Thousands set to say goodbye to Ark Royal

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FINAL preparations are under way ahead of a bumper weekend of free events that will see 6,000 people visit HMS Ark Royal to say goodbye to the axed warship.

As well as the final opportunity for the public to view the famous ship, 200 sailors will parade through Portsmouth tomorrow morning before making an appearance on the pitch at Fratton Park.

Officials at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard estimate around 3,000 people to visit the Ark over the course of the weekend.

The aircraft carrier, which was controversially axed by the government in October last year, is open to visitors from midday to 4pm tomorrow. She is open again Sunday from 10am to 3pm.

Free entry to the ship can be gained through the gate to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which is also offering 25 per cent off entry to its other attractions over the weekend.

Before the Ark is opened up to the public for the last time, sailors will parade through Portsmouth City Centre tomorrow.

The parade will set off from Paradise Street at 11.20am and march down Commercial Road to Guildhall Square. This will be followed by a short ceremony in Guildhall Square where sailors will hand a White Ensign to the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth. The ceremony is expected to finish at midday - the same time the Ark opens to visitors at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Around 50 sailors will then head to Fratton Park to parade on the pitch at Pompey's home match against Leeds - the city the ship is affiliated to.

Lieutenant Commander Phil Richardson, who is helping to organise the events, said: 'We've been very busy doing all the preparations for the march through Portsmouth City Centre and the ceremony at Guildhall Square where we present a White Ensign to the city.

'A lot of work has also been going on to get the ship looking in tip top condition for visitors on Saturday and Sunday. It's all free and we look forward to welcoming all the public on board.

'It's going to be an enormous celebration of the links Portsmouth and Ark Royal had as our base port over the last 25 years.'

Lt Cdr Richardson said the Ark will have two helicopters on board for the weekend - one Merlin and one Gazelle aircraft.

Jacquie Shaw, head of communications at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, estimated there will be 6,000 visitors in the two days the ship is open, which is on a first-come-first-served basis.

The numbers will depend on the weather, which the Met forecasts to be cold, dry and sunny on Saturday, with a chance of rain on Sunday.