Chatham Dockyard review
I'm sitting in Charing Cross station waiting for the choo-choo train to Chatham. It's a bit of a trek from London — 1¼ hours — but they've got something worth seeing at the other end, because that's where you'll find the old historic dockyards where they built the wooden ships from the days of Oliver Cromwell right up to the Battle of Trafalgar and beyond. They didn't shut it down until the 1980s, so they even built a few battleships and submarines.
I hope the weather cheers up a bit, because at the moment it's in a worse mood than me. Our grey train is rumbling along with grey faces in grubby windows, struggling to stay awake (it is 7.30 AM). Looking around my carriage I reckon that it is only 50% awake. There are lots of shut eyes and open mouths, and heads nodding and knocking on the window as the train inches down the tracks. We haven't left London yet so our top speed is 2mph. Some people are flicking through reams of paperwork, whilst others play with their noses. Lost of mobile phones on display too. Lots of people wondering whether they should catch up on a bit of work before they get to work, but then deciding… nah… can't be arsed. We'll just sit here and have a snooze instead. Which is what I am going to do…
I nearly didn't bother getting off the train when I woke up in Chatham, because we were slugging through a torrential downpour — and I mean torrential. End of the world kind of stuff. There was enough water coming out of the sky to sink the sea. No wonder they chose to site the naval dockyards here — you can't float a boat without water.
Things get better as you approach the Medway (the stretch of the water where the docks are located). It river really starts to widen out here as it heads towards the sea, so you've got broad flats of mud and sand, and seagulls squawking and squealing around the industrial chimneys and cranes. They've decorated parts of the park with cannons as well, to get you in the mood. After half-an-hour of walking I finally reached the dockyards. (It was my first time in Chatham so I decided to walk it from the station, but in hindsight it's probably better to catch the bus — it's a long way.)
Once you get inside you'll be transported back in time at the first smell of wet wood. They've still got all the old boat sheds and warehouses along the river, and the exhibits are housed inside those. The first one is definitely worth seeing. It's called 'Hearts of Oak', and it's like a walk-through movie, taking you from scene to scene with narrators projected into the wooden walls. You'll be strolling along full-sized streets, into the docks, and into the actual room where they built HMS Victory. It is very well done, with the creaking planks and shot and thunder of a gun battle on board the boat — great big booms and lightning flashes lighting up the room. It's a good introduction into how they built the boats.
Then you head out into the open-air gravel square and you'll be surrounded by big ships and masts, metal cranes and anchors, brick chimneys and clock towers, and huge wooden warehouses filled with all kinds of boats. This is actually how I imagined Chatham town would be — straight from the pages of the early 18th-century. They've got a few costumed guides dotted around the place too, dressed up as old washerwomen and sooty-faced dockhands, and even the seagulls are chipping in with a few lines of their own, bringing the sounds of the sea to the sheds. If they had a navy guy walking around then I probably would have signed up for a stint there and then.
The 'No.1 Smithery' is where they keep all the naval paintings and intricate little models of boats throughout the ages. It's just like little gallery I suppose, and worth a quick look inside. I was expecting the "RNLI Lifeboat" shed to be a bit boring, but it was actually pretty decent. They've got a load of full-sized lifeboats in there with some waxwork crew, and you can board a few of them to see what they look like inside. The rest of the space is taken up by old army equipment from the war years. They've got some of those bridge-layering contraptions from 'The Longest Day', and some of those mine-clearing machines too, that throw out chains in front to explode the bombs. Even the shed itself is worth a look — it's huge! It's almost bigger than St. Paul's Cathedral, with a mezzanine level looking down on all the boats below.
When you get to the dry docks you'll see three big boats which you can board and explore. One of them is by guided tour only... but it's a cold war submarine. I kid you not — you can actually go down the hatch and board a genuine 1990s cold war submarine called HMS Ocelot. If you've ever seen the movie Crimson Tide then you'll know what it's like inside — cramped. The hatches are about the same size as saucers, which you somehow have to swing your big feet through whilst gripping a tiny bar above (it's not easy), and the corridors are thinner than a lollipop stick. Every inch of wall space is crammed full of pipes and dials and buttons and beams, and the bed bunks are about the same size as a shoebox. It was at this point that I decided that I didn't want to join the navy after all. But I think it's worth coming to the docks just for this one tour alone. How often will you get the chance to explore a submarine like that?
The next dry dock along has got a World War II destroyer called HMS Cavalier. It's like a little mini-version of HMS Belfast, I suppose. You can see all the equipment rooms and poke your nose into the captain's quarters, walk around the deck and check out the captain's chair on the bridge. It's not as good as HMS Belfast, but it's still definitely worth a look.
The only bit of the docks that I didn't enjoy was the 'Victorian Ropery'. That was one hour of my life which I will never get back. If your idea of fun is listening to someone talk about rope for sixty minutes, then check it out. But by the end of the speech I was seriously thinking about stealing a piece, so I could hang myself with it.
If you don't mind sitting on a train for 2½ hours (1¼ hours each way), and getting a bus at the other end too, then I definitely recommend a visit. And the big battleship and submarine will make it bearable for your kiddies too.
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