Cornwall & The South: Pt 46 – Portsmouth

A few years ago we visited Portsmouth, and took a tour of the Dockyards, and Quayside. Sadly we didn’t have time to go up the Spinnaker Tower, or pay a visit to a few other city centre landmarks that were on our list, so we popped back for another look…

Portsmouth (Extra)

Status: City of Portsmouth Unitary Authority, Hampshire, City, England

Date: 14/08/2016

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: Pizza Express

Attractions: Portsmouth Guildhall, Charles Dickens Birthplace, Charles Dickens Statue, Spinnaker Tower, Old Portsmouth, Portsmouth Cathedral, The Round Tower, The Square Tower, Royal Garrison Church, Lord Nelson Monument, HMS Victory etc

No 393 Commercial Road looks like a typical Georgian house from the outside, on a charming little street which happily survived the Portsmouth Blitz of the 1940’s.

However, the building on the left with the lovely red floral arrangement outside, is in fact the house that Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870, Famous English Novelist) was born in, on the 7th February 1812.

It is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum, and for a small fee you can go inside and tour the building. It has been restored to resemble what a house of the period would have looked like, complete with a few items that belonged to Dickens himself, and his family.

One particular item of note is the Chaise Lounge upstairs. Dickens did in fact pass away on this very sofa, although not in this building. He died at his home in Gad’s Hill, Kent in 1870. He was later buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, despite his wish to be buried at Rochester Cathedral, as he lived just outside the city.

The Museum itself is a fascinating place to visit, and well worth the entry fee.

Our next stop was the Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth’s most famous landmark, which can be seen for miles around, even from the Isle of Wight.

Standing 560 ft tall, the Tower was built by “Mowlem”, an engineering firm created in 1822 by John Mowlem (1788 – 1868), and opened in 2001.

The observation deck is visible near the top of the tower, which is overall designed to look like a large sail, in tribute to Portsmouth’s proud maritime heritage.

From the top you get an incredible view of the surrounding city. Looking South, you get a full panoramic view over “Old Portsmouth”, the original city which was laid out in Norman Times by Jean de Gisors (1133 – 1220, Norman Lord).

It includes various historic buildings, from the Anglican Cathedral (centre) to the old fortified walls which link to a series of Towers, just visible to the far right. More on that later however, as next we took a stroll along the walls to explore the old city.

Looking North, we gazed out across the cities famous Dockyards, originally built in the 15th century. The Docks remain in active use, one of only three British Naval Bases still in operation, along with Devonport in Plymouth, and Faslane on the Clyde in Glasgow.

Whilst large sections of the Docks have been preserved, and turned into a museum for the public, the rest services the Royal Naval Fleet. A number of historic ships are also located here, including the HMS Victory, Flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can see it over to the left behind the small brick Clock Tower. To the right of the Victory is a squat, oval shaped building which contains the remains of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, found at the bottom of the Solent in 1971, over 400 years since she was sunk in battle in 1545.

Also present, in the foreground, is the HMS Warrior (1860), one of the worlds first armour-plated hulled ships. You can find out more about the Dockyards in my post from our previous visit to the city, here. The Docks are a great place to explore, and last time we were here we had an extensive walk around.

A central feature of the main observation deck at the tower is the large glass floor. Dare you stand and stare down at the Quayside, nearly 330 ft below you? It was slightly harrowing, but great fun!

There are a total of three different levels where you can take in the view. The third is an open air observation deck, the second is a small cafe, and the first contains the glass floor, and is the largest of the decks.

On the far side of Portsmouth Harbour lies the town of Gosport, which has an impressive marina, shown centre. The town is also home to various Naval Installations, mainly relating to supplying the Portsmouth Base, as well as HMS Sultan, a Navy training base built in 1914. You will also find a Royal Navy Cemetery, as well as the Institute of Naval Medicine.

Later that afternoon we paid a visit to Gosport, and got a stunning view back at Portsmouth itself…

Leaving the tower behind us, we made our way over to Old Portsmouth, with a view to walking along the old defensive walls.

Before we ascended, we came across the “Pioneer Statue”, an inscription on the side of which reads:

“A permanent legacy to the commitment of the Europeans who courageously left their native lands to create a new home in America”

The statue was erected in 2001, and references the voyage of members of the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” to the USA in the 19th century to start their new lives. This was recreated in 2001 with an event called “Sea Trek”, a series of tall ships which sailed around European ports before finally heading to New York. This statue is one of many copies which was presented to cities the ships stopped in, and stand at various ports. We have even seen a few, such as that in Liverpool.

The defensive walls line the beach, and date to the 1680’s. They connect up two main towers called the Round Tower, and the Square Tower, both built in the 1490’s.

This is the Round Tower, which replaced the existing Wooden Tower built by King Henry V (1386 – 1422) in 1426. You can actually get to the top of it via a set of stairs.

You get a lovely view back towards the modern incarnation of Portsmouth from the Round Tower, looking past the adjacent “Tower House”, built in 1906 by William Lionel Wyllie (1851 – 1931, English Painter from London). Fittingly it features a large weather vane on the top of the tower, in the shape of a ship.

In the background the Spinnaker Tower rises out of the mist, and you can even see the masts of the HMS Warrior.

Looking back the other way, towards the rest of Old Portsmouth, you can see the old city, whose most prolific landmark has to be the Anglican Cathedral of St Thomas of Canterbury. Despite it’s reasonably modern appearance, it is just as old as many of England’s other famous Cathedrals.

It’s history began in 1180 when Jean de Gisors, who I mentioned earlier laid out Old Portsmouth, granted a portion of land for use by the local Canons. They built a small chapel, and dedicated it to St Thomas Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral just 10 years prior.

Only the Transepts/Chancel remain from the original Chapel, which later grew into a Parish Church by the mid 14th century. It was even later used by Queen Elizabeth I. The Church was later greatly rebuilt in 1660 by the grace of King Charles II, who had just been restored to the throne after the English Civil War. It was during the War that the Parliamentarians inflicted a large amount of damage on the Church as they invaded the city.

The present Cathedral Tower, and Nave both date from the 1680’s, whilst the cupola on the very top of the tower was added in 1703. This provided a light for ships to guide themselves into the harbour by. The Cupola was also fitted out with a set of bells, the number of which has grown over the years, so there are now 12. They were cast in Loughborough, famous for its bell foundry, which is the world’s largest, dating from the 14th century.

Despite it’s age, it didn’t become a Cathedral until 1927 when the new Diocese of Portsmouth was created, carved out of the Diocese of Winchester. The Church was enlarged to befit it’s new status, although work wasn’t completed until the 1990’s thanks to the intervention of WWII.

Following the walls South, we passed through the Square Tower, shown above. It’s original purpose was to provide a home for the cities Governor, however it was later converted into a Gunpowder Store in 1584. By 1779 it was in use as a Meat Store, whilst today it is a function room, unfortunately closed to the public when we visited.

Again taking in the view from the walls, we looked out across Grand Parade Square to the partial ruins of the old Royal Garrison Church.

It was first built as a hospital by the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches (Died 1238). A few centuries later it was the scene of a grizzly murder, as the then Bishop of Chichester, Adam Moleyns (Died 1450) was giving a sermon, when the townsfolk dragged him out of the building, and murdered him. This resulted in the entire city being excommunication by the Catholic Church, we even saw St Thomas’s shut for a number of years.

It was later used by Henry VIII as an armoury from 1540 until 1560, and over a century later in 1660 King Charles II was married here, to Prince Catherine of Braganza. It is still in use today as a Church, although the Nave at the front of the building is missing it’s roof thanks to the efforts of the German Luftwaffe who bombed the area in the 1940’s.

Old Portsmouth is a beautiful place, and looking back past the Cathedral, the various Georgian buildings, with the Spinnaker Tower in the background, we reflected on what an incredible city Portsmouth is.

That evening, we dined at the Pizza Express restaurant near the base of the Spinnaker Tower, before heading into the city centre to find one last landmark.

The Portsmouth Guildhall looks resplendent at night, and we are lucky it still stands. In 1941 the Germans hit the Guildhall with incendiary bombs, destroying the roof as well as the interior. Happily the outer stone walls stayed standing, allowing extensive repairs to be carried out after the War.

The building itself is over 100 years old, having been designed by William Hill (1827 – 1889, English Architect from Halifax) and completed in 1890, as Portsmouth Town Hall. As city status was granted in 1926, it was renamed the Guildhall.

Out in the square at the base of the Guildhall sits the brand new statue of Charles Dickens, which was installed in 2004 on his 202nd birthday, in honour of the famous writer, born in the city.

Portsmouth is a beautiful city, and there is plenty to find, with lots of Museums, the Tower View, the old Dockyards and the historic Old Portsmouth to explore.

It is also quite easy to get to, with trains running from London Waterloo into the city via Guildford, and London Victoria via Brighton. Other services can take you round to Southampton and from there on to Weymouth in Dorset. There are also a number of ferries available, to Gosport on the far side of the Harbour, as well as Ryde on the Isle of Wight.

Our time in Hampshire was nearly at an end, however we had two more stops, the first being Gosport…

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