The largest surviving dockyard in the world from the age of sail, the historic Chatham Dockyard is a fascinating place which you can easily spend a full day exploring. Established in the mid 16th century, over 414 years more than 500 ships for the Royal Navy were built here, including the famous HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. In the early 20th century the River Medway it sits by was too shallow for the increasingly large ships required so production so switched to submarines. The 400 acre site closed in 1984 and was repurposed as a port, a residential area, and an 84 acre museum managed by Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.
Much work has been done on the site since 1984, with the latest addition being the flash entrance area, shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2017. This is home to the informative Command of the Oceans exhibition, featuring an impressive model of HMS Victory, and the timbers of the HMS Namur which were discovered underneath five layers of floorboards during redevelopment.
Outside are three historic warships, the oldest of which is the HMS Gannet built in 1878. This has a combination hull of iron and teak, and carried only three guns, but they were 64 pounders, one of which is mounted on a pivot at the front. It served for 90 years in the Royal Navy.
Next to it is HM Submarine Ocelot, the last Royal Navy warship built at Chatham, launched in 1962. It was typically claustrophobic inside, but home for 70 men during it’s service in the Cold War, during which it travelled more than 90,000 miles around the world, to places still classified.
The HMS Cavalier is a destroyer built in 1944 which served until 1972. It felt much like a smaller version of HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames, being of the same era. After the submarine it felt spacious inside, if much more of a maze of levels and rooms.
A key part of any sailing ship is rope, with a ship like the HMS Victory having over 30 miles of rope for rigging and anchor chains. It was made primarily from hemp from marijuana plants grown in Russia during the age of the sailing ships. One of the largest buildings at Chatham Dockyard, nearly a quarter of a mile long, was dedicated to making rope. The Victorian Ropery is still in working condition and continues to make rope as it was done 150 years ago.
The Steam, Steel and Submarines gallery covers the changes at Chatham as the Royal Navy moved away from sailing ships in the 19th century. There were some wonderful scale models.
The best models at Chatham are in No.1 Smithery but unfortunately this is the one area of the dockyards which doesn’t allow photography. There are some incredible models, particularly those from the start of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, on loan from Royal Museums Greenwich. You can take photos of the smithy itself though.
There is plenty to photograph in the huge No.3 Slip. It was the largest wide span timber structure in Europe when it was built in 1838, and has an incredible raised level and roof structure. Inside are a huge variety of objects from the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust and Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive collections.
Close to it is the shed used now as a car park, which is impressive in its own right, and there are various interesting historic buildings around the site.
To end with the largest collection of historic lifeboats in the country, from a 1897 sailboat to the recent Arun class and Blue Peter inflatable inshore vessels.