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Incredible hulks

Sean Lang finds some of the giants ofnaval action extensively restored to glory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

This summer, Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard marked the 500th anniversary of its inauguration by King Richard I with a major educational and artistic festival, "Dockyard 500", including a photographic exhibition, a demonstration of Victorian sail making, and tours of the dockyard not usually open to the public.

It was just one of a number of increasingly impressive educational initiatives under way on the site of the world's first dry dock.

Portsmouth harbour is home to a rich cross-section of Britain's naval heritage. Apart from the historic harbour itself, there is Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory; HMS Warrior, Britain's first iron-hulled armoured warship; the magnificent display of over 1,000 finds from Henry VIII's ill-fated Mary Rose, as well as the excavated section of her hull; an exhibition of the life and work of a dockyard apprentice; and the comprehensive and well laid-out Royal Naval Museum, telling the story of the Royal Navy from King Alfred's day.

It's a site that cries out to be used by schools, but Sue Wright, education officer for the Flagship Portsmouth Trust, warns against just piling into a coach and heading south. There is so much to see that careful planning is essential if you are to get the full benefit from a visit. There is huge potential for cross-curricular work, with history to be explored at every turn, technology in Warrior's lovingly restored engine rooms, and inspiration for anything from poetry to home economics in the cramped gundecks on Victory. At the Mary Rose, head of research Alex Hildred combines diving to the wreck with arranging educational activities, and she points out that the process of raising the ship is as rich in educational potential as the ship herself: one group used the project as a basis for their BTEC course. There are even plans to set up an advanced institute of conservation studies on the site, and it is not hard to see why.

Each attraction on the site produces useful sets of worksheets or teachers' guides. There is a collection of facsimile artefacts in the Mary Rose education base, along with an impressively full set of teachers' notes, covering the ship's construction as well as details of life on board.

All the attractions will tailor their standard service to meet a school's particular needs if given enough notice, and schools are strongly urged to arrange a familiarisation visit in advance with Sue Wright.

Perhaps the simplest approach is to combine a visit to one of the ships with a look at the relevant section of the excellent Royal Naval Museum; but it is possible to be more innovative. The museum is currently mounting an exhibition on the "Forgotten Fleets" of the Pacific War, which has been put together by bringing veterans to meet pupils from the John Hanson primary school.

Other ideas have literally walked in off the street, as when orchestral flautist Libby Bennett dropped by and offered the services of the Phoenix Duo, which she forms with harpist Audrey Douglas. The results have been a series of "Sounds of the Sea" concerts, where the children participate with their own instruments, creating anything from sea shanties to moods of the deep.

Having so many attractions on site allows for a thematic approach. At the Mary Rose, children can go through Tudor gun drill; on Victory, they are able to see how the speed of the gun drill on the British ships gave them their crucial advantage over the French and how it depended on children no older than themselves.

On Warrior they can see how Victorian engineering did away with the need for powder monkeys and produced a system of separate hatches for delivering shells which, in essence, is still in use today.

Then there is the way life at sea has always, to some extent, mirrored the social structure on land, from the pewter dining sets of the officers on Mary Rose, through the special boats that kept officers' furniture safe during Nelson's battles, to the social snobbery on Warrior that kept the engineering officer at arm's length - not quite a gentleman. With a bit of imagination, but above all with careful planning, the ships can be used to illustrate a huge variety of curricular themes, going far beyond the obvious nautical aspects.

There is almost as much variety on shore. The Dockyard Apprentice exhibition illustrates the crafts and technology employed in a busy dockyard, with some good working models, an approach that could be extended to more of the exhibition. Each attraction has its own well-stocked gift shop, so there's no shortage of souvenirs, not to mention an adventure playground of suitably naval design, restaurant and baby care room. For the most spectacular view over the site, arrive by train; for the best results from a school visit, contact the central education office.

* Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Contact Sue Wright, Education Officer, Flagship Portsmouth Trust, Porter's Lodge, Building 17 College Road, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3LJ. Tel: 01705 822034. Group Bookings: 01705 839766.

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