Self-guided walk of Old Portsmouth

I have been to Portsmouth before, on a previous visit to my in-laws. They live half-way between London and the south coast, so it’s easy for me to jump on the train and head south to Portsmouth for a day out. I’ve been to the Historic Dockyards but this time round, I visited the old town and saw a different aspect of this interesting city by the sea.

The main attraction of the city of Portsmouth is the Historic Dockyards, where visitors can see such iconic ships as Nelson’s HMS Victory or the remains of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s ship. However, there is more to Portsmouth than the Dockyards and the Spinnaker Tower.

I’m going to share what I saw and learned on my walk from the Portsmouth & Southsea railway station (1) to the seafront.

Portsmouth & Southsea station opened on 14 June 1847
Portsmouth & Southsea station opened on 14 June 1847

As I left the station, I turned left and walked under the railway bridge towards the Guildhall. The imposing building is now used as an entertainment and conference venue. Across the plaza from the Guildhall is the City Council, a concrete eyesore in my opinion.

The interior and roof of the Guildhall were destroyed in the 1941 air raid. The walls and tower suffered great damage. It was rebuilt and reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959.
The interior and roof of the Guildhall were destroyed in the 1941 air raid. The walls and tower suffered great damage. It was rebuilt and reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959.

Farther on, the conspicuous Isambard Kingdom Brunel pub marks the start of the Guildhall Walk. Along the street, shops, more pubs, people going about their business, a vampire or two. Wait! What? It was Halloween and some people wore costumes all day. The New Theatre Royal, a pretty Victorian construction, is located at the opposite end of Guildhall Walk.

The start of Guildhall Walk. The Isambard Kingdom Brunel in on the right hand corner.
The start of Guildhall Walk. The Isambard Kingdom Brunel in on the right hand corner.

I didn’t have a map with me but, as it turned out, I didn’t need it. There are very helpful and easy to follow maps of the area in important intersections. I walked down Cambridge Road/A3. There are many University of Portsmouth buildings here. The atmosphere in the street was a lively one with students milling around. I continued past the University Library to the next roundabout and turned left onto Museum Road.

University Library

The building of the City of Portsmouth Museum (2) is a Victorian beauty, especially the back. Here, I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a doctor in Portsmouth for many years and this is where he started his writing career. However, the Scottish author wasn’t the only famous writer with a local connection: Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth. There’s a Charles Dickens’ Trail on Old Portsmouth. I picked up a leaflet and tried to follow it.

The back facade of the museum
The back facade of the museum

I walked back to the roundabout and down High Street in Old Portsmouth. The street is lined with low buildings, many Victorian but many look more recent. I later learned that Portsmouth was attacked with incendiary bombs in 1941 during World War II. Many buildings were destroyed, 930 civilians died and about 3,000 were wounded in the blitz. So were many of the buildings on the Dickens’ trail.

High Street - Old Portsmouth
High Street – Old Portsmouth

I stopped at the John Pounds Memorial Unitarian Church. Charles Dickens is said to have befriended and admired John Pounds. Pounds (1766-1839, voted Portsmouth Man of the Millennium), was a crippled cobbled who taught destitute children to read and write and also fed and clothed them. He is acknowledged to have set in motion the movement towards universal free education in England.

Replica of John Pounds workshop
Replica of John Pounds workshop

Pounds’ legacy continued in the Ragged Schools movement in the United Kingdom and the US. The chapel where he worshipped was destroyed in the 1941 blitz and was rebuilt in 1956. A very kind member of the congregation showed me the replica of Pound’s workshop, told me the whole story and asked me to spread the word.

I stopped at a Co-op to buy something to eat. I took mi picnic across the street to the cathedral green and sat in the golden light of autumn to enjoy my sandwich.

The cathedral
The cathedral

Portsmouth Cathedral has a long history. The building developed from a medieval chapel built in 1185, which is now the quire. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteer took around and explained everything there is to know about the cathedral.

The medieval nave
The medieval nave

I went on to the end of the streets and the seawalls. Portsmouth was a walled garrison town until the 1870s under constant threat of invasion. The Square Tower, right at the end of High Street, is among the oldest fortifications and it dates to 1494. The sun was setting and its golden light bathed the stone walls. A fisherman was packing up at the end of the pier, a couple of lovers whispering sweet nothings on each other’s ears. Time to turn round and go back home.


I continued on Battery Row, where people were taking a quiet dusk stroll, enjoying the salty air. I had a look at the Royal Garrison Church (3), built in 1212. The nave lost the roof in the air raid of 1941.

Royal Garrison Church
Royal Garrison Church

Back to High Street, then on to Guildhall Walk and the station.

Battery Row
Battery Row
(1) Those interested in visiting the Dockyards should take the train to Portsmouth Harbour station.
These lines connect Portsmouth with other English cities: the First Great Western from Cardiff Central, the South West Trains from London Waterloo and Southampton Central and the Southern from London Victoria, Littlehampton and Brighton.
(2) Opening Times: April – September: 10.00am – 5.30pm. October – March: 10.00am – 5.00pm. Open Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays. Closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays). Admission is free of charge.
(3) Open from April to September from 11am to 4pm.

Trip to England: highlights

Here are some of the highlights of our recent trip to England. Although it was family-centred, we managed to visit some interesting places.

Temple Church

I’ve always wanted to see the Temple Church. My first attempt was a few years ago when I had a few hours to kill in London before my flight back home, I can’t remember whether it was to Dallas or to Buenos Aires. Anyway, I walked and walked trying to find this historic church ensconced in the middle of the Inns of Court.  I eventually found it but, to my chagrin, it was closed for repairs.

Cut to July 2011. My friends Romina and Anibal were in London on holiday. Together we visited Westminster Cathedral and had nothing planned for later. However, I had a secret agenda. Mwahahaha! I played on my friend’s interest in history and very innocently suggested we could have a look at this church built by the Knights Templars. Nothing special, only medieval, you know. We asked a guy for directions and he said “Oh, the Da Vinci Code church?” That was a bit embarrassing. I wanted to explain that I ‘m not a Dan Brown fan I knew about this church way before he made it famous but somehow I don’t think this passer-by would have cared.

We were like kids in a candy store!

Fish and chips with mushy peas and tartar sauce

Those who know me know that I don’t care for fish. I managed to avoid Britain’s national dish for years until last week. We met up with some friends in Brighton whom we hadn’t seen in years. It was a glorious summer day, the seagulls were dancing in the sky, the musicians were playing in the square, wine and conversation were flowing easily. One thing led to another and I found myself ordering fish and chips with mushy peas. The haddock was so fresh that I’d like to think it was caught that morning off the coast of Brighton.

HMS Victory

HMS Victory was launched in 1765 and was Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It is a museum now, placed in a dry dock in Portsmouth. I walked about the decks trying to imagine the noises of battle, the roar of the cannon and the shouts of the gunners manning it, the heartrending screams of the wounded, the smell of fear. It wasn’t a very successful evocation, the trappings of modern life and other tourists got in the way.

Guildford Castle

Guildford Castle dates back to Saxon times and was rebuilt by William the Conqueror in the Norman style. Nowadays, only the keep and sections of the wall remain. But my favourite place were the gardens: the design of the flowerbeds, the variety and quantity of flowers, the sweet smells. It was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t ideal but it could have been worse.

Stay in touch with friends and family with prepaid calling cards

Travel like a history nerd

Recently my friend Katie wrote the following comment under my post on Chichester: “I love the photo of the tomb with the couple holding hands. Isn’t it amazing to walk among such history?” Her words inspired me to revisit those places where I’ve come face to face with History while in England.

I recently read The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory. This historical novel is set in the late 15th century and tells the story of Lady Margaret Beaufort and how she helped her son Henry gain the throne of England. Henry VII and his Queen, Lady Elizabeth of York, are buried in Westminster Abbey, in the magnificent Lady Chapel. Not only did I enjoy its wonderful artwork, I also knew about them and that, in a way, helped put a face to the characters from the book.

Eastgate Pilgim's Hospital. The pilgrims slept in the undercroft.

It’s interesting how even films help you appreciate historical places and events. While in Westminster Abbey, I saw the tomb of Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks. I told my friend “This is Edward Longshanks!” Blank stare. “You know, the king from Braveheart.” He knew exactly who I was talking about.

Canterbury was a very popular pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages. Thousands flocked to the Cathedral to kneel at the shrine of St Thomas Beckett. The place where he was murdered is marked by a modern altar.

Altar marking the spot of Thomas Becket's martyrdom

The city and its pilgrims inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (although I haven’t read the book, I saw Chaucer’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.)  I visited Eastgate Hospital, where the poorest pilgrims were given a bed and a meal. It helped bring all those pilgrims stories to life. I was surprised to see Edward the Black Prince’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral too. All those stories of chivalry and battles (Crecy, Poitiers, and so on) came rushing back.

Edward the Black Prince

I have to admit that the fact that I can recognise a handful of famous historical figures or know a bit of the history of a place makes me feel a little smug. And a lot like a nerd. The only occasion in which facing History troubled me was when I took a harbour tour in Portsmouth and it took me by surprise.

As we sailed past the naval base, the guide described the characteristics of every vessel, destroyer, and the like docked there. I wasn’t very interested until a name made my ears perk up: HMS Exeter. I remembered that name very well from my childhood. This destroyer was deployed to the Malvinas (Falklands for some) in 1982 to replace HMS Sheffield, which had been sunk by the Argentinean Navy. I was 10 at the time. HMS Exeter appeared in new broadcasts at the time because it shot down Argentinean aircraft.

HMS Exeter is the one on the far left