more substantial Mess Deck back at the entrance. And it really does take all day to look around properly, hence the fairly steep entrance fee. You have another two weeks to get here before the dockyard closes for the winter.

» Getting here: I took a High Speed train from Stratford in just half an hour, then spent another half hour traipsing across Chatham to the Dockyard entrance. Alternatively the M2 coach runs direct from North Greenwich in 40 minutes (£13.50 return). In reality everyone drives.
» What's close by: Across the car park is Dockside, a large retail outlet mall with the Kentish consumer in mind. I've seen outlettier.
» What's nearby: The Royal Engineers Museum (£9.20) and Napoleonic Fort Amherst (free), but you probably won't have time to see either of those.

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