The Complete Guide To: Maritime Britain

Two centuries after Lord Nelson's death, Anthony Lambert celebrates Britain's seafaring heritage


WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT 2005?

WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT 2005?

The bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson is the pretext for hundreds of events celebrating SeaBritain 2005 (020-8312 8615; www.seabritain2005.com). It's the idea of the National Maritime Museum, which is co-ordinating this commemoration of the way the sea has affected the lives of Britons for millennia. It will encompass trade, fishing, coastal defence and exploration as well as naval power.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN EVENTS?

The principal event is the International Festival of the Sea (0870 043 3929; www.festivalofthesea.co.uk), which takes place from 30 June to 3 July. The festival will see over 500 vessels congregating in Portsmouth, including over 20 tall ships and craft from 20 naval forces that are taking part in the International Fleet Review on 28 June. Besides being an opportunity to explore some of the vessels, the fleet review programme features music, street scenes, food and military displays.

During the Trafalgar 200 weekend from 21-23 October (01403 713500; www.trafalgar200.com), a chain of beacons will be lit across Britain and the Channel Islands. The event's grand finale will be at Nelson's Column.

ANYTHING IN SCOTLAND?

Scotland's relationship with the sea is also being celebrated with events and a promotion of water-based activities including sea-kayaking, diving and windsurfing ( www.seascotland.com). The Ocean Terminal in Leith has recently gained the royal yacht Britannia (0131-555 5566; www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk), most of which is open to visitors daily from 9.30am-4.30pm. Admission is £9.

WHERE CAN I GET A SENSE OF LIFE ON THE BRINY?

Nowhere has a greater concentration of maritime elements than Portsmouth (023-9272 2562; www.historicdockyard.co.uk), where the historic dockyards and some of Britain's most famous warships provide an unrivalled setting for several museums. Many of the dockyard buildings date from the second half of the 18th century, when it became the greatest industrial complex in the world.

The oldest ship is the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's pride and joy, which he saw capsize in the Solent in 1545. Its recovery and gradual conservation is one of the great feats of maritime archaeology, a story told at the Mary Rose Museum (023-9281 2931; www.maryrose.org). In dry dock is Nelson's HMS Victory ( www.hms-victory.com). Close by and still in the water is HMS Warrior (023-9277 8600; www.hmswarrior.org). Launched in 1860, it was the world's first battleship with an iron hull, armour-plating and a steam engine.

Within the complex are the Royal Naval Museum (023-9272 7562; www.royalnavalmuseum.org) and Action Stations, a new £16m attraction full of simulators and interactive opportunities to test your gunnery skills (023-9289 3338; www.actionstations.org). Both are open daily from 10am-4.45pm; admission is £15.50.

In the Thames estuary is the naval dockyard where the Victory was built. Chatham Historic Dockyard (01634 823800; www.thedockyard.co.uk) retains many 18th-century buildings as well as displaying the last Second World War destroyer, HMS Cavalier, the submarine Ocelot and the newly restored HMS Gannet, a sloop of 1878. The "Lifeboat!" exhibition has 17 full-sized lifeboats and tells the story of five centuries of naval activity at the Kent port. It opens daily from 10am-6pm; admission is £10.

WHAT ABOUT COMMERCIAL PORTS?

Hartlepool's Maritime Experience (01429 860077; www.hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.co.uk) is a reproduction of an 18th-century seaport and features lost tradesmen such as instrument-makers, swordsmiths and naval tailors. It opens daily from 10am-5pm; admission is £6.25. In the adjacent Jackson Dock is HMS Trincomalee, the oldest British ship afloat (01429 223193; www.hms-trincomalee.co.uk). The marina is also berth to the restored PSS Wingfield Castle, a Humber paddle-steamer. It opens daily from 10am-4pm and admission is free.

Albert Dock in Liverpool is one of the most successful dock restorations. Among the museums in the vicinity is the Merseyside Maritime Museum (0151-478 4499; www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime), which has exhibits devoted to emigration, slavery, the Battle of the Atlantic, the merchant navy, shipbuilding and marine paintings. It opens daily from 10am-5pm and admission is free. Across the Mersey at Corn Warehouse Quay in Birkenhead is a collection of historic warships (0151 650 1573; www.historicwarships.org) that includes the minesweeper commanded by the Prince of Wales, HMS Bronington, two veterans of the Falklands War - the frigate HMS Plymouth and the submarine HMS Onyx - and the U-boat 534. It opens daily from 10am-5pm; admission is £6.50. *

CAN I GET A FERRY 'CROSS THE MERSEY?

Yes, but you can go one better than the hop between Liverpool and Birkenhead: the Mersey Ferry (0151-330 1444; www.merseyferries.co.uk) runs from Liverpool along the Manchester Ship Canal to Salford Quays. These special sailings operate most weekends during the summer, price £29 - including the bus back to your starting point.

ANY OTHER PORTS IN A STORM?

Bristol retains some attractive waterfront buildings around St Augustine's Reach and the Floating Harbour. In the adjacent Great Western Dockyard is Brunel's second steamship, SS Great Britain (0117 926 0680; www.ssgreatbritain.org); on 16-21 July celebrations will mark the completion of the £11m project to restore this great liner. It opens daily from 10am-5.30pm from April-October and from 10am-4.30pm from November-March; admission is £16.50.

Discovery Point in Dundee has the ship in which Captain Scott and Shackleton undertook their successful Antarctic expedition of 1901-4, the Royal Research Ship Discovery (01382 201245; www.rrsdiscovery.com). At nearby Victoria Dock is the 46-gun HMS Unicorn of 1824 (01382 200900; www.frigateunicorn.org). It opens daily from 10am-5pm from April-October and Wednesdays-Friday 12 noon-4pm and from 10am at weekends from November-March; admission is £4.

WHERE CAN I SEE TALL SHIPS?

This year there are two tall ships' races: the first arrives in Newcastle (0191-277 8040; www.tallships2005.com) on 25 July; competitors for the second assemble in Torbay ( www.tallshipsraces.com) on 1 September before leaving for Santander and returning on 17 September. Moored at Yorkhill Quay in Glasgow and one of only five Clyde-built sailing ships still afloat, the three-masted barque Glenlee (0141-222 2513; www.thetallship.com) has become a major attraction. Built in 1896, she circumnavigated the globe four times. She opens daily from 10am-5pm from March-October and until 4pm from November-February; admission is £4.95.

WHICH ARE THE BEST MUSEUMS?

The National Maritime Museum (020-8312 6565; www.nmm.ac.uk) in Greenwich provides an unrivalled introduction to Britain's relationship with the sea. It opens daily from 10am-5pm and admission is free (except for major exhibitions, for which prices vary).

Special NMM exhibitions tied in with SeaBritain include "Nelson & Napoleon" (7 July-13 November) and an exhibition of photographs at Queen's House organised by the National Trust and Magnum Photos. "The Coast Exposed" (23 March-8 January) will showcase the wonders of the coast and will also be shown at the Trelissick Gallery in Cornwall (30 July-4 September) and the Lowry Gallery in Salford (24 September-8 January 2006).

Nearby is the world's only surviving tea clipper, Cutty Sark (020-8858 3445; www.cuttysark.org.uk). It opens daily from 10am-4.30pm; admission is £4.50. The story of her trade and the thousands of others that once made London the world's greatest port is told by the Museum in Docklands, opened last year in a warehouse at West India Quay (0870 444 3857; www.museumindocklands.org.uk). It opens daily from 10am-6pm; admission is £5.

WHAT ABOUT SMALL MUSEUMS?

There are almost 300 sea-themed museums, some of which are devoted to a particular craft such as the National Coracle Centre (01239 710980; www.coracle-centre.co.uk) at Newcastle Emlyn in Carmarthenshire, which displays a collection of Welsh coracles and similar craft from Vietnam, India, Tibet, Iraq and North America. It opens daily from 10am-5.30pm from now until the end of October; admission is £3.

The Inveraray Maritime Museum (01499 302213; www.skwebpages.com/arctic) in western Scotland offers an insight into the experiences of emigrants to North America during the Highland clearances, as well as archive film and displays on a three-masted schooner, the Arctic Penguin, built in 1911. It opens daily from 10am-5pm from March-September; admission is £3.80.

The feel of a small community dependent on the sea is brilliantly conveyed at picturesque Buckler's Hard in Hampshire (01590 616203; www.bucklershard.co.uk) where cottages and the inn now recreate the life surrounding a small 18th-century shipyard. It opens daily from 10am-4.30pm; admission is £5.50.

A DAY ON THE OCEAN BLUE?

Paddling along the coastbecame a major part of seaside holidays from the 1870s. Few pleasure steamers were still operating by the 1950s, with the notable exception of those that linked the Clyde with Argyll and Bute. There is still an impressive network of ferry and boat routes with magnificent scenery to enjoy. Dunoon, Rothesay and Brodick are among the most popular destinations ( www.clydesite.co.uk).

The oldest vessel in regular public service on the Clyde is The Second Snark, built in 1938 and operated by Clyde Marine Cruises (01475 721281; www.secondsnark.co.uk). She cruises the waters around Argyll and Bute from May to September. The ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne (08705 650000; www.calmac.co.uk) provide a lifeline for 22 of the Western Isles. Rover tickets are available for island-hopping visitors - an eight-day ticket costs £234 per car and £47.50 per person.

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company (08705 523523; www.steam-packet.com) celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, but some of the vessels operating its routes from Liverpool and Heysham are a far cry from the wooden paddle-steamers with which it began servicing the island. Fares cost £35 return.

One of the most romantic islands off the British coast is Lundy, linked to the Devon coast by the island's ship MS Oldenburg (01271 863636; www.lundyisland.co.uk), which retains its original panelling and brass fittings. Capable of carrying 267 passengers, she can be chartered for coastal or river cruises when not on ferry duties. Return fares on the ship are £28. The Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast offer exceptional opportunities to watch seabirds. The area's seal colony can also be seen during the daily boat trips from Seahouses (01665 720884), where the lifeboat station is forever associated with the bravery of Grace Darling and her father; their exploits in saving survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire are commemorated in the Olde Ship Hotel (01665, 720200; www.seahouses.co.uk).

ANYTHING LONGER?

The most luxurious way to explore the British coast is aboard the Hebridean Princess, once a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry but now more of a floating country house with accommodation for 49. It operates mostly out of Oban, exploring the west coast and islands. Hebridean Island Cruises (01756 704704; www.hebridean.co.uk). The "Taste of the Highlands" three-night cruise costs from £1,050 based on two sharing.

The history of St Kilda, a World Heritage Site, exercises such an appeal that Wilderness Scotland (0131-625 6635; www.wildernessscotland.com) operates 10-day tours to it aboard either a modern yacht or a 65-year-old gaff cutter sleeping eight.

I'D PREFER A HEAD OF SAIL

Many companies offer yacht charter or sailing courses. Scotland has more than 25 sailing schools with the option of RYA qualifications (Sail Scotland 01309 676757; www.sailscotland.co.uk). The Thames Estuary has numerous companies arranging charters or excursions on anything from a barge to a four-masted barque (Topsail 020-7022 2201; www.topchart.co.uk). For a Thames cruise, you can even hire Bluebird of Chelsea (020-7823 5612; www.ameliadalton.co.uk), the boat built in the 1930s for Sir Malcolm Campbell, the former holder of the world land-speed record.

ANY BATTLESHIPS LEFT?

No. The nearest is the Second World War cruiser HMS Belfast (020-7940 6300; www.hmsbelfast.org.uk), moored near Tower Bridge. She opens daily from 10am-6pm; admission is £8.

ANY DRAMA?

English Heritage is organising many maritime-themed events at its properties, ranging from re-enactments of Viking incursions at Whitby, Yorkshire, during May (01904 601876) to the Tall Ships Parade Party at Tynemouth Priory, Tyneside, on 28 July (0191-257 1090) and Tales from Trafalgar at Scarborough Castle, Yorkshire, from 15-19 August (0870 333 1181; www.english-heritage.org.uk). The castle opens daily from 11.30am-5pm; admission is £3.30.

To hear the murmur of the sea while watching a play, go to the open-air Minack Theatre at Porthcurno, Cornwall, where the season includes The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate and La Bohème. The box office opens on 2 May (01736 810181/471; www.minack.com).

COASTAL WALKS

The longest coastal footpath in Britain is the South West Coast Path, the 630 miles of which link Poole Harbour in Dorset with Minehead in Somerset ( www.southwestcoastpath.com). Although much of the 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Cardigan and Amroth is across clifftops, there is still over 10,000ft of ascents and descents ( www.pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk).

If they sound too much like hard work, English Heritage is organising pub walks around the Pool of London (0870 333 1181; www.english-heritage.org.uk), while Civic Trust guides will will interpret the history of Gloucester Docks (01452 411827), and Saturday walks around Bristol look at the various aspects of city's maritime heritage (0117 968 4638).

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