‘The harbour holds the Royal Navy’s history . . .’

Nick Hewitt at Explosion Museum in Gosport where he is curator, along with Action Stations at the Historic Dockyard
Nick Hewitt at Explosion Museum in Gosport where he is curator, along with Action Stations at the Historic Dockyard
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Nicke Hewitt is a custodian of the Royal Navy’s proud past – but he’s also thinking about the future

A curlew’s evocative call rang out as the bird skimmed over the muddy edge of Portsmouth Harbour.

It had taken flight as Nick Hewitt clanked open the large metal gates leading to the small old Camber harbour. The tide was out and the mud was squeaking.

As we walked out to the end of the wall the enormity of the harbour became clear, a vista you only get from the Gosport side, and Nick looked south.

He waved his arm in the direction of Portsmouth.

‘You can just make out the Square Tower and it’s because of that building that we’re here today, the reason these buildings exist.’

He turned 90 degrees and pointed at a floating crane roughly in the middle of the harbour.

A yacht, buffeted by the strong wind scooted past the rig against a background of battleship grey – it seemed the entire surface fleet of the Royal Navy was tied up in Portsmouth.

The crane is helping build a new jetty from which munitions will be loaded into those ships.

It is almost within shouting distance of where we stand on that little harbour wall and history has gone full circle.

For within those stone walls little sailing boats used to tie up on the high tide, be loaded with gunpowder and then ply backwards and forwards to the fleet anchored out in the main harbour.

The gunpowder was made in the cavernous, high-vaulted magazines of Priddy’s Hard, Gosport, and we are standing at the rear entrance to Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower.

Nick explains the link to the Square Tower across the water in Old Portsmouth.

‘In the mid-18th century the Board of Ordnance decided that using the Square Tower as a gunpowder store was a little too risky, there were too many drunken sailors around smoking pipes.

‘So it was decided to transfer the lot to the new magazines built at Priddy’s Hard.

‘It was loaded into small boats which were rowed to this small harbour here on the western side of Portsmouth Harbour. It took them years.’

For Nick, 44, that stretch of water separating Portsmouth from Gosport is one of the joys of his job.

He has just marked the end of his first year as head of attractions and collections for Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust, the relatively new owners of the once-ailing Explosion! and Action Stations in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard.

He has to divide his time across that watery divide devising new ways to draw increasing numbers of visitors to both attractions.

His roots are not in the Portsmouth area. He says: ‘Since I came here the hardest thing to get to grips with, not being a local, is the whole Portsmouth v Gosport thing.

‘Where I’m coming from, the entire harbour is about the history of the Royal Navy.

‘Do you think the navy and the MoD cared about local government boundaries? Of course they didn’t.’

Since his arrival, visitor numbers to Explosion! have increased by 5,000 in the current financial year.

He says: ‘I’m hoping we’ll make 6,000 by the end of March which will take us to 25,000 for the year.’

Nick’s father served in the navy during his national service and Nick studied history at Lancaster University and got his Masters in War Studies at King’s College, London.

He arrived in Portsmouth from the Imperial War Museum where he was a researcher and historian. Before that he spent five years working in the light cruiser HMS Belfast on the Thames devising different ways to bring the ship alive for visitors.

Was the job what he expected?

‘Nothing is ever what you expect, is it?’ he says.

‘I knew about museums and collections. They were in my comfort zone. What I didn’t know was how to run attractions. That’s been the challenge.

‘I knew Explosion! had had a hard time, but that it was nothing to do with an intrinsic fault with the product. We just need to get more people here, especially the people of Gosport.

‘Priddy’s Hard is a big part of the Gosport story and Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is an important part of the national story. Put the two together and you have a great attraction, especially if you link them with cross-harbour boat tours like we did last year and will again in 2012.

‘If you’re a naval historian this is the place to come.’

Nick is excited about a new development in Action Stations, the hands-on attraction which brings the modern Royal Navy to life in Boathouse No6 in the Historic Dockyard.

On Monday work starts on the region’s first Laser Quest attraction which is planned to open in the spring.

He says: ‘This is a first for the Portsmouth area. Visitors will be able to become Royal Marines and tackle modern-day pirates.’

Nick adds: ‘We’re converting a huge area on two floors which will cater for up to 22 people at once. It will give families not only plenty of fun, but also give them an insight into the work of the marines whom most people think are soldiers and nothing to do with the navy.

‘That’s one of the problems the navy has – it’s not very good at selling itself. The country as a whole has no understanding of what the modern navy is for, which is a great shame because it is still the best in the world.’