Isobel Durrant visits Portsmouth to examine Britain's maritime past through a periscope
The best way to approach the Royal Navy's Submarine Museum in Gosport is by water. This is easier than it sounds: you can take the ferry from outside the railway station at Portsmouth harbour and walk past the marina or, better still, take an hour-long harbour cruise that disembarks at the museum's jetty.
Apart from the enjoyment most children derive from being on the water, this form of travel puts the visit in perspective, reminding one of the importance of the oceans in Britain's history.
This is the navy's heartland. Not only is Lord Nelson's HMS Victory here, but also HMS Warrior, The Mary Rose and the modern naval base. For children living inland whose understanding of the sea stems from holidays spent on sandy beaches and in shallow water, this display of naval heritage can be a revelation. They may also be surprised by the size of the marina, which gives an indication of how many sailors there are in this part of the world.
The museum is next door to HMS Dolphin, home to the Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1901. Soon some of the area belonging to this ship will be given to the Submarine Museum, doubling its exhibition space.
Among the exhibits is the Royal Navy's first submarine, Holland 1, spookily displayed in a conservation tank to guard against rust. Even on a fine day there is something eerie about her silent, dark environment. Other goose-pimplers are the tiny Italian submarine and the two-man vessels. These were copied by the Allies and used successfully in World War II to sabotage enemy fleets. They look like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon, and it is hard to imagine someone actually fitting in one.
In the museum's galleries children can learn about the history of submarines from imaginative fantasy to today's nuclear models. You'll probably have to drag them away from the periscopes taken from HMS Conqueror, which served in the Falklands War, now prosaically surveying Portsmouth harbour. The museum is also a memorial, and the moving Remembrance Corner lists names and histories of people from this remarkable service.
A new permanent exhibition is being installed showing how the navy works today. There will be information on the air arm, amphibiousness, anti-mine methods, and hydrography. According to George Malcolmson, the museum's information officer, text will be kept to a minimum and moving images will be accompanied by a quadrophonic sound system.
The main attraction at the Submarine Museum is undoubtedly HMS Alliance, built at the end of World War II. Looming above the jetty, its black bulk a bizarre perch for local pigeons, it is an impressive and menacing sight. To prepare for the tour a short video can be watched in a mock-up submarine control room. While you wait for the film to begin, a soundtrack of orders and commentary from everyday life on a submarine is broadcast to create an authentic atmosphere.
The film gives an invaluable potted history of the submarine service, with striking images explaining the mysteries of submerging and surfacing, lists the exhibits, and explains some of the jargon. Ex-submariners give guided tours of Alliance, garlanding their talks with anecdotes and arcane vocabulary.
Alliance, which looks so large from the outside, is tiny and claustrophobic, but somehow was home to a crew of 65. There are surreal pieces of information, such as why cabbages are stored alongside torpedoes. In fact nothing and nobody was far from the torpedoes; with space at a premium life went on just inches away from high explosives. Sound effects simulate what it is like to be under attack. Children will go away with the sounds of depth-charging ringing in their memories and the night-time lighting before their eyes.
Visitors are introduced to the working life of the submariner; his lack of privacy and personal space, his strange sleeping places and underwater view of the world. He may be at sea for weeks or even months, so the boat carries all the necessities of life, but few of its luxuries.
The tour of HMS Alliance lasts around 30 minutes. Groups are small, usually about 15 per guide, which allows time for questions and answers and for everyone to have a chance to touch the instruments and look through the periscope. (With dials and instruments temptingly close, the museum fortunately has a hands-on approach.) Schools are also encouraged to use the accommodation space of HMS Alliance to complete tasks and hold discussions.
The museum has produced The Submarine and Science, an education pack for key stages 2 and 3. This is free to schools and, as well as worksheets for use at the museum, it contains ideas for scientific investigations which can be carried out in school. It is clearly written, and each attainment target is given in the teacher's notes. George Malcolmson is also reorganising the library, which should be open to children and adults early next year.
Part of the Submarine Museum's attraction is the location, and ideally schools would have the time to combine a visit here with one to another naval museum nearby. It lends itself to cross-curricular themes, particularly technology, history and science.
Contact George Malcolmson, The Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Haslar Jetty Road, Gosport, Hampshire PO12 2AS. Tel: 01705 510354. Fax: 01705 511349