A county with hidden depths

Paul Bloomfield discovers fun, firepower and a fabulous cathedral in this storied part of the south-east

Hampshire is, by and large, the quintessential green and pleasant land. Ponies graze the verdant expanse of the New Forest, watercress beds line slow-flowing rivers, and wooded valleys wrinkle the north of the county.

But make no mistake: this is no mere bucolic backwater – there’s fire in the belly. The peaceful city of Winchester was for centuries a pivotal stronghold. Wrested from Celts by Romans and expanded by Saxons, it was famously capital of Alfred the Great’s kingdom of Wessex. Cromwell’s forces ravaged the city, but echoes of former eminence linger among its charming Georgian architecture. The fabulously decorated cathedral is the historic showpiece but an array of fascinating museums encompasses military matters and Roman and medieval remains, not least the Great Hall – last remnant of the castle demolished by the Roundheads.

It’s at the coast, though, where Hampshire’s crucial role in our maritime history leaves the most powerful impression. Ports studding the Solent have long nurtured England’s naval forces, on and under the water: in these shipyards great warships were built, submarines launched and armaments developed. Indeed, much of the British fleet is still based here.

But the big appeal for families is the glut of experiential history: a wealth of attractions in and around Gosport – itself just a short boat trip across the harbour from Portsmouth – vividly evokes key episodes, enticing children to get stuck in. After all, it’s so much easier to remember events and themes when you’ve met smelly submarine crewmen, explored the ramparts of a fort or fired enormous naval guns.

Families of all sizes and ages are catered for with a diverse range of high-quality accommodation, from campsites and self-catering cottages to B&B and luxury hotels. In addition, there are quick links to London and the rest of the country via road, rail and bus. Rain or shine, there’s plenty to entertain and enthral visitors large and small. Oh, and the catering’s improved beyond measure since Alfred called time on his baking career.

What spies beneath

The views from Gosport across boat-bobbing marinas to Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard are terrific – and you can get close to the action on a summer cruise around the harbour and the Solent aboard a Gosport Ferry.

But delve deeper – much deeper – to discover the maritime heritage at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. It’s a truly immersive experience: visitors are plunged into the secret world aboard the recently restored HMS Alliance, the only surviving British World War Two-era submarine. Hear submariners talk about life on board, discussing the foul food and the lack of fresh water that limited crew to washing only once every six weeks. A visit to the Alliance brings wartime service to sweaty, gritty life – ideal for key stage 3 students.

Gosport was at the heart of early sub-aquatic exploration. John Deane, co-inventor of the first diving helmet, lived here – indeed, he investigated the wreck of the Mary Rose nearly a century and a half before it was rediscovered in 1982. At the Diving Museum you can discover how military, commercial and sport divers manage to survive in the mysterious underwater world, from the past to the present.

Gosport Ferry Ltd (023-9252 4551; gosportferry.co.uk; summer cruises from £14.50, child £7.25) Royal Navy Submarine Museum (submarine-museum.co.uk; £14, child £10; open daily Apr-Oct; Weds-Sun Nov-March). The All Attraction Ticket includes entry to Explosion, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, plus travel by Waterbus. £28, child £21. The Diving Museum (divingmuseum.co.uk; £3, concs £2; open weekends and bank hols Apr-Oct)

Ammunition for education

There’s dramatic action at Explosion – Museum of Naval Firepower, its award-winning exhibits housed in the Royal Navy’s former armaments depot at Priddy’s Hard. Hands-on displays reveal how sea battles were won through the centuries, with examples of cannons and guns, shells, mines, torpedoes and modern missiles – even an atom bomb. Interactive audio-visual exhibits put youngsters in the thick of the action.

Royal Armouries Fort Nelson, home to the national collection of artillery, bristles with more hefty weapons – no fewer than 350 mighty guns. A multi-million-pound redevelopment of this gargantuan Victorian fort, probably the nation’s finest surviving example, has created a new visitor centre and interactive galleries. Meet characters from military history, explore the labyrinthine tunnels, ramparts and magazines, and discover the fort’s Second World War heritage through excellent educational material.

Explosion – Museum of Naval Firepower (explosion.org.uk; £10, child £6; open daily). Royal Armouries Fort Nelson (01329 233734; royalarmouries.org; free; open daily)

The only way is Wessex

The ancient capital of King Alfred’s Wessex offers opportunities to discover the county’s non-naval treasures. Founded by the Saxons in the 7th century, the old minster was upgraded in the 11th century to the monumental Norman edifice of Winchester Cathedral. While panoramic vistas draw gasps on the Tower and Roof Tours, the smaller details revealed on nine trails designed for children illuminate Anglo-Saxon culture.

Two free museums track the darker side of Winchester life through the centuries. Westgate Museum, a former debtors’ prison, boasts a gibbeting iron and prisoners’ graffiti etched into the walls, while the City Museum displays the skeletal remains of a Roman burial, a medieval toilet and a Victorian pharmacy complete with leech bottles.

There’s more evidence of martial heritage in Winchester’s Military Museums, a quintet of sites in the Victorian Peninsula Barracks allowing visitors to explore the heritage of British regiments – learn about Gurkhas, Royal Green Jackets, King’s Hussars and more. For more gentle insights, try Little Woodham, a timewarp rural village near Gosport forever stuck in 1642. Meet “villagers” decked in period costume and ready to involve your children in their daily routines.

Alternatively, Winchester City Council has a free military trail for visitors that can be downloaded from visitwinchester.co.uk. Or, if you prefer, you can hear the stories from an official local guide. Seewinchestertouristguides.com for more information.

Winchester Cathedral (01962 857200; winchester-cathedral.org.uk; £7.50, child free; open daily) Westgate Museum and City Museum (winchester.gov.uk/heritage-conservation/museums; free; open daily Feb-Oct) Winchester’s Military Museums (01962 877826; winchestermilitarymuseums.co.uk; prices vary, some exhibits free, open Tue-Sat). Little Woodham (littlewoodham.org.uk; £4.50, child £3.50; open various dates Mar-Oct)


Getting there

The attractions of Hampshire are easily accessible by public transport – Winchester is just an hour from London by train, Portsmouth 30 minutes or so more, with links north and west, too. The M3 and A3 sweep drivers into the county.

Staying there

Hampshire has plenty of quality family accommodation – Gosport and Winchester in particular have a great selection of hotels, guesthouses, self-catering apartments and campsites. Marwell Hotel (01962777681; marwellhotel.co.uk) has a zoo on its doorstep, extensive woodland grounds, outdoor play area and special children’s menus. Doubles start at £79, including breakfast. The Alverbank Hotel (023-9251 0005; alverbankhotel.co.uk) is a Victorian gem overlooking the Solent and Isle of Wight. Lily Cottage, set in the hotel’s extensive grounds, is an ideal base for families. Doubles start at £110, w/breakfast. The Holiday Inn Winchester (0871-9429188; hiwinchester.co.uk) sits alongside the Science Centre and Planetarium on the city’s eastern fringes. Doubles start £76, room only.

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