I’ll be keeping to the county of Hampshire, and to the greater Portsmouth area in particular for the next few weeks. We’ve already talked about Fort Nelson, but the area around the Solent has a lot of other interesting places for the Steampunker to visit. Southsea is on the south coast of England and is just to the east of the Solent. It has been an area of military importance since the earliest times.
There are two museums with direct Victorian connections in Southsea and another, that although not Victorian is still a lot of fun. The Royal marines Museum and Southsea castle both have numerous exhibits from the period and the Blue Reef Aquarium is just a great place to spend some time.
Again, when in Portsmouth we stay at the Gunwharf Quays Holiday Inn http://www.holidayinn-expressportsmouth.co.uk/. Even though the hotel is what you would expect from an international chain (clean, comfortable but without any individual style or personality) it is well positioned to the many attractions of Portsmouth. It is also right in the Gunwharf Quays shopping and dining area. This area, formerly part of the Royal Navy’s base, has been converted to a commercial center. There are numerous shops and restaurants. Indian Palace http://www.gunwharf-quays.com/store_profile-4523.htm has been quite serviceable the several times we have gone there, although the vindaloo proved too hot for one of our friends!
The Old Custom’s House is an excellent place to get traditional English food http://www.gunwharf-quays.com/store_profile-4572.htm. Even better the building is the former headquarters of HMS Vernon. It is amazing to eat in the building that housed Jackie Fisher’s office! We hoisted several pints of beer and cider there in his memory.
Now in terms of places in Southsea that entice the Victorian scholar the Royal Marines Museum should be the first place to go http://www.royalmarinesmuseum.co.uk/. It is on an active military post so be prepared for a bit of security to get in. Parking was free when we visited. Admission is 7.50 for adults. The exhibits date from the founding of the Royal marines to current actions in Afghanistan and other troubled parts of the world. The many engagements of the Victorian period, when Gunboat Diplomacy was the order of the day are well represented. Weapons, decorations and uniforms of the period are all showcased as are the campaigns and the men involved. I was lucky to be accompanied by John Roberts on the trip (he also went with me to Explosion! In Gosport, more on that later). The museum had a serviceable tea room and a very nice gift shop.
We did make the mistake of being in the area during the annual marathon. Traffic was badly disrupted. To make matters worse it was pouring down rain. My lovely wife had decided to explore the area on her own and was nearly trampled or drowned while trying to cross the streets. Luckily she survived to meet me at the aquarium after John and I parted company after the Royal Marines Museum.
The Blue Reef Aquarium http://www.gunwharf-quays.com/store_profile-4523.htm has no specific Victorian or Steampunk appeal but is well worth a visit. Adult admission is 9.40. We walked there but it appears that plenty of parking is available in nearby pay and display lots. The undersea tunnel is great and they have a large otter display. It was feeding time for these frisky mammals and they were extremely excited. The Victorians certainly enjoyed watching animals and sea-life. The museum has a nice gift shop with numerous aquatic related toys and books available.
Finally right near the aquarium is Southsea Castle http://www.southseacastle.co.uk/. Admission is free and there are a number of large pay and display car parks within an easy walk (even in a howling gale). This was originally a Henrician coastal defense artillery fort. Henry the VIII stood in this fortress and watched as Mary Rose, his flagship, sank with huge loss of life. The fort was partly destroyed and rebuilt several times. During the Victorian it served as a military prison and was not declared surplus until 1960. The artillery collection has several Victorian guns, from field guns to large muzzle loading rifles used in coastal defense. Off period but still very well done is the Tudor gun room, showing dress of the era and service of the piece from that time. It is an excellent exhibit. Views for the battlements are good as well, when we could see between the periods of heavy rain. Since our visit the museum has changed services for their café and now it is a company that highlights local produce and foods. This sounds excellent and we look forward to going back and trying their fare.