One weekend recently, suffused with my typically egg-headed interest in things historic and nautical, I boarded a high-speed train at St Pancras and whisked down to the Kentish Medway town of Chatham to pay a visit to the Chatham Historic Dockyards. Having enjoyed my trip to the Portsmouth Dockyard in 2007, I was keen to investigate the collections at Chatham and see if they measured up.
I was glad I visited, because Chatham has some quality exhibits. Chief among these are its three historic vessels parked in the dockyard slips: HMS Cavalier, a WW2 destroyer that served on Arctic convoys; HMS Ocelot, a diesel-electric submarine that served from 1964 to 1991; and HMS Gannet, a steam-and-sail sloop that served from 1879 until 1903 and then acted as a training ship until as late as 1968. Each can be clambered through and explored, and several of the other visitors were ex-Navy personnel showing around their children to give them an idea of what life at sea used to be like.
But the highlight for me was the initially unassuming sight of a really large storage shed. Arrayed in the shadow of 3 Slip Cover’s massive timber-beamed roof was a huge collection of old military vehicles, including heavy tractors, bridging gear, wartime lorries, lifeboats and even a WW2 midget submarine, the XE8 – the last of its type remaining. Ascending spiral stairways dotted around the floor space takes visitors up into the huge mezzanine floor, and it was here that I began to appreciate the design of the massive structure, which is a Grade 1 Listed Building.
The covered slip was constructed in 1838 to enable ship construction to occur under shelter, reducing the delays introduced by bad weather or winter chill. At the time it was one of Europe’s largest wide span structures, and it added to Chatham’s reputation as a major naval shipyard. Most famously, Chatham was the home of the legendary HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which was built in 2 Slip, where HMS Cavalier is now moored. But in the 1830s Chatham was still cranking out a multitude of ships for the Royal Navy. The huge list that appears on a magnificent painted honours board in one of the dockyard’s museum buildings notes that in 1838 the yard built only the 818-ton wooden steam paddle sloop HMS Hydra, which served mostly as a survey ship until it was paid off in 1868, but a few years later in 1840 the yard built both the 92-gun 2nd-rater HMS London and the 46-gun 5th-rater HMS Meander, either of which could have benefited from 3 Slip’s new cover.
In 1904 the slipway was filled in and the area underneath the cover was used for storage. A mezzanine level was installed to provide extra floor space for ships’ boats. The mezzanine, now a broad expanse of uncluttered bare timber floors, takes full advantage of the brilliant sunshine peeping through the many sunlights in the cover, which produces some great contrasts and beautiful shadows.
My visit to Chatham was interesting and I may well return as it’s an annual ticket, good for 12 months. I had timed my visit to coincide with the opening of a new section of the museum, which included some appealing maritime art collections and some industrial heritage sections that I admit weren’t all that interesting to me. The dockyard website had promised a carnival atmosphere – there were stilt-walkers and fire-breathers – so I was anticipating large crowds when I got there. However, the dockyard was barely populated for the three and a half hours I was there on a fine summer Saturday afternoon, which seemed quite a shame given the opportunity to attract families and new visitors to the site. Considering Chatham’s proximity to London (40-45 minutes by train) and the popularity of historic attractions in general, I would’ve thought Chatham would be far better patronised that it turned out to be.
Perhaps this is explained by the dockyard’s low public profile. I must’ve heard about it when I visited Portsmouth in 2007, as the two sites are sister organisations, but since then I’d heard nothing about the dockyards in the media and seen no tourist brochures. The site’s accessibility might be an issue for visitors too – for those like me who arrive by train it’s a steady walk of perhaps 20 minutes through the unremarkable town of Chatham to get to the dockyard, and even then the entrance is on the far side from the town, so you have to walk further than necessary. (I admit there is a bus but I prefer to walk in towns I’ve not been to before). It’s really best suited to visitors with cars. And the ticket prices are another issue that may be deterring visitors: my adult ticket was a fairly hefty £15. While this is certainly cheaper than the £19.50 charged at Portsmouth, I’m guessing that if visitors are planning a trip to a historic dockyard they tend to choose the more famous Portsmouth with its iconic Victory and Mary Rose exhibits over Chatham’s worthy but slightly less glamorous collections.