Per mare, per terram (“by sea, by land”): the Royal Marines’ motto applies as well to Portsmouth as it does to the country’s amphibious fighting force. Setting out to walk the long seafront from Southsea in the east to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in central Portsmouth, I was ambushed by the Royal Marines Museum before I’d properly set off. It is housed in the grand old officers’ mess at Eastney Barracks, and tells the compelling history of the Marine Corps, from its formation in 1664 to today.
The museum’s Sandy Wilson (despite the Boy’s Own name and upright bearing, not a Marine himself) showed me around the fascinating collection. As well as documenting the principal campaigns in which the Marines have served, the museum celebrates the Corps today, and details what prospective recruits have to do to win their green beret.
There are “interactive” bergens (rucksacks supported by a frame) to feel weak-kneed beneath. Sandy choked up while telling me how moved he’d been while watching a recent passing-out parade; looking at the freshly stencilled names of Marines most recently killed in action, I understood why.
The museum set the |tone for my walk along the seafront. Among the many attractions are constant reminders that: (a) Britain is an island; (b) our history is wrapped up with the sea; and (c) Portsmouth has always been in the thick of the nautical action.
Beneath a rushing sky, I saw day-trippers sheltering in the lee of Southsea Castle, which King Henry VIII commissioned 466 years ago. I looked out to sea from the castle walls at... another castle: the squat, man-made island of Spitbank Fort, built some 300 years later, a mile off shore.
A little further along the esplanade, having paused to watch teenagers performing parkour acrobatics on the big old cannons, I arrived at the B. Opened in 1984, it houses the Overlord Embroidery, a needle-stitched artwork, whose 34 panels show the run-up (from 1940 to 1944) to Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings, and victory over the Nazis. Measuring 83 metres, it is the world’s longest embroidery of its kind.
Within the dark heart of the museum, there’s a cinema that shows an old newsreel film telling much the same story, but if it’s a “real” record you’re after, then talk to one of the distinguished old gentlemen in the foyer. They stormed the beaches in person. Volunteers from the Normandy Veterans’ Association attend the museum to remind people that the artwork depicts real events – and answer the public’s questions.
I asked Jim Tuckwell and Frank Rosier, of the 1st Battalion, the Dorsetshire Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment respectively, what question the public most often ask. “Was it worth it?”, Frank said. “The answer’s: ‘That’s up to you’,” Jim explained.
It’s not all military history, though: there is an astonishing array of attractions on or near the long seafront. I know, because a huge number of signs told me so. There’s the Blue Reef Aquarium, the canoe lake, the Natural History Museum, butterfly house, rose gardens, model village, the Pyramids Centre, amusement piers (there are two) and garden railway, to name but a few. Add in the benches and lamp-posts and the binoculars trained on the sea, and the broad esplanade is, in places, a thicket of metal.
A nice thicket, all the same: the front has a big, windswept, flinty-pebbled feel, and the sea is thronged with ferries, hovercraft, warships, yachts and dinghies all criss-crossing the Solent in a slow dance.
And just in case you find the signs hard to navigate by, down by the Spur Redoubt, nearer the centre of town, you can pick up the Renaissance Trail, with its pavement-embedded chain motif, and follow it round through Gunwharf Quays to the Historic Dockyard, where, in the shape of HMS Victory, HMS Warrior 1860 and the National Museum of the Royal Navy, you’ll find yourself face to face with British naval history again.
There are a couple of great stop-offs along the way, though. I ate superb fish and chips made on the premises at the Spice Island Inn in Bath Square, and visited the contemporary art exhibition in the Aspex gallery, housed in a former Grade I-listed naval armoury.
The exhibition – Luna Park & An Unreachable Country. A Long Way to Go, which runs until 10 October – made sense of the 50ft dinosaur I’d sheltered under earlier, on Southsea Common. It is the only threat to the Spinnaker Tower’s dominance on Portsmouth’s skyline, and frankly it hasn’t a chance. The tower, which opened in 2005, is a billowing, needle-sharp 170m structure: it’s the child the Eiffel Tower might have with the Sydney Opera House.
The clouds parted during the 28 seconds it took for the lift to reach the viewing deck. I finished my visit by looking back over everything I’d seen from on high.
* The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney Road, Southsea (023 9281 9385; royalmarinesmuseum.co.uk ). Admission: £6.95
* Southsea Castle, Clarence Esplanade, Southsea (023 9282 7261; southseacastle.co.uk ). Admission: £3.50
* D-Day Museum, Clarence Esplanade, Southsea |(023 9282 7261; ddaymuseum.co.uk). Admission: £6
* Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Victory Gate, HM Naval Base (023 9283 9766; historicdockyard.co.uk ). Admission: £19.50
* Spice Island Inn, 1 Bath Square (023 9287 0543; gkpubs.co.uk/portsmouth/spice-island )
* Aspex, The Vulcan Building, Gunwharf Quays (023 9277 8080; aspex.org.uk ). Admission free.
* Spinnaker Tower, Gunwharf Quays (023 9285 7520; spinnakertower.co.uk). Admission: £7.25