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Museums in Portsmouth, England reflect a long, proud naval history

Portsmouth, 64 miles south of London on England’s south coast, has a long and proud naval tradition. It was established as a permanent naval base by King John in 1200, and has been a thriving commercial port since the fourteenth century. Admiral Nelson sailed from Portsmouth in 1805, to fight his final battle, leading the British to victory in the Battle of Trafalgar.  Not surprisingly, given its history, Portsmouth has many interesting museums.

In 1944, Southwick House, on the outskirts of Portsmouth, served as the D-Day headquarters for Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower. In 1984, on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother opened the Southampton D-Day Museum, which is the only museum in Britain dedicated to this crucial turning point of the Second World War. 

The novelist Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812.  Dickens’ childhood home is now the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum, where visitors can walk through an early nineteenth century Victorian home.  Selected readings from Dickens’ work are given at the museum on the first Sunday of each month.

Southsea Castle was built in 1544 by Henry VIII as part of England’s coastal defense fortifications.  Visitors can explore a nineteenth century tunnel under the moat and see the working lighthouse which was built there in the 1820s.  The castle has been fully restored, and admission is free.

But the highlight of a visit to Portsmouth is without a doubt the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where visitors can spend an entire day immersed in naval history.

One of Britain’s leading maritime museums, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, is located at the Historic Dockyard.  The museum presents 350 years of naval history along with displays focusing on modern day naval life, and interactive, hands-on exhibits.  The museum’s Trafalgar Experience is a walk-through multi-media recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Nelson.

Also located in the Dockyard is the Royal Navy’s Action Stations, a science museum for young people which has hands on exhibits, physical challenges, including one of the largest climbing towers in Europe, and simulators which allow participants to fight a battle, command a warship, or fly a helicopter.

Many historic vessels are also drydocked here, notably HMS Warrior, HMS Victory and the Mary Rose.

HMS Warrior, launched in 1860, was powered by both steam and sail.  She was Britain’s first iron-hulled warship, and the most powerful ship of her day. Visitors are able to tour the ship, which has been restored as closely as possible to her 1860s condition.

HMS Victory, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship, is also undergoing major restoration (2011), but will remain open to visitors who will be able to see the Great Cabin where the Battle of Trafalgar was planned, and the place where Lord Nelson died of his battle wounds.

The most recent addition to the Historic Dockyard is Henry VIII’s favorite ship, The Mary Rose, which sank accidentally in Portsmouth harbor in 1545. The raising of The Mary Rose from the harbor was a major achievement of nautical archaeology, and took place in 1982 in front of a worldwide television audience. 

The hull of the ship is currently (2011) not available for viewing because it is undergoing major restoration. The Mary Rose museum currently houses displays of Tudor personal and military artifacts recovered from the wreck. The restored ship will be displayed in a new world-class museum scheduled to open in 2012.

The perfect way to round out a day at the Historic Dockyard is to take one of the narrated boat tours. These interesting tours not only offer views of the Warriior and the Victory but also provide information concerning the many modern naval vessels which are docked in Portsmouth harbor.

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