I spent my early teens living in Maidstone and can vividly remember being dragged around Chatham on school trips and family weekend visits – and frankly not being very impressed! So I was surprised to see the Historic Dockyard receiving rave reviews on social media! Matt and Alex visited last year and had a great time, so I somewhat reluctantly agreed to spend a day there during the holidays. How wrong my teenage self was! Chatham Historic Dockyard is an amazing place and a brilliant family destination – and since the tickets we purchased are valid for 12 months, I know we’ll be back again and again!
An incredible sight greets you when you arrive at the Dockyard – a Victorian sloop, a Second World War destroyer and a Cold War submarine ready to be explored – plus a host of warehouses and buildings packed full of exhibitions and displays. It’s pretty overwhelming, but the helpful welcome staff help visitors plan out their day, booking the few exhibits that have timed entry.
We started our visit with a tour of the HM Submarine Ocelot, the last Royal Navy warship built at the dockyard. Given it had a crew of 69 men, it was incredibly small and cramped, but we all squeezed in and were quickly immersed in Cold War history.
The children loved exploring and being able to be quite hands-on – not sure they spotted very much through the periscope though!
They didn’t think the bunks looked very comfortable!
Alex liked climbing through the bulkhead doors!
I can’t imagine being crammed into a submarine with 68 other people for weeks on end and was pretty glad to climb out into the fresh air! Back on dry land, we wandered around the site, Sophie delighting in climbing on pretty much ever anchor she could find (meant we were pretty slow at making progress!)
One thing I particularly liked about the Dockyard was how there were little picnic tables and play areas dotted around – it’s a big site and it was great to pause every so often so the children could play or have a snack. They loved this playground near The Victorian Ropery and spent ages climbing before our next tour.
Since his first visit to the Dockyard, Alex kept talking about how he’d learned to make rope – so he insisted that we go on the ropery tour on this visit. So we were whisked back to 1875 by a very enthusiastic and knowledgable volunteer and taken on a tour of the Victorian process of rope making and the social conditions of the time. It was fascinating – with thankfully just about enough hands-on fun activities to keep the kids engaged (not that they look it in these photographs!)!
Towards the end of the tour, all the children got to help out with making their own rope – and they got to bring home a section of their own product!
The tour finished in the incredible working rope walk – a quarter of a mile long and still making rope today for the film industry, schools, theatres and even church bells! It’s an amazing sight and is mind-blowing that the ropes for HMS Victory were made in the same space.
Alex wanted to run the full length of the ropewalk, but we persuaded him to just cover part of the distance so we could go and get some lunch!
We tucked into lunch in one of the peaceful picnic areas overlooking some of the dock machinery and let the kids have another play while we relaxed.
Next stop was the Steam, Steel and Submarines gallery where we had a quick look at some of the exhibits about the changes in the Dockyard during the 19th and 20th centuries – it was sadly a flying visit as we had to dash to our next booked event.
We walked over to Number Three Slip, a vast covered slip built in 1838. Packed full of historic vessels and artefacts, we climbed up high into the roof space.
The roof was spectacular – rather like the hull of a ship. My photographs don’t really show quite how vast it was!
Tucked up in the roof space was a brilliant hands-on science session for children. Before a science show, a series of experiments and activities were laid out for young guests to complete – and Alex was the perfect age for it. He and Matt were soon hard at work creating a circuit powered by a potato! Alex was able to follow the instructions himself to correctly build the circuit, and was so excited when current flowed through it.
Next was little sailboat construction, using sponges, cocktail sticks and paper sails! Sophie and Alex loved testing their ships in the water tanks, watching them catch the breeze created by a large fan.
Finally, Alex built a working pendulum using K’Nex (something I think i may need to invest in at Christmas as he loved it!)
We completed the experiments just in time for the science show, where the children became Doc.Yard’s Time Travelling Techsplorers for half an hour, and learned about 18th century scientific innovations!
With the day whizzing by, we decided to visit one more exhibit before heading home – so we climbed aboard HMS Cavalier, a second world war destroyer.
We headed straight for the bridge where Sophie and Alex made themselves at home!
We peered through the deck at the water below
And had a go at steering the ship and snoozing in a hammock!
And we climbed and clambered around the decks, exploring at our own pace and admiring the beautifully restored spaces. It certainly looked more comfortable and spacious than the submarine!
Just as we thought we’d be able to persuade the children that it was time to head home, they found yet another playground right at the entrance, so we lost another 30 minutes as they explored and played!
Chatham Historic Dockyard is such a great family destination – its fascinating for grown-ups while there’s loads to interest the children. All the spaces are welcoming, there are plenty of places to play and so many opportunities to learn. We only saw a small part of what’s on offer, but we’ll be back soon to see the rest.