Portsmouth displays its heritage gems in free celebration

Lt Cdr Brian Witts at the Drill House, Whale Island
Lt Cdr Brian Witts at the Drill House, Whale Island

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HISTORY buffs will be given a rare chance to walk around the Royal Navy’s headquarters as the city base opens its doors to the public for a heritage event.

HMS Excellent, on Whale Island, is one of a number of institutions around the area taking part in the nationwide Heritage Open Days event this weekend.

Eastney Beam Engine House - Paul Hitchock, museum assistant for Portsmouth City Museums, takes a few minutes' break for a 'cuppa' at a previous open day   Picture: Malcolm Wells (111451-2017)

Eastney Beam Engine House - Paul Hitchock, museum assistant for Portsmouth City Museums, takes a few minutes' break for a 'cuppa' at a previous open day Picture: Malcolm Wells (111451-2017)

The base has been a fixture in the city since it was built by convicts in the late 19th century.

Visitors will be able to gain rare access to the site and find out more about its past.

Lieutenant Commander Brian Witts is the curator of the museum on the man-made island and has been running open days at the base since 1992.

He said: ‘People travel down from all over the country – we normally get between 600 and 700 people.

‘But a lot of people who come are from Portsmouth. They have always seen Whale Island but never been on it.’

As part of the national heritage celebration event, other sites across the Portsmouth area are joining in the action.

Among them include Portsmouth’s Guildhall. Visitors to the city centre building will be given a unique chance to go behind the scenes, seeing the areas not normally accessible to the public.

The free sessions will take place on Friday and Saturday.

On Friday visitors will be able to have a look at the city’s collection of silverware – which survived the Blitz in 1941 – which includes pieces such as The Bodkin Cup, made in 1525, The Great Mace most likely presented to the city in 1658 and The Herman Salver and Ewer bearing the hallmarks of 1637.

Saturday will see tours being held at the Guildhall as well as an opportunity for people to look at two of the site’s displays, The Portsmouth Music Experience and the Isle of Wight Festival Exhibition 1968-1970.

All events are on a first-come first-served basis – no booking is required. For details, see portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call the Box Office on 023 9387 0200.

Elsewhere, Portsmouth Museums’ collections store – an area normally closed to the public – is opening from Thursday to Sunday.

Other sites also backing the Heritage Open Day include Eastney Beam Engine House, Groundlings Theatre, Wymering Manor, Kings Theatre, New Theatre Royal and Fort Cumberland.

Free vintage bus rides will be available between some of the city council-run museums on Saturday and Sunday between 10am and 4pm.

For more information go to heritageopendays.org.uk or see visitportsmouth.co.uk

Running since 1994, Heritage Open Days is England’s largest festival of history and culture with 2,500 organisations taking part nationwide.