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Visit report:

Chatham Historic Dockyard

Tuesday 16th July 2019

memorial plaque to Nelson's victory built at Chatham

There is a lot to see at Chatham Dockyard so we set off early arriving in good time at 09.45, which allowed 15 minutes to stretch our legs before the Dockyard opened for business at 10.00.  The weather forecast was for a sunny, dry day so with 80 acres of museum to explore we needed a plan and lots of energy.  We started with a drive through the yard accompanied by our guide, Theresa, giving us an idea of the layout of the museum, the history of the dockyard and information about the exhibits on display.  If you like historical, naval facts this is the place to visit!

riverside building
doorway with naval figures and admiral's offices

Henry VIII rented the river in 1547 to moor some of his ships.  During the next 400 years the dockyard expanded until its closure in 1984 when 13,000 workers were employed building and maintaining ships.  Before entering the museum we passed by an enormous pool where the wooden masts and spars were soaked and seasoned before use in those ‘hearts of oak’ warships.  The masts spent one year of soaking for each inch of diameter, so they were immersed for a long time.  The entrance building is in the Mast House where masts were shaped and stored.  The upper floor, the Mould Loft, was used to draw up full sized plans and templates for ship construction.  The Mast House has a visitor centre, restaurant and an exhibition called “Command of the Oceans” illustrating life in Nelson’s Navy.  Every building is built on a massive scale.  Along the river side are sheds, called Slips, where ships were constructed.  The earliest wooden Slip was built in 1838 in the shape of an upturned hull, by 1856 ship construction had changed from wood to ironclad design.  New slips were built of iron and glass to reduce the risk of fire.  The Slips house the national lifeboat collection and other large museum pieces.

general view of dockyard

HMS Gannetsubmarine HMS OcelotThere are three historic warships to explore in the museum.  HMS Gannet was built in 1878 and was the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet at the time, used initially to protect worldwide trading interests.  The Gannet is a transition ship with both sail and steam, she had a steam engine, a collapsing funnel and a retractable propeller.  HMS Ocelot is a “Cold War” Submarine used between 1964 and 1991.  Her missions are still secret and will not be made public for another 20 years.  She has diesel engines to charge the 300 tons of Lead/Acid batteries powering the electric motor.  This enabled her to sail silently.  The third ship is HMS Cavalier, a world war II destroyer built in 1944.  She was the last warship to be built with an open bridge, it must have been grim at times commanding the ship from the bridge in winter, in the arctic!  She is now a memorial ship dedicated to 142 destroyers lost in the war with 11,000 men.  In 1971 HMS Cavalier was awarded a Cockerel in recognition for being the fastest ship in the fleet, recorded at 38 knots.  The cockerel is installed in pride of place on the bridge.

destroyer HMS Cavalier

There are many original buildings to see although not all can be visited.  No. 1 Smithery contains a permanent exhibition of model ships and naval art.  Next to the Smithery is a Pipe-bending Workshop.  The Commissioner’s House is most impressive but not open to the public.  However the Commissioner’s Garden is open and it must have been a special place for peace and quiet when all around was the noise and chaos of ship construction.  In the walled garden is an ancient mulberry tree with a split trunk and wooden supports to hold up the 400 year old branches.  Apparently, Oliver Cromwell sat beneath this tree to watch the sacking of Rochester Castle across the river.

Commissioner's House? and ancient mulberry tree

A building that can be visited, and not to be missed, is the Ropery.  We had a guided tour of the 1/4 of a mile long rope making factory.  Our guide, Natalie “Call me Nats but don’t worry I don’t bite”, had a foghorn of a voice able to rise above the cacophony inside the factory as we were shown the rope making machinery.  Rope is still made and sold worldwide “to anyone who wants to buy it!”.  Natalie was quite a character.

ropery entrance door and spinning room notice
long view of ropery
lengths of rope on frame and worker operates rope coiling machine
display of many different types of rope

We had time for lunch before taking the “Call the Midwife” tour in the afternoon.  There was a further opportunity for naval enthusiasts to explore the museum but for the fans of the TV show we were split into two groups and had guides to show us where the programme was made.  We were guided again by Theresa who had swapped her coach guide persona for the uniform of a midwife in 1950s Dockland.  You could tell Theresa loves her job, she had so much information to divulge and a wry sense of humour.  One fact that surprised me is that the babies born in the show are animatrons, lifelike moving models lubricated with fake bodily fluids as required.  There is a never-ending list of ladies willing to allow their real babies to be used postpartum.  The show keeps a long list of names and expected delivery dates, ready to appear as needed.  There are another three series and Christmas Specials “in the can” apparently, and the show is now shown worldwide, even to Iraq and Iran.  The social history of the post-war East End of London has universal appeal.

two views of midwives' surgery set
composite midwife's uniform midwives' dining room and nun's habit

By 16.30 we were hot and tired enough to depart with lots of new memories.  Clive, our driver with D&P coaches eased us painlessly though the rush hour traffic and we moored up safely in Cranleigh at 18.30.  We could have sung sea shanties on the way home, but we didn’t!

group photo outside one of the dockyard buildings

That was a very successful excursion in my opinion, just what you would expect from Cranleigh Arts Society.

Text: Jim Lee
Photos: John Wright

Related Link

Chatham Historic Dockyard