Ever wondered what it’s like to live and work in a metal tube deep beneath the waves? Hannah Butt goes to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport to find out how the story of subs is being told to the younger generation.
Imagine spending up to six months of the year submerged in a watery world, existing in the cramped confines of a submarine.
It takes a certain kind of person to be able to live and work beneath the waves.
One place where you can learn about life on board a submarine is the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, a treasure trove of naval history filled with exhibitions, stories and hands-on activities.
Museum marketing and communications manager Bill Sainsbury has been working there for the past five years and has developed a real passion for the subject.
Bill, 46, from Southsea, says: ‘I have always been interested by naval heritage as it is a very exciting subject.
‘It is what has shaped Portsmouth and the surrounding area and the majority of the community will know someone who is or has been part of the navy.’
She adds: ‘The museum is a place for people to bring their stories and to learn about other experiences in the submarine service.
‘We get a lot of ex-submariners coming to the museum and it’s lovely that they can come here and tell their story.
‘Every day you learn something new and that’s what makes this job really enjoyable.’
Bill explains: ‘It takes an interesting person to become a submariner and often, because submarines are called the silent service due to the secret missions, they are unable to talk about all of their experiences.
‘I couldn’t imagine having to live, work and play with so many people in such a confined space.
‘The submariners all have an amazing character, which enables them to make the best of the situation they are in.
‘This is why it is so important to keep the submarine museum so that we can hear the stories of their service and portray them for the public to see.’
The Busy Boats Bay is a learning centre that is used by nursery-aged children and primary school children.
It was developed in the Saving HMS Alliance project and a lot of influence was placed on educating the younger audience.
Gareth Brettell is the learning officer at the museum and is responsible for the organisation of activities held there.
Gareth says: ‘The centre is used as a learning centre for young children, school children and birthday parties and people come here from a variety of different backgrounds.
‘A navy theme runs through the whole learning centre – we have submariner dress-up, a wooden ship, a water tank that resembles a submarine and many other things.
‘It has been designed this way so that children can learn a wide variety of skills and interesting facts while still having fun.
‘One of the popular sessions is the sea urchin class which runs every Monday and it is a group for children under five.
‘This is an ideal age for a child to start to learn about their navy heritage, but I do also enjoy organising sessions for older children and even adults.’
Gareth adds: ‘Every part of the museum has a story behind it and the wall painting in the learning centre is one of them.
‘The local painter who was brought in to paint the landmarks, including the Spinnaker Tower, said that he would paint HMS Odeon next to HMS Alliance as Odeon was the submarine his grandfather served on.
‘We get lots of people donating artefacts to the museum — we were given two ditty boxes which would hold each submariner’s possessions.’
Gareth was a big part of the project to save HMS Alliance and understands how important it is to keep a centre like this alive.
‘We saw a lot of support for the museum when we had the project to save HMS Alliance.
‘Luckily we still have lots of volunteers that come and help out. Without them certain sessions would not be able to run.
‘Volunteers provide the museum with new experiences, one of which was when we were given a model of HMS Alliance.
‘This was a gift from a volunteer and it is now an invaluable artefact that we use to show schoolchildren exactly where they will be going.’
One of the current exhibitions at the museum is the Horribe Science of Submarines. It has a wide variety of things to see, touch and draw.
Gareth says: ‘All of the things in this exhibition are linked to submarines and it was designed to look like the Horrible History books and television show.
‘There are interesting facts to read about the food – as an initiation to being a submariner they would get a pasty with an oil sock or rag inside.
‘Often the tins in the kitchen would get wet and the labels would come off. The chefs would guess what was inside but they often got it wrong.
‘Sammy Sardine the mascot will explain how rats and other animals would cause havoc on board.
‘My favourite part is the dress-up where you can put on a cockroach costume and have a race.
‘Back in the day when submariners were bored they would catch cockroaches and place bets on which would be the fastest.
‘It is a great exhibition that portrays how a submariner’s life on board has changed so much.’
Exhibitions at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum often change and next year there will be one to explain the Victoria Cross Awards that submariners received for serving in the First World War.
Chris Fearnley, 67, from Gosport has been helping out for many years. She says: ‘I help out with the sessions as I really enjoy working with children and their families. We always have a lot of fun and all of the children really enjoy it.
‘My husband used to be a submariner himself on HMS Alliance so he always tells me about what life was like on a submarine.
‘We do have a lot of navy families attend these sessions and I think it’s important to have them as it provides the mums with something to do when their partners are away.’
Kat Henderson, 32, from Southsea, is the learning outlook officer at the centre.
Since her employment about three months ago, Kat has organised a number of activities for families in the area.
She says: ‘I have tried to organise a wide variety of events for families at the Busy Boats Bay Centre and this will continue for the rest of the year. We will be putting on more events during the half-term week and we love having lots of visitors.
‘The centre allows the children to learn lots of skills such as social communication, hand-eye co-ordination and complete simple tasks such as painting and drawing.
‘It is also a great place for the parents and grandparents to meet one another and become friends. It is difficult when their partners are away, but this provides them with a safe and secure environment for their children.’
Karen and Freya Jacobs
Karen Jacobs, 41, and her daughter Freya, two, are from near Southampton and have been attending the weekly session since the summer.
Karen says: ‘We have been coming here since June and it’s fantastic. Freya can come here and play, learn new songs and skills such as painting.
‘I have been to a few groups before where there was more influence on socialising for parents. But here the children are the top priority, although of course we still socialise too.
‘I think it is very important to have a centre like this as we know the children are safe, they can run around to their heart’s content and every one keeps an eye on every child.’
Christian and Theo Brown
Christian Brown, 40, and her son Theo, four, have only started coming to the sea urchin session this week.
Christian from Fareham says: ‘Our first session went really well, we have been looking for a children’s group for a while and it is so lovely to have finally found a nice one.
‘My husband is in the Royal Navy and so it is lovely to meet other navy families.
‘The activities put on here are great and they keep everyone entertained and they also learn so much from just being here.
‘Theo has really enjoyed all of the painting and it is a great way for him to learn skills for when he starts school.’
Jodie and Jasper Farrell-Gray
Jodie Farrell-Gray and her two-year-old son Jasper made friends with Karen Jacobs and they both started coming to the under-five sessions at the submarine museum.
Jodie, from Gosport, says: ‘I really like bringing my son here as there is such a wide variety of things to keep him entertained.
‘Jasper enjoys the singing and he loves playing in the water tank shaped like a submarine. It’s also a great break for me to have once a week.
‘My husband is actually in the Army so my background is slightly different to the majority of the women here. But we all go through the same experiences so it’s great to have a group like this. I think it’s very important for the community to keep something like this.’