A city that boasts rich naval history

HMS Victory
HMS Victory
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As Peter Goodship surveys Portsmouth Harbour from his office window, he sees more than the ships coming in and out of port. In front of him is 2,000 years of naval history.

He imagines the Roman emperor Vespasian embarking from Portchester Castle for the siege of Jerusalem in the 1st century AD.

He thinks of the Saxon vessels that came hundreds of years later, Norman ships after that, Tudor warships including the Mary Rose and the development of the Royal Navy in the centuries since.

That’s because the chief executive of Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust is acutely aware of Portsmouth’s proud history.

‘Portsmouth Harbour has the most remarkable history of any harbour in the world,’ he says.

‘To think that from the Romans onwards, Portsmouth Harbour has been a place at the centre of the defence of the realm is astounding. Not many places can claim such a vast history in doing essentially the same activity.’

Five hundred years ago, Henry VIII’s Mary Rose was launched by shipbuilders at Portsmouth Dockyard. As the first ship able to fire broadside, she represented a milestone in naval engineering at the time.

Today, Portsmouth shipbuilders are at the forefront of technology in the construction of two new aircraft carriers – the largest vessels ever built for the Royal Navy.

It is this lineage that is most striking to Goodship, who believes the illustrious history of our forefathers serves to strengthen the city’s future.

He says: ‘History is an evolving process. History is being made today as we speak and as the new aircraft carriers come in to the port in 2020, the infrastructure of the dockyard will change once again to look after the ships of the future.

‘It’s forever evolving and the harbour’s history will continue to be made for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come.’

For most towns and cities throughout the world, having Portsmouth’s heritage would be a dream scenario for tourism bosses.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard attracts around 500,000 visitors every year to see the city’s unrivalled maritime heritage, including the world-famous sights of HMS Victory, the Mary Rose and HMS Warrior.

‘We are lucky,’ admits Portsmouth City Council’s cultural and leisure chief Councillor Lee Hunt.

‘Clearly, Portsmouth has been endowed with an enormous history of naval heritage, both commercially and with our armed forces and it’s thanks to them that we’ve got this fantastic benefit for the local tourism economy.

‘Portsmouth has always been an important place, both strategically and for trade and that is why we’re the home of the Royal Navy and have this fantastic new commercial port.

‘We live in one of the greatest cities in the world – we have some of the best museums in the world and I’m looking forward to the new Mary Rose museum opening next year.’

The origins of modern Portsmouth can be traced back to around 1180 when merchant Jean De Gisors founded a little town in south-west corner of Portsea Island as an ideal shelter for his fleet of ships.

More than eight centuries later, the city’s commercial importance continues to grow.

‘You only have to look at the banana boats and cruise liners coming in to see we are very much an international port for trade and tourism,’ says naval historian Peter Green, who lives in Stamshaw and believes the city is undergoing a positive change in direction.

‘This year we’ll have something like 40 different cruise liners coming here of differing sizes and I think that represents the future of the city.

‘We’re in a city that has always moved with the times and we’re still moving on.

‘That’s the great thing about Portsmouth – we’ve got a great past but it’s a place that is still relevant and will always be relevant.’