Reviewed by Louise Watts
The Historic Dockyard in Chatham made and repaired war ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous ship ever built here is HMS Victory, best known for playing her part in the Battle of Trafalgar under the leadership of Lord Nelson.
The dockyard as it stands now is the most complete dockyard of its time and it retains an awful lot of original features. I visited the dockyard today (13 August 2017) for the first time, despite living only 1 hour away and visiting Kent on numerous occasions. It is very easy to get to and is only a short distance from the London Orbital M25. There is ample parking on site which is free for visitors. On walking towards the entrance, there are several awards of excellence and a large outdoor play area for children.
Admission prices are not cheap but a ticket gives you unlimited access for a year from the date of purchase which makes it very good value for money. Tickets (on the gate prices, book online for discounted prices) cost £24 for adults, £14 for children, £21.50 for concessions. Children under the age of 5 years are free. Family tickets are also available.
Several of the attractions require you to book as they can only accommodate limited numbers. This is explained as you enter and the booking process is very simple. I booked 3 attractions during my visit – HM Submarine Ocelot, Doc Yard children’s show and the Ropery. It is recommended that you book these on arrival as they can get booked up as the day goes on.
Opening hours between 26 March and 28 October are 10am – 6pm. Outside of these dates, they are open from 10am – 4pm. The Dockyard is closed between the end of November and the middle of February.
Having booked my attractions, I was ready to go. I met a lovely volunteer who told me where to go and what to see. He was an absolute delight and extremely informative! My first port of call was the Lifeboat Museum. This houses the biggest collection of life boats in the UK. As you wander around, you can see how these have evolved over the years and when looking at some of the older ones, it is amazing that they managed to successfully rescue anybody! You are able to climb on board some of the boats and even have a go at rowing! Alongside certain lifeboats are telephones which you can pick up and listen to real life stories and rescues. These are set at different heights to accommodate disabled people and children as well as able bodied adults. Amazingly, the oldest lifeboat in the collection was built in 1897!
My next stop was to see one of the 3 Historic Warships on display – HM Submarine Ocelot. This is the only ship that you need to pre-book a set time for. Ocelot was the last warship to be built in Chatham and was launched in 1962. When booking this tour, there was an option of a 15-minute tour and a 30-minute tour. I chose the 30 minute one and I am really glad that I did. My tour guide was a young man named Tim who was polite, smart and incredibly knowledgeable. Ocelot served as a naval submarine until 1991 when she was decommissioned. As part of the tour, you actually get to go inside and walk the length of the submarine giving you some insight into what working and living conditions would have been like for those on board. Certainly, not something I would be rushing to experience – 90 days with no daylight, no showers and a tiny bunk… no thank you!
The other two war ships you can board and have a look at are HMS Gannet and HMS Cavalier. HMS Gannet was not built in Chatham but lives here now so people can enjoy her. She runs on both sail and steam although I was told that as she was built in the early days of steam, that she is faster when being propelled by sail. Launched in 1878, she is the oldest of the 3 ships on display. You are free to wander around her of your own accord.
HMS Cavalier in contrast is far more modern, being launched in 1944 and is a Royal Navy Destroyer. She saw some action in the latter part of WW2 and then undertook some duties in the Cold War. She is now a fitting memorial for all the destroyers who were sunk in the Second World War.
It was my time to go to the Doc Yard show next. This took place on the mezzanine floor of the 3 Slip – The Big Place. This was a building created to enable war ships to be constructed under cover. It was built in 1838 and the Mezzanine floor was added in 1904 in order to provide somewhere to store the ships boats. Doc Yard is an event that is taking place over the Summer holidays especially designed for children. It has two parts to it and lasts for a total of about an hour. For the first 30 mins, the children partake in a variety of activities all of which are focused on circles, arcs and curves as these are all important themes in the world of ship making. There are a variety of activities to try and all ages are catered for, from painting circles for younger children through to polygraphs for older children. There are also practical activities for children to join in with. All staff were friendly, helpful and clearly having a great time. Then came the science show. We sat down and put our ponchos on (these are kindly provided). The show had two people explaining the science and mathematics behind arcs and how this helps make the perfect ship. The show was very interactive and children were invited to participate on various occasions. The content was pitched perfectly and I even learnt a few things myself. Everything was delivered in a fun and child friendly way.
It was time now to get a drink. I had been here 2 hours already and there was still so much to see. I decided to grab a quick drink from the “Wagon Stop” canteen. Here they sold sausage rolls, pies, salads, sandwiches and general light bights. There was also a nice sized soft play area for younger children so the parents can enjoy their lunch while the children play. It was perfect for what I wanted at that time as I had already decided I was going to try out the bigger restaurant for food after my next tour.
I took my drink and headed off to the Ropery. My tour of the Ropery was carried out by the very funny Sam. I really did not know what to expect here and was a little unsure about what the tour would involve. To be honest, I had never really given much thought to rope! The tour was brilliant and Sam was just incredible. I amazed myself by how much I learnt and it is a testament to Sam’s tour that I actually enjoyed listening to her talk about rope for a whole hour. It was an added bonus to have the opportunity to see how rope is currently made at Chatham in 2017 and how this has or has not changed over the centuries.
It was time for lunch now and so I headed back to the entrance where the café / restaurant is located. I was struck by how many buildings and houses which were used when Chatham was an active dock yard are still standing proud. Everything is beautifully maintained and well kept. On my way to the café, there was another children’s play area with various play equipment in and where rope plays a big part!
The café itself is beautifully designed and is bright and airy. They offer various options including hot meals, salads and sandwiches. The choice was very good and the price what you would expect. Having completed my lunch I had a look at the guide book (which can be purchased for £3.50) and tried to decide where to go next. The volunteer I had met earlier in the day said that to do the Dockyard proud, you need more than a day to see everything. I was beginning to realise he was right. I was not going to get the chance to see all they have to offer so I had to decide where to go next.
I decided to go to see the Hearts of Oak. This is a 30-minute digital theatre show where you walk around and learn about various aspects of ship building. This was incredibly well thought out and was a lovely attraction to experience. Once the show is complete, you feed into the next exhibition which focuses on The Nemur, a ship that was “found underground”. Built and launched at Chatham, this boat tells an amazing story.
Sadly, my visit had come to an end after 6 hours and my brain was full of new knowledge about ships and ship building. There was still various exhibitions and museums that I had not had the chance to visit and so I will definitely be returning to see those on another date.
The Historic Chatham Dockyard is an incredible family day out. It is in a beautiful location and is nicely spread out over 80 acres. There is so much to see and do here that I agree with the volunteer (whose name sadly I do not know) that you really cannot see everything in one day. I would thoroughly recommend the Dockyard to everybody. There is plenty for children to do and learn and equally adults too. I would not hesitate to recommend to all of my family and friends when they are looking for a good value for money family day out.
I have no option than to allocate the Historic Chatham Dockyard a very well deserved 5/5!
For more information or to book tickets online visit thedockyard.co.uk.
The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent, ME4 4TE | 01634 823800