We live a short drive away from Chatham in Kent. In fact, I graduated from the Medway Greenwich University campus opposite Chatham Dockyard some years back; whilst I sat in the Maritime HQ studying chromatography, I never really gave the previous life of the buildings too much thought.
Having driven past Chatham Dockyard several times en route to Uni, and more recently to Nandos and the cinema, I am ashamed to say I’d never given much thought to what the Historic Dockyard was all about, or contemplated visiting.
So, when we were invited to visit the Historic Dockyard Chatham over the Easter holidays, I tentatively obliged; keen to check out the Science exhibition ‘Doc Yard’s secret lab’ I thought it sounded like something we’d enjoy as a family. Y’know, being Science geeks and all that.
What I didn’t expect was to be blown over by everything else the Historic Dockyard is; what it has to offer and the frankly overwhelming historical presence of the place, and the stories that seep from every element of the site.
We arrived around 10am and after making good use of the free parking, headed towards the entrance. Having had a refurbishment of the entrance area, it’s impressive architecture and sense of grandeur is apparent before you even enter the Dockyard.
STEP ON BOARD
The reception is beautifully laid out, with clean wood walkways and a large digital display table which talks you through the history of the land, and how it dates right back to 1618 and the Tudor period; a key part of British Naval history.
The entrance process is well thought out; with ticket sales, ticket checking and a tour booking process all laid out separately. Guides in period dress gave a friendly welcome and we set about our day; booking in time slots for the Science Lab and HM Ocelot submarine tour, all before lunch. I think it’s fair to say we massively underestimated how much there is to do at the Dockyard, and honestly believed we’d be at Nandos by 1.00.
The scale of the place is evident as soon as you step out into the huge open square just beyond the arrival building. A massive open area featuring a giant anchor, with sightings of some vast ships in the distance and enormous historical buildings around the perimeter.
With only fifteen minutes before our first scheduled event, we ran for the first ship, the HMS Gannett, and managed to absorb some of the history of the Victorian sloop dating back to 1878. Climbing up and down the decks, ringing the bell, and reading some of the stories about the sailors who lived life on board back in the late 1800’s.
DOC. YARDS SECRET LAB
Open in the holiday seasons (check online before visiting), we were super excited to get the kids introduced to some science courtesy of Doc. Yard and his team.
Doc Yards helpers walked us through some fun and kid-friendly experiments with lessons in static electricity, electromagnetism, and the Van De Graaff. Whilst the kids enjoyed the hands on approach to science, the references to the shipbuilding trade were subtly presented to us adults, and the connection became clear.
Seeing your five year old create her first electromagnet; a proud Science-Mum moment.
As you exit Doc Yards lab in one piece, it’s the perfect time to have a mooch around the exhibits on display at No.1 smithery. The model ships created as part of the ship design process are quite spectacular; as is the artwork on display around the building.
Don’t miss the Pipe bending floor where you can have a go at bending your own ‘pipes’ to shape in the wooden peg floor, just as was done here for many many years… (just don’t trip over your own peg, like I did!).
Another beautiful example of old blended with new, the walls of the building just ooze with history and in so many ways let your imagination take you back to the days this was a working building; yet with glass, automatic doors and immaculate new WCs this is a perfect place to unwind from the mad science section.
HM SUBMARINE OCELOT
Having had a quick snack sat on the anchor, as you do, we headed towards the epic HM Ocelot for a scheduled guided tour. Dave our guide briefed us on the key need to know facts before our group entered and it became clear why. With 69 men on board for at times three months, it was an experience I’ll never forget going on board.
With enough room for single file walking, taking a two year old down into the living quarters of the submarine was fun and games! The girls loved swinging through the hatches connecting each section, and climbing the ladder stairs back up to daylight; and I have to say, so did we.
Hat’s off to the guys who did this for real serving King and Country…ten minutes was enough for me down there. Amazing stuff.
The last Royal Navy warship to be built here in Chatham, this ship stands proud as a reminder of it’s service during the Cold War.
Whilst we didn’t board this boat this time, we stopped to admire her and got some stunning pictures.
WAGON STOP CANTEEN
To be honest, the real reason we didn’t board the Cavalier was because by this point we were pretty desperate for a sit down and a coffee. Perfectly placed half way through the dockyard is an old railway station which has been converted into a Cafe. In typical Dockyard style, half of the building reflects the original buildings use and can be appreciated whilst taking on board some fuel of your own.
It’s worth adding here that this isn’t any old tourist attraction cafe; the coffee was good and the pastries even better. Loading up on some incredible warm sausage rolls and doorstop sandwiches we decided lunch would become dinner, as we realised on the Map how much stuff we hadn’t even got to yet.
THE RAILWAY WORKSHOP
It’s also imperative to point out, that the cafe is home to a small but effective soft play area; so whilst we drank our coffee and planned our next stop, the kids were happy and having a ball too.
COMMISSIONER’S HOUSE AND GARDENS
With full tummies and a caffeine boost, we wandered off the beaten track to explore some of the streets around the Dockyard – in search of the filming site of Call the Midwife. Whilst we didn’t find that straight away, we did end up finding rows of beautiful buildings – many of which are now private residence. Strolling around and soaking up the atmosphere, we then wandered into the most incredible gardens, where we spent a good hour playing, admiring and enjoying the stunning botanical collection.
THE VICTORIAN ROPERY
As we made our way to the far end of the Dockyard, we discovered the entrance to the Victorian Ropery. We had earlier decided to decline this tour today, given that it’s a 45 minute slot and was later in the day – in hindsight I was quite disappointed, but we will definitely go back to see what goes on inside the 1/4 mile buildings designed exclusively for the rope making process at Chatham.
We did however spot here the Call the Midwife filming area, and captured the obligatory photo…
STEAM, STEEL AND SUBMARINES
Another ‘let’s just look in here’ moment, as we popped into the exhibit ‘1832 to 1984’. This display area features digital displays, historical artefacts and takes you right through the history of Chatham Dockyard. Set against a backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and two world wars, meet the people behind the Docks and fall in love with the individual stories and faces that lived and breathed life working at this very site.
Just outside this spot, you can find a number of boats on the river, and trains on the track that runs right through the site. Perfect for any little transport fans…
If you are blessed with a nice day, there is also an outdoor play area to burn off some steam (pardon the pun).
THE BIG STORE
Headed back to the car, we realised we had skipped two major buildings on the way in. When I say major, I don’t think I have ever been in anything like the BIG store in my life; and I have never felt so small.
Climb up to the mezzanine level to fully admire the spectacular structure of the roof, and glance back down at the trains, buses and boats casually stored on the ground floor.
There’s a whole lot of space up on that mezzanine floor too – the kids loved stretching their legs up there!
RNLI HISTORIC LIFEBOAT COLLECTION
The Big Store conveniently flows right on into the lifeboat collection just next door. With a series of sloping walkways winding around an impressive collection of all sorts of lifeboat vessels, the girls loved standing at the helm of the lifeboats. An important reminder of the epic work of the RNLI, and tales of some rescues that will mean you will not be able to walk past that donation box on the way out…
THE COMMAND OF THE OCEANS
The newest feature at the Dockyard, and I’m sad to say one we missed on our visit. But, as the day unfolded we did so much we just ran out of time; this is one we’ll have to save for next time.
THE MESS DECK & DOCKYARD SHOP
Adjacent to the Entrance / Exit is the Mess Deck Restaurant & Dockyard shop. Whilst we didn’t make use of the restaurant, it was beautifully styled in a nautical chic, whitewash wood and rope display wreaths. Quite the home inspiration…
Here you can pick up any high end souvenirs to remember your day; perfect gifts for any loved ones with strong sea legs, or just a seaside themed bathroom.
COME BACK SOON
It was getting on for four o’clock by the time we disembarked the dockyard. Tired, a little grubby and buzzing from a wonderful family day, we honestly loved every single part of our visit to the Dockyard. With so much to still see, we will definitely be back again soon. What’s also a huge bonus is that that the entrance tickets can be reused for a whole year, so for any Kent parents this is one play area that will knock the socks off any smelly indoor soft play ANY day of the week.
Keep up to date with the social media channels and website to find out what’s going on at the Dockyard, as there is all sorts of events throughout the year.
Disclosure: We were invited to The Historic Dockyard Chatham free of charge in an exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.