Portsmouth, City of Surprises

Whatever your taste in visitor attractions, you can always rely on a maritime city to deliver, and Portsmouth is right up there with the best, thanks to its high profile Big Four. Largest in surface area is the Historic Dockyard, home to Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory and to the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s favourite warship.

Tallest visitor attraction is the elegant Spinnaker Tower that towers 170 metres over the Dockyard, harbour and adjacent Gunwharf Quays. Once the site of a 17th century arsenal, Gunwharf is now an open-air outlet shopping mall that includes more than 30 places to eat and drink. And making up the Big Four is the D-Day Story at neighbouring Southsea with its collection of unique artefacts and extraordinary Overlord Embroidery.

I’ve enjoyed them all at various times, often combining sightseeing with a ferry departure to France, Spain, or the Isle of Wight. But there’s more to this bustling city than these high profile experiences, as I found out on a recent overnight stay.

I began this time at Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery, housed inside a turreted red brick building that looks like a French chateau but was built in 1897 as part of Clarence Barracks.  

The perfect spot to gain an overview of the city, it also acts as a visitor centre offering maps and walking trail leaflets.  

The first gallery immerses visitors in the fascinating world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who worked in the town as a young doctor from 1882 and wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story here. I certainly never imagined him as the first goalkeeper of what was to become Portsmouth Football Club! The goalie moved on in 1890, but never forgot the town, buying a second home here and donating money to both the football club and the spiritualist church.

Upstairs more than 50 paintings portray the city up to the turn of the 20th century, giving way to a series of period room sets.

Particularly captivating to a baby boomer like me was the 1957 living room where my favourite black and white children’s programmes played on a tiny TV beside a fireplace that could have come from my childhood home.

Tearing myself away, I learned about the history and development of the city, before heading back to the ground floor to browse contemporary local art.

Leaving the museum and turning down the High Street with its eclectic mix of period facades, I stopped to investigate two old street lamps and an information panel that form part of The Nelson Trail. Nearby at the George Inn – destroyed in an air raid in 1941 – the great admiral ate his last breakfast on land on 14 September 1805.

Across the road, the city cathedral has always maintained strong links with the seafaring community and makes a tranquil stopover, before you pick up the Millennium Promenade at the seafront. This scenic route links the Historic Dockyard and Gunwharf Quays with Old Portsmouth and Southsea. Dip in and out at random or follow the whole 2.6 miles.

A high-level walkway along the shore here links various historic fortifications including two Tudor towers, one round, one square, and offers great views of Portsmouth’s three offshore forts, as well as passing ferries, Royal Navy vessels, and private craft.  But don’t overlook lovely Hotwalls Studios, a collection of 13 artists’ and craft workshops in the arches beneath (www.hotwallsstudios.co.uk).

Among several skilled craftspeople happy to chat with visitors was textile artist Alice Hume. ‘I’d never had a business before the studios opened here in 2016,’ said Alice as she deftly wove a wall hanging in beautiful earth colours. ‘There’s a great sense of community here and we all inspire each other.’

She certainly inspired me, even letting me have a go at weaving. Not quite as deftly as she does it – well, nowhere near actually – but I could certainly see the attraction of combining rhythm and colour in gentle repetitive movements beneath the vaulted brick roof. As well as selling and demonstrating her work, Alice offers one-day workshops under the arches in weaving and macramé (visit www.vanderhume.co.uk).

Back on the Millennium Promenade, I wandered the cobbled streets of Old Portsmouth, passing through The Point, where pressgangs once enlisted men for the Navy. Then on through The Camber, location of the original fishing settlement developed in the 12th century by the Normans.

After an essential wander through the outlet shops at Gunwharf Quays – buying presents, I promise – it was off to check in at the Holiday Inn on Pembroke Road, where my room looked over a quiet park to the floating traffic on the Solent. From there it was a short walk past some delightful old cottages to the friendly, family-run bar and bistro called – ingeniously – Abarbistro, for a tasty, relaxed evening meal.

Next day I had a ferry to catch, but not until I had taken a leisurely drive out beyond neighbouring Southsea to Fort Cumberland on the tip of Portsea Island.  Generally only accessible to the public on Heritage Open Days, this vast 19th century bastion is home to the research arm of Historic England, but also to Portsmouth Distillery, established here in 2018 (www.theportsmouthdistillery.com). 

Book a tour and you have a unique opportunity to enjoy artisan rum and gin in this unique setting.  Here I met Distiller Vince Noyce who spent three decades in the Navy and 5 years in port operations in the Caribbean, before setting up a business to market premium rum with another former naval man, Giles Collighan.  From there, it was a short stop to making their own rum, as well as award-winning Fort Gin and Tudor Gin, all with distinctive labels featuring the outline of the fort.

Every tour ends with a tasting, a fitting end to my exploration of this historic city, but I need to go back. I still have to see Dickens’ birthplace and follow the Dickens Trail, and I’m really tempted to try a weaving workshop with Alice.  And maybe it’s time I went back to see the Big Four again too …  See you again soon, Portsmouth!

Tourist information from www.visitportsmouth.co.uk.  

Gillian stayed at The Holiday Inn, Pembroke Road www.ihg.com and enjoyed dinner at abarbistro in White Hart Road, Old Portsmouth www.abarbistro.co.uk

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Gillian Thornton

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