In a cool, dark atrium in Portsmouth Harbour, just behind HMS Victory, sits a ‘good news’ story of our time. It’s the Mary Rose, one of the Tudor warships beloved of King Henry VIII. After distinguishing herself in battle against the French and Scots, tragedy struck and she sank in battle in 1545. Out of a crew of 500, only around 34 survived. The ship lay at the bottom of the Solent for hundreds of years, until a crew of talented scientists, divers and archaeologists, led by Dr Margaret Rule, were finally successful in raising the Mary Rose in 1982. Now, her home is the Mary Rose Museum Portsmouth, south England.
What’s at the Mary Rose Museum?
The three-storey climate-controlled building is so much more than just the resting place of a grand old Tudor vessel. But the Mary Rose ship lies at the heart of the place. Quite literally. She resides in a three-storey atrium, with a walkway at each level, and floor-to-ceiling glass so that visitors can see her from different perspectives as they stroll around.
Our first glimpse of the Mary Rose quite literally took our breaths away. Only half of the ship was salvaged, so we could see right into the skeleton of the vessel. The moody lighting was perfectly cast, so that every joist, beam and panel was brought into sharp relief. My two children, aged eight and six, were mesmerised, and stopped their usual headlong rushing around, to just stand and gaze.
The walkways took us around three corners of the ship. Each new floor gave a different aspect. The upper floors let us see the graceful sweep of the enormous vessel. The bottom floor brought us up close, so it felt as though our noses were amost pressed against the ship’s hull. The highest walkway was partially open. Even after almost 500 years, the woody, earthy scent of the timber ship still hung in the air, and a low creaking, groaning sound increased the feeling of being on board the ship, sailing out to do King Henry VIII’s bidding.
Every ten minutes or so, the lights shining onto the Mary Rose dimmed, and a video show was projected onto the ship’s side. It showed the ship’s men at work (and they were all men, apparently – no women were allowed on board.). Sailors carved wood, bellowed at each other, visited the surgeon, and kept a lookout for enemy vessels. My son, in particular, loved this mini-show, especially because it included a young boy sweeping the deck. At ten, the youngest crew member wouldn’t have been much older than him.
What did they find in the wreckage of the Mary Rose ship?
One thing that surprised me in the Mary Rose Museum was the number of items they managed to recover from the wreckage – intact and, in a lot of cases, extremely delicate. My two were intrigued by the skeleton of the ship’s dog. How did they find all the bones, tiny as they were? The exhibition really brought home to us, how skilled the people excavating the ship must have been. Over 19,000 items were found, and it’s believed there are still more to be discovered.
These treasures gave the children a real sense of what life would have been like on board. We saw the leather jerkin of the Master Gunner, the slippers worn on board, shining Sovereigns, Angels and half-Angels used as currency by the crew, and an enormous purser’s chest where the money was kept.
We read that most of the crew would have lived in cramped, smelly conditions, with only one change of clothes, so if they were splashed by waves, they would have just had to keep their wet clothes on until they dried. Excavators found no toilets, so they thought the men probably had to lean over the side of the ship to do their business.
Preparing food for such a large crew was an important job. The Head Cook was paid as much as the Master Carpenter and Master Gunner: 10 shillings a month. All the meals were cooked up in one enormous cauldron, although the officers had individual, better-quality meals made for them.
Interactive displays at the Mary Rose Museum
The Mary Rose Museum could so easily have just been a display of all these fascinating items, but they’ve taken it several stages further, with a decent amount of interactive displays. Near the Chef’s cauldron, a game let you choose ingredients for meals, cook them up and see whether the crew and officers liked them. A display played different songs, using pipes, a lute, or a combination of the instruments found on board. Players chose different cannons to shoot enemy warships on a screen. And, near the entrance of the museum, a huge panoramic display showed Henry Tudor’s Portsmouth, with all his ships sailing out to sea.
The friendly staff and volunteers at the museum really knew their stuff. Some were in period dress; a real-life Henry VIII wandered round, answering questions and posing for photos. And some staff sat at tables, with real-life artefacts from the ship. My daughter got to handle an arrow, and my son picked up a piece of gnarled old ship’s rope, all briny and heavy.
Visitors who fancied themselves as archers could try out their strength on a longbow. You needed biceps of steel to draw it. The law at the time said children had to start practising from the age of seven.
It wouldn’t be a family-friendly museum without a good old bit dressing-up, and the Mary Rose Museum featured a selection of clothes worn in the Tudor era. But while in some museums this is the highlight of a trip, there were so many other exciting things for children to see and do at the Mary Rose, that the dressing-up was just a sideshow.
Family activities at the Mary Rose Museum
As well as the permanent interactive displays, depending on the season, entrance to the Mary Rose Museum may include extra family activities. We visited at the start of the summer holidays. A ‘Tudor England Brick by Brick’ build had just begun. Visitors could pay £6 to help put together a LEGO version of the Cowdray Engraving, a Tudor townscape of Portsmouth from the days of the Mary Rose.
The children loved doing this. As well as constructing a carefully planned out square of the engraving, they made cannonballs out of LEGO, and emerged from the tent proudly clutching certificates to say they’d been part of the build.
The Cowdray Engraving build runs until 12 September 2018 along with a special ‘kids go free’ summer promotion.
As well as LEGO, visitors over the summer of 2018 can see displays of some of the skills used in the Tudor period. We watched shipwrights at work sawing, hewing and cleaving, just as they would have done when the Mary Rose was built. The dockyard’s picnic area rang with the sound of chopping, and a low buzz of conversation as the craftsmen swapped tips, and occasionally stood up to explain to visitors what they were doing. One of the shipwrights was Chris Dobbs, part of the original team of divers who resurrected the Mary Rose. Another was Dr Damian Goodburn, an international expert in medieval shipbuilding. It felt really special to be watching these experts at work.
Verdict: an all-round fantastic family day out
There’s more than enough in the Mary Rose Museum to keep family visitors happy for a big chunk of a day. Children aged five and above would get the most out of the experience, although younger children would enjoy some aspects, like some of the interactive displays, and the dressing up.
Food and drink at the Mary Rose Museum
We ate in Boathouse no. 7, a pleasant, bright space with a funky nautical vibe, and a wide range of delicious, wholesome food. I ate fresh pasta with arrabiata sauce, drizzled with chilli oil and a sprinkling of chilli flakes, but I could have chosen a sourdough pizza from the pizza oven, or home-made soup.
If the savoury options weren’t tempting enough, there was a staggering array of cakes, and a Willy Wonka-esque pick-and-mix display of sweets.
Beer afficionados could even try a special Mary Rose brew.
How much do Mary Rose Museum tickets cost?
A ‘kids go free’ family ticket, for one adult and up to three children, is £16. For two adults, it’s £32. Concessions are available, and a regular child’s ticket is £8. Under-5s go free, although I would say the museum is most suitable for children over five. These prices are valid until 2 September 2018. Check the Mary Rose Museum website for more details.
How to get to the Mary Rose Museum
The museum is inside Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and the address of the Mary Rose Museum is Main Rd, Portsmouth PO1 3PY.
The nearest train station is Portsmouth Harbour, which is a few minutes’ walk from the dockyard and only around 90 minutes by rail from London Waterloo. During summer 2018 South Western Railway customers can get 20% off their Mary Rose ticket.
National and local bus and coach services stop at The Hard Interchange, two minutes’ walk from the Historic Dockyard.
Visitors who drive via the M27 take junction 12 and follow the ‘Historic Waterfront’ signs. Mary Rose Museum parking is in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard car park, about 400 metres from the main dockyard entrance.
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We were guests of the Mary Rose Museum, and I was compensated for my time. All views are my own.