Perched overlooking a stretch of sea known as the Solent, the city of Portsmouth shares a similar maritime heritage as Oman, with the waters providing the lifeblood that flows through its veins.
Let me be upfront from the beginning. I’m rather biased about Portsmouth as it’s the city where I was born (Saint Mary’s Hospital) and I retain a great fondness for it, despite having left the area at the age of 10. Whenever I go back to the UK, Portsmouth is always on my list of places to visit and I retain a deep affinity with the sea, which is probably why I like Oman and its 1,700km of coastline so much.
Perched on the south coast of England, around 103km from London, Portsmouth has the distinction of being the UK’s only island city, as the majority sits on Portsea Island, separated from the mainland by a creek. As a significant naval port for centuries (my dad was in the navy), the sea has seeped into the very fabric of the city and plays a huge part in its past. As a consequence, Portsmouth is home to some famous historical ships, including the Tudor warship The Mary Rose and Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. Portsmouth is affectionately known as “Pompey” (as are the city’s football team) and the 205,400 people who call the city home are known as ‘Pomponians’. The city has undergone something of a transformation in recent years, acquiring smart waterfront developments and high-end apartments, shaking off its parochial image in the process,
Thankfully, it hasn’t lost its essence and down-to-earth appeal. I always know that I am nearing Pompey when you can smell the sea salt in the air and hear seagulls screeching overhead.
So many to choose from but, if pushed, it would have to be Old Portsmouth, the area where the original town first began. Wander round on foot and visit Portsmouth Cathedral or Royal Garrison Church (built in approximately 1212), before browsing in quirky one-off shops selling antiques or art. There’s also some great period architecture to admire. You can then walk down to the seafront and stand on the old fortifications looking out to sea as they once did hundreds of years before, though you’ll be likely to spot ferries heading off to France as opposed to invading armadas.
A visit to Portsmouth really isn’t complete without delving into its fascinating naval past. Top of your list should be The Mary Rose, warship of the English Tudor King Henry VIII, which sank in the Solent while attacking a French invasion fleet in 1545. Her wreck was salvaged in 1982 and the restored hull can be viewed in a museum in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, along with recovered artefacts (the museum is currently closed but will reopen in summer 2016). You can also go aboard HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and see firsthand how life would have been for her crew. I’d recommend a trip to Southsea to eat ice cream by the sea, followed by the old-fashioned funfair on Clarence Pier, while to see the modern side of Pompey, check out waterfront Gunwharf Quays with its designer outlets and trendy restaurants, where you can go up the 170-metre tall Emirates Spinnaker Tower and look out across Portsmouth Harbour. If you’re feeling brave you can abseil 100m down the tower. If you have time, take a 20-minute ferry ride to Gosport, a small town across the water (and where I grew up), or hop on the hovercraft across the English Channel to the Isle of Wight (visit during Cowes Week, the oldest and largest sailing regatta in the world, held during August).
Being the UK, the weather isn’t guaranteed so you could find yourself sitting on the beach in the rain. Be warned as well that the beach at Southsea is shingle and not the soft sand that we’re used to – and the sea is cold!
Fill your suitcase with local art, often with a maritime theme, and mementoes from visits to The Mary Rose and HMS Victory. The Emirates Spinnaker Tower shop sells postcards, books and locally sourced sweets.
All options are available. Stattons Boutique Hotel has Edwardian charm and is just a two minute walk from the beach, while the Best Western is right on the seafront. For no thrills, the budget Travelodge is a good bet. There are also lots of bed and breakfasts for a more homely feel.