My memories of Portsmouth were of taking the ferry there, with my little Ford Ka, to go back to France. I only saw it from the industrial harbour side, never realising how pretty the heart of the city was, how much history it held. In other words what a wonderful weekend escape it can be. And if you’re blessed with a gorgeous weather, you might even consider moving down south…
How to get there?
Easy. Portsmouth is just 1h30 train from London Waterloo. No wonder so many people commute back and forth.
There is so much to see within a few minutes from the station. On one side is the Historic Dockyards (more about this in day 2, stay tuned!), on the other the Waterfront. You will cross Gunwharf Quay first, a fantastic Designer Outlet with 90 shops and 30 restaurants and cafés, a cinema, a bowling alley and a nightclub, no less. You will find very brand you can think of, from Lulu Guinness to Joules via Ralph Lauren and Superdry. In other words, a fashionista’s dream… but keep it for last or you will end up with too many bags to see much of Portsmouth! A cool anecdote though: the whole place used to be water. The city reclaimed a little bit of the sea for itself. It still is used as a harbour, with cute little yachts anchored there and ferries passing by.
So resist the shopping (for a little while), keep going. Look at your feet, you will soon see a motif engraved on the pavement, a reference to the chain, which used to be tightened across the harbour entrance at times of potential attacks from the French. A precautionary measure though: it never was used in the end. This pattern, called the Millenium Promenade, is in fact 3 kilometres long and will take you through the old part of Portsmouth. You will pass a tiny fish market – fresh crabs, scallops, decadent fishcakes too. Then the Old Harbour and its tiny fishermen’s boats. You may even see a swan’s nest, made of forgotten ropes and floating wood, the bird looking like a sleeping beauty on top of it.
Further on is St Thomas of Canterbury, Portsmouth’s Anglican cathedral and probably the cutest you’ve seen with its domes and wooden tower. Especially seen through spring blooms. The city actually has two, the other one being Catholic. You could also make a detour to see the Royal Garrison Church. Built in Medieval times, it was to be used in turn as a hospital, an ammunition store, part of a governor’s house before finally becoming a church again. It got badly damages in 1942 during a bomb raid – part of it is still used and features exceptional stained glass windows depicting scenes from WWII, the other remains roofless. See the grave at its entrance? On foggy nights, there have been many calls to the police station from citizens concerned a homeless or drunk person taking a nap there…
Get closer to the sea, stepping on top of the fortifications. On the left is Southsea, and you can see the pier in the distance, which comes with a few fun fair rides and a rollercoaster. A mini Brighton! Straight ahead is the Isle of Wight, which you can guess on a clear day. The hoverboard leaves from the pier and can take you there in a mere 10 minutes. But go back towards the centre for now. The buildings along Grand Parade used to captains and admiral’s houses and really stand out. There are lots of little stories in that area. Like Charles I’s bust strategically places in an opening on Battery Row. The city was forced to put a (faked) cheerful welcome to celebrate his safe return to England in 1623. He was so touched… he gifted them with this sculpture of himself. It is said, though, that were it to be removed, terrible things would happen. And the only two times it was, the prophecy came true… so for now, Portsmouth stays on the safe side of the tale.
On the side of the Square Tower is a more impressive piece, a bronze chain link called “the bond of friendship”. A similar one, in gold, exists in Australia. Both commemorate the journey of the first fleet of eleven ships which took the first European Settlers. A symbolic line between Portsmouth and Sydney… Through the arches, the sea, framed like a painting. All kinds of sail and motor boats passing by, a mesmerising ballet. A golden kind of beach too.
Want a better view? Try the Square Tower. You can still see on the floor where the canons were… There are lots of artists’ studios in the fortification walls, a few shops selling their work – illustrations, jewels, cushions, lampshades. Need a break? The Canteen, a cute little café, serves fantastic giant Scotch eggs, pork and apple sausage rolls. Ideal for lunch (or even a cup of tea with a slice of lemon and courgette cake), especially as they have a terrace with a seaside view. As well as blankets if it’s a little chilly.
Or you could walk a little further towards Spice Island (although fully connected to the city). You will pass a sweet little entrance with angels and coordinates (the one of that very door), as well as Fry & Kent, which used to be a pub, called as the bird above the door indicates “The Seagull”. Notice the pointed roof, nicknamed a witch’s hat? It was a trademark in the design of Brickwood Breweries’ public houses in the area. Why? Well, think it as branding, better than any sign saying to sailors “Hey, pint of Brickwood served here”. At a time when there were hundreds of bars around, each no bigger than a living room, that was priceless branding…
At the very point of the islet is the Spice Island Inn with a terrace. The ferries pass so close you can see passengers drinking their coffee. It’s quite something. Let alone – what a view on the Spinnaker Tower!
Fancy a slice of culture? The Portsmouth Museum is nearby. Its sweet little galleries take you through the whole history of the city – how interiors changed through centuries, splendid sailors uniforms and sketches but also the seaside town side, complete with a Victorian parlour… There even is an exhibition on Conan Doyle. Did you know he settled his doctor’s practice there in 1882 and wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes stories? Bonus: the entry is free!
Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum
Portsmouth has inspired many authors. Jane Austen lived there for 3 years. Rudyard Kipling’s parents, Anglo-Indians, sent him back to Britain for schooling and he partly grew up in the city. H. G. Wells stayed a while too. But the most famous definitely is Charles Dickens and you can visit the very house where he was born… You will get in through the kitchen then make you way through the bedroom, the dining room, the study. It’s a warm kind of place, intimate, almost, as if the family has just gone for a walk. On the day I visited, a volunteer was reading from his books. Funny how you rediscover stories when they are told aloud…
Where to stay?
If you love boutique hotels, Florence Gardens, part of a few town houses turned into 5 stars, is sure to steal your heart. It ticks all the boxes – a warm welcome, a contemporary elegance, a romantic atmosphere, spacious rooms. The buildings are connected by an enclosed pathway and there is a quiet garden on the side. You barely realise there are other guests there. I could imagine being an author, coming here to think and write…
They have their own gastropub too, a street away, The Florence Arms. Spot on for cocktails (that Bramble!), a superb twists on classics such as black pudding and scallops on mashed minted peas, or generous crab and tomato croquettes. Perfect for a bite or a full 3-course-dinner. I hear their Sunday roast is not to be missed…
Day 2 coming soon! All the addresses are on the Google map below – scroll down and click 🙂