I have a love, hate relationship with the sea, especially when my children are involved. I find the sea pretty terrifying, if I think about it too deeply I would never sail again, but at the same time everything nautical is just so fascinating, we love travelling by ship and adventuring into the past.
Over February half term I decided to face some of my fears of the deep and to explore The Historic Dockyard in Chatham in Kent. There is loads to do here, perfect for filling a day or more over the holidays or weekend. I took my two tinkers while we were on holiday in a lovely barn. I love getting my family to pose under funny street names, I have another cracker from Norfolk coming soon!
The buildings preserve the dockyards history, which goes back to Tudor times. The dockyard is also often used as a film and TV set, The Golden Compass, Les Miserables, Call the Midwife and Downtown Abbey have all been filmed here. It brings to life so many eras at once, it really is fascinating. You can even do Call the Midwife location tours.
We didn’t have time to do all the dockyard, but once you buy a ticket you can then revisit as many times as you like for a year – there is plenty to entertain children of all ages and adults over repeat visits – you would be hard pressed to do it all in a day. At the same time it was a fun packed one off day out. When built in 1838 this immense covered slip (technical term for a boat shed) was Europe’s largest wide span timber structure, now it houses an amazing collection of boats, tanks, trains and boat building equipment. I really appreciated that there was so much space here, it was perfect for Mr G who doesn’t like queues, crowds or well, anything that might involve standing still.
We really enjoyed exploring the lifeboat collection, complete with lots of controls children can tinker with, and beds below deck for those rescued at sea.
One thing mine really enjoyed and learnt a lot from, was an attraction put on to coincide with school holidays, the ‘Sailors Academy’ on board HMS Gannet, A Victorian Sloop – it fills up, so I definitely recommend signing them up for this as soon as you arrive. My Mr G loved the ship’s cat hunt, especially when he found his namesake!
There was plenty of time to explore the ship, on deck and below as they hunted for clues.
We really loved learning how to use flags to send signals and both L and G were brave enough to have a go at signalling to the other team.
Then it was time to have a go and tying knots. It was lovely to see these two work as a team, it always takes a few days in school holidays, and then they become inseparable again.
They both graduated and Captain Tony gave them a handshake and a certificate, a proud moment indeed!
Next we took a tour of the HM Submarine OCELOT, which the kids found fascinating, and I found quite frankly terrifying.
Look how small those bunks are, imagine spending 3 months of your life under the sea? A far cry from the Yellow Submarine the Beatles sang of.
They were off, like rabbits in a warren, whereas I gulped every time we crawled deeper into the thing.
The periscope worked and so we managed to take a photo of HMS Gannet through its lens.
The controls were another endless source of fascination. Here Mr G prepares to ‘Set Surface Target’, eeek!
We spent the afternoon admiring the lifeboats and taking in an interactive exhibition Hearts of Oak, using digital projections of characters as you move around the gallery, to tell the story of timber ship building and Nelson’s times. It was really evocative and we learnt lots about sea battles. it was also a great opportunity to try to reinforce a pacifist message in my children, as the young boy debated whether to join the Navy.
A fun-packed and fascinating day out that got us thinking about war, history and life at sea.
Our day started and finished in the the The Railway Workshop cafe, which had snacks and a soft play. My kids need to let off some steam, rather appropriately surrounded by steam engines.
We missed out the Ropery, where ropes were made, and the National Treasures Gallery…so much to come back for!
Need to Know
The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent ME4 4TE, England
Info Line: +44 (0)1634 823807
Adults £19. Concessions £16.50. Child £11.50. Family (2 adults, 2 children or 1 adult 3 children £49.50. Additional Family Child £8.
Check the website for special events and holiday activities. There are very exciting changes afoot, The Command of the Oceans Project will tell the story of Chatham during the age of sail, will cost 8.5m and take approximately three years to deliver, so do check what is happening on the day of your visit as it may differ from our experience.
If you enjoyed this post, please vote for PS in the BIB awards @pennyalexander_ firstname.lastname@example.org