InfoBritain - Travel Through History In The UK :
Chatham Dockyard, Kent
Chatham Dockyard, no longer a working facility, is now a museum to the Royal Navy. Many of the old buildings, such as the grand Commissioner's House, have been restored. The other dockyard buildings are in varying stages of restoration. All of them still have an atmosphere described by Charles Dickens, whose father worked here in the Pay Office: Dickens felt a "gravity upon its red brick offices and houses, a staid pretence of having nothing worth mentioning to do, an avoidance of display, which I never saw out of England". This pretence of modesty belies the fact that ships built here helped create what was the biggest empire the world has ever seen. Interesting buildings include covered slips where ships would be kept out of the weather, and perhaps, most affecting of all, the mould lofts. It was in these huge open areas that drawings and moulds for ships were made. The Wooden Walls tour includes viewing of the mould loft where HMS Victory was drawn.
The ropery is also impressive, a building stretching for a quarter of a mile, designed to accommodate huge lengths of rope. The ropery continues to produce rope, and visitors can watch this being done, or have a go themselves.
The great seventeenth century naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys often used to visit Chatham Dockyard. He flirted with an attractive daughter of the rope yard manager, and looked on bemused at jealousies caused by the desirability of the Commissioner's House: "In the morning to see the Dockhouses...Then to Commissioner Pett's house, he and his family being absent, and here I wondered how my Lady Batten walked up and down with envious looks to see how neat and rich everything is (and indeed both the house and garden is most handsome), saying that she would get it, for it belonged formerly to the Surveyor of the Navy." (10th April 1661)
The site includes three navy warships from different eras; HMS Gannet built in 1878, the destroyer HMS Cavalier built in 1944, and the submarine HMS Ocelot built in 1962.
HMS Gannet was involved in one of the most well known, or notorious, of imperial battles. In 1885 Gladstone's government wished to end Britain's involvement in the Sudan. Unfortunately maverick General Gordon did not seem to believe the British should ever withdraw from any part of its empire. He barricaded himself into the Sundanese town of Khartoum, and dared Gladstone to ignore his stand. British public opinion demanded that Gladstone try and relieve Gordon, and a rescue force was reluctantly despatched, which arrived a couple of days too late. General Kitchener reinvaded the Sudan in 1896, retaking Khartoum. HMS Gannet was involved in defending the port of Suakin, used as a supply base for Kitchener's troops.
HMS Cavalier served during the Second World War, and in the post war years. Cavalier's Naafi shop, and a selection of records sitting in the small office of Radio Cavalier all give a sense of a world that floated away in the 1950s. HMS Ocelot was used as a spy submarine during the Cold War. As this vessel has a history contemporary with my own it had the most resonance for me. It was surprising how the formica furnished interior of the submarine reminded me of cramped caravans in which I took childhood holidays. Click on the Cold War to find out more.
A ship seems very evocative of its particular time in history. Perhaps the identity of a time and place is more strongly concentrated in a small national community which lives much of its time in distant waters. As Captain Jack Aubrey says in Master and Commander: "though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England".
There is a restaurant near the dockyard entrance, an adventure playground for older children, and a soft play area for younger children.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Address: The Historic Dockyard, Chatham Kent ME4 4TZ
Directions: Take the A321 away from the centre of Chatham and follow signs for the dockyard. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Chatham Dockyard.
Access: The site is generally accessible, but there are uneven surfaces and steps. The ships have many steep ladders and narrow hatches and are not accessible to those with mobility problems. The submarine Ocelot would present particular difficulties. Virtual tours are available as an alternative. Disabled toilet facilities are available at a number of locations. By prior arrangement vehicles are available to take disabled visitors to remote parts of the site.
telephone: 01634 823807
fax: 01634 823801
web site: http://www.chdt.org.uk/