The dockyards at Chatham in Kent functioned from the time of sailing ships to the nuclear age and beyond, which is a pretty amazing claim for any historic site and they have the goods onsite to prove it – you can walk around a Victorian sailing ship, hop on board a WWII Destroyer and go below in a Cold War submarine.
On my trip I managed to make it round two of these, a more traditional museum experience at the “Story of the Royal Dockyards” and onto the ‘Big Space’ area showcasing not just an imposing building, but also massive bits of machinery, an activity space and many many Lifeboats. And there was a lot more I didn’t make it round even though I was there for five hours.
While it is all very much about maritime history, there’s so much social history here that it should appeal to a wider group of heritage lovers than just ship geeks (although you can visit the World Ship Society’s archive and bookshop while you’re there). The Story of the Royal Dockyards takes you through the story of the docks from 1832-1984, focusing on both what was built there, but also touches on the people who made the docks what they were and the people whose jobs were lost when they were closed in 1984.
And in the ships themselves, while some may focus on the structure of the ship and the ship’s technology, the living quarters, Captain’s bedroom, kitchens and toilets are all there for you to wander through to get a real feel for what life might be like at sea for years or submerged underwater with 70 crew. The tour of the submarine was particular worth going on as you’re encouraged to hurl yourself feet first through the small round doors separating the rooms and it all looks a little crazy space age inside, which is a lot of fun.
While I may never have made it to Historic Dockyard Chatham were it not for a ship enthusiast with a love of taking industrial landscape photos requesting my presence, there was certainly enough to keep me interested and enough for me to do to not complain at spending five hours there, with barely a stop for coffee. And to top it all off it was free with my Arts Pass, which was a very nice surprise.
Historic Dockyard Chatham, Chatham, Kent ME4 4TE
Open daily 10am-6pm (4pm in Winter)
Adults – £18.50 (free with Arts Pass, yay!)