Britain's Maritime Heritage
As an island with a long seafaring tradition, both trading and as a colonial power, Britain is rich in maritime history and heritage. All around our coastline, there are reminders of the country’s nautical legacy and our relationship with the sea.
They endure in the form of maritime museums,once-thriving docks and ports now preserved as heritageareas, mighty naval dockyards surplus to requirementsin the modern world and historic boats and ships which have survived the ravages of time, neglect, war and the scrapyard.
With the sea being our only link with other countries until we could take to the skies, it is unsurprising that it is etched so deeply in our psyche and in our souls. And less surprising still that the nation’s favourite hero, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, is glorified in London’s best-known monument in the centre of Trafalgar Square – itself named after his most famous naval victory, against the French, in 1805.
Fittingly, his flagship, HMS Victory, is today the centrepiece of one of Britain’s top visitor attractions: Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
So it also makes sense for us to start our tour of the country’s maritime heritage at the historic home of the Royal Navy, where almost two-thirds of its surface ships are still based today.
Nowhere can you feel Britain’s close association with the sea more than at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It was in June 1911 that the Dockyard Museum was opened by King George V, a treasure house of naval objects displayed in the space now occupied by the Victory Restoration Workshop.
While some of the original objects were sent to the new National Maritime Museum in Greenwich upon its opening in 1937, many figureheads and other key items remained and now form part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, located opposite HMS Victory in the Victory Gallery.
Launched in 1765 at Chatham, HMS Victory is the Royal Navy’s most celebrated warship and the world’s oldest commissioned ship. Visitors can explore the ship and see the Great Cabin, where the Battle of Trafalgar was planned, as well as the spot where Nelson died.
This year marks another major milestone at the dockyard – the 150th anniversary of HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled, armoured warship, which was powered by steam and sail. It is now called HMS Warrior 1860, marking its launch on December 29, 1860, although it was commissioned in August, 1861. Restored and returned to its home port 23 years ago, the ship vividly portrays the life of a Victorian sailor.
Yet another significant anniversary is being celebrated by Tudor warship the Mary Rose, with 2011 marking 500 years since it was commissioned by King Henry VIII. Raised from the seabed in 1982 in front of a global TV audience of 60 million, having sunk in battle
with the French in 1545 in view of the king, the ship has been undergoing conservation ever since.
A new £35 million museum is currently under construction to house the ship, so the vessel will not be on view until it opens in mid-2012. However, you can still see the amazing artefacts recovered intact from the wreck in the existing museum.
Visit the sail-shaped Spinnaker Tower for the best views over the adjacent historic dockyard.
Nearby Gosport is home to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, where exhibits include HMS Alliance, commissioned in 1947, and the Royal Navy’s first submarine, Holland 1, which first sailed in 1901. Lost while being towed to the breakers’ yard in 1913, the wreck of Holland 1 was discovered and salvaged 69 years later. It is now housed in a special dehumidified gallery following an extensive restoration project completed in its centenary year.
The importance of Maritime Greenwich is underlined by its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, granted in 1997. Besides its royal associations with Tudor and Stuart sovereigns as well as its pivotal position in the world of science, Greenwich has played a key role in Britain’s sea power for over 400 years.
Over the centuries, it saw the establishment of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and associated school (from 1696-1869), the Royal Naval College (1872-1998), the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital (from 1870 until the 1980s) and the National Maritime Museum.
Around £200 million worth of investment and £70 million in grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund have underpinned regeneration since 1997, which has included the opening up of the Royal Naval College to the public.
The world’s largest maritime museum with a collection totalling almost 2.5 million items, the National Maritime Museum includes a narrative and interactive Nelson display which depicts the Battle of Trafalgar, his death, funeral and commemoration in London. Nelson’s Trafalgar coat, with the hole made by the fatal French musket ball, is currently undergoing essential conservation but will go back on display in the summer.
Among popular things you can see at the museum currently are the state barge of Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of King George II; The Bridge simulator, in which visitors can try their hand at captaining a ship; and the All Hands interactive gallery for children of all ages.
A major new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, opens in summer 2011 to create a new south entrance, interactive galleries and substantial new space for special exhibitions.
Following its disastrous fire in 2007, venerable tea clipper Cutty Sark is being restored to its former glory with a glazed viewing gallery underneath thanks to a £46 million funding package, and is due to open in time for the 2012 Olympics.
London Docklands and City
Just across the river, London’s Docklands have regenerated into a financial and business hub. The capital’s history as a port from the time of the Romans is told through collections and galleries at the Museum of London Docklands, in a former sugar warehouse on West India Quay.
Next to Tower Bridge, the 160-year-old warehouse buildings of St Katharine Docks are now home to apartments, restaurants and shops, with the docks themselves a marina where historic sailing barges sit alongside luxury yachts.
And just upriver, HMS Belfast is the only surviving light cruiser to have seen active service during World War II. Part of the Imperial War Museum, it was saved from destruction in 1971 after serving Britain for 32 years and is staffed by volunteers, many of them veteran crew members.
Tucked in a wharf off Southwark’s Clink Street is a replica of one of Britain’s most famous ships, the Golden Hinde. A full-size reconstruction of the Tudor galleon in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe from 1577-1580, it offers visitors a living history experience on self-guided tours.
Downriver, Tilbury is the temporary home for the world’s oldest restored steamship, the 120-year-old SS Robin, following two year’s restoration at Great Yarmouth. It will become a museum and learning centre in London.
The Historic Dockyard Chatham is the world’s most complete example of a historic dockyard from the age of sail and played a vital role for the Royal Navy for over four centuries.
Its collection of three historic warships comprises the three-masted Victorian naval sloop HMS Gannet, built at nearby Sheerness in 1878, as well as the Royal Navy’s last operation World War II destroyer, HMS Cavalier, and HM Submarine Ocelot, the last warship built for the Royal Navy at Chatham and launched in 1962. Visitors can tour all three vessels.
Other attractions in the dockyard include a D-Day locomotive, midget submarine and Kitchener’s Railway Carriage in 3 Slip – Europe’s largest wide-span timber structure when built in 1838 – as well as 17 historic RNLI lifeboats, the Victorian Ropery with its quartermile Rope Walk, a reconstruction of a wooden warships dockyard and the Royal Dockyard Museum.
East of England
Hartlepool was a host port for the Tall Ships Races in 2010, when nearly 60 historic vessels took part. Hartlepool Maritime Experience is a recreation of an 18th century seaport, bringing to life the times of Nelson, Napoleon and the Battle of Trafalgar. It
includes a maritime museum, Britain’s oldest warship afloat, the 1817-vintage HMS Trincomalee, and a “mari-time machine” to experience life aboard a 19th century British naval frigate.
Hull Maritime Museum features ship models, a fullsize whale skeleton and displays of the whalers’ craft of scrimshaw, or whalebone carving. Lowestoft Maritime Museum’s new extension was opened in May 2010 by the Princess Royal. Exhibits include model ships and marine art.
In Essex, see traditional Thames barges moored by the sea wall at Maldon and the preserved cockle fishing village of Old Leigh, where the Pilgrims’ Mayflower picked up provisions and passengers.
South and South West England
Southampton has a rich and colourful history which continues today, as home to the transatlantic Queens. It was also the departure port for the ill-fated Titanic. The chronicle of its crew forms an exhibition at Southampton Maritime Museum.
Currently located in the 600-year-old Wool House warehouse, it will be renamed Sea City when it moves to a new facility in a former magistrates’ court in April 2012, with a gallery devoted to the Titanic.
Buckler’s Hard is a preserved 18th century village on the banks of the Beaulieu River in the New Forest National Park where three Battle of Trafalgar warships were built. Its maritime museum gives an insight into the history of the village, the ships built there, the
Nelson connection and its role in the D-Day landings.
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall, in Falmouth, was formed as a partnership between the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the former Cornwall Maritime Museum and combines their extensive collections. Displays include traditional craft and sailing boats from the first Mirror dinghy to Olympic medal-winners.
At Bristol, you can relive the age of Victorian genius aboard Brunel’s SS Great Britain. Abandoned in 1937 in the Falklands and rescued 40 years ago, it was the world’s largest ship and a technological marvel when launched in Bristol in 1843 with its iron hull, screw propeller and steam engine. This popular, award-winning attraction now sits on a glass “sea” in a dry dock.
The Pilgrim Fathers sailed in the Mayflower to America in 1620 from Plymouth. The City Museum details that and the history of naval seaport Devonport as well as its association with Antarctic exploration through local boy Captain Robert Scott.
Gloucester Docks is linked to the sea by the 16-mile Sharpness Canal. Tall ships still visit from time to time and it is home to a lightship now converted into a floating holistic therapy centre. Bideford in Devon is home to 1900 three-masted schooner Kathleen and May.
The darker side of Britain’s seas is told in the form of artefacts from wrecked ships at the Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum and the Isles of Scilly Museum.
Wales and North West England
A Grade II listed former dockside warehouse in Swansea houses the National Waterfront Museum, Wales’s newest national museum, which explores the country’s industrial and maritime heritage.
Nine million people emigrated through the great port of Liverpool. Their story is brought to life in a gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the preserved Albert Dock, which also includes the national museum of HM Revenue and Customs covering smuggling and
taxes, the Titanic, Lusitania and Empress of Ireland gallery and displays of boats and ships, paintings, ship models and items from wrecks.
The history of shipbuilding centre Barrow-in-Furness is detailed in the Dock Museum, which includes ship models, paintings and exhibitions. northern ireland Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard was where Titanic was built and its legacy lives on in the city.
Excitement is building in the run up to the centenary of its sinking on April 15, 1912. An iconic Titanic visitor attraction is planned to open in Belfast’s £7 billion Titanic Quarter waterfront development in 2012.
A special Titanic exhibition from the collections of National Museums Northern Ireland opens on May 31 – 100 years to the day when the ship was launched – at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.
The Titanic Made in Belfast Festival takes place each April. Tours of Titanic’s Dock and Pump-House, once the heart of Harland & Wolff during the construction of Titanic and its White Star sister ships Britannic and Olympic, take place throughout the year and include a footprint of the doomed ship to show its scale. Titanic’s little sister, the tender SS Nomadic, has returned to the shipyard and awaits restoration.
The Scottish Maritime Museum occupies three sites, at Irvine, Dumbarton and Braehead – although Braehead’s Clydebuilt Museum was due to close by the end of 2010. The Irvine harbour location includes historic ships such as the Clyde Puffer MV Spartan as well as
ship models and a preserved shipyard worker’s tenement flat.
The Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour attraction, centred on the three-masted Glenlee which has just reopened after renovation, is moving to a new berth alongside the Riverside Museum this year. Meanwhile, the touring Titanic: Honour and Glory exhibition featuring the largest private collection of Titanic artefacts in Scotland is open at the harbour until February 27.
Edinburgh’s port of Leith is home to the former Royal Yacht Britannia. Tour the bridge and the ship’s five decks, including the gleaming engine room, state rooms where world leaders were entertained and the Queen’s bedroom. The 1930s racing yacht, Bloodhound,
which was once owned by the Queen and Prince Philip, is moored alongside.
Visit Discovery Point, Dundee, to see Antarctic explorers Scott and Shackleton’s ship, RRS Discovery. Dundee is also home to the frigate, Unicorn.
Inverary Maritime Experience is housed in the 1911- built iron-hulled schooner, Arctic Penguin, moored at Inverary Pier. It also includes the Vital Spark, one of the last Clyde Puffers to be built.
World of Boats is a collection of almost 400 boats and over 300 models from across the world at the East Coast fishing port of Eyemouth. At its core is the former Exeter Maritime Museum collection of ethnic, European coastal and other craft of historic significance.
Aberdeen Maritime Museum, in the city’s historic Shiprow, highlights shipbuilding, sailing ships, whaling, fishing and the North Sea oil industry.
Maritime UK Facts
Docks and Ports
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: www.historicdockyard.co.uk
Mary Rose Museum: www.maryrose.org
HMS Victory: www.hms-victory.com
The Historic Dockyard Chatham: www.thedockyard.co.uk
St Katharine Docks, London: www.skdocks.co.uk
Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience: www.hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.com
Gloucester Docks: www.gloucesterdocks.me.uk
Greenwich Maritime Museum: www.nmm.ac.uk
Titanic’s Dock and Pump-House: www.titanicsdock.com
Titanic in Belfast: www.titanicinbelfast.com
Merseyside Maritime Museum: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime
Southampton Maritime Museum: www.southampton.gov.uk
Scottish Maritime Museum: www.scottishmaritimemuseum.org
Inveraray Maritime Museum: www.inveraraypier.com
Buckler's Hard: www.bucklershard.co.uk
World of Boats: www.worldofboats.org
National Maritime Museum Cornwall: www.nmmc.co.uk
Hull Maritime Museum: www.hullcc.gov.uk/museums/maritime
Lowestoft Maritime Museum: www.lowestoftmaritimemuseum.org.uk
Aberdeen Maritime Museum: www.aberdeencity.gov.uk
National Waterfront Museum (Swansea): www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/swansea
Isle of Wight Shipwreck Centre & Maritime Museum: www.iowight.com/shipwrecks
The Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness: www.dockmuseum.org.uk
Jersey Maritime Museum: www.jerseyheritage.org
Plymouth Museum: www.plymouth.gov.uk/museumpcmag.htm
Submarine Museum: www.submarine-museum.co.ukMuseum of London Docklands: www.museumindocklands.org.uk
Cutty Sark: www.cuttysark.org.uk
SS Robin: www.ssrobin.com
SS Great Britain: www.ssgreatbritain.org
The Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour: www.glenlee.co.uk
HMS Trincomalee: www.hms-trincomalee.co.uk
Kingswear Caslte: www.kingswearcastle.co.uk
Royal Yacht Britannia: www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk
HMS Belfast: http://hmsbelfast.iwm.org.uk
Golden Hinde: www.goldenhinde.com
Discovery Point: www.rrsdiscovery.com
Frigate Unicorn: www.frigateunicorn.org
National Historic Ships: www.nationalhistoricships.org.uk
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