A sea of interesting exhibits

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The view from the bridge of HMS Cavalier. GARETH EVANS

In the wake of the venue’s recent awarding of CPT Coach Friendly status, Gareth Evans visits Chatham Historic Dockyard and finds an attractive destination for coach groups

I first recall learning of the existence of Chatham Historic Dockyard (CHD) when I read a news story about the on-site railway in ‘Heritage Railway’ magazine, a publication I wrote for in a past life.

CHD has been featured extensively as an authentic setting for ‘Call the Midwife’ – the popular TV series which my better half and mother are fans of.

I admit that on many a Sunday evening I would be ‘subjected’ to it while doing work emails on my iPad, but from the corner of my eye, I would look out for the Ensignbus-supplied vintage buses. I unashamedly admit that I too soon gained an appreciation of the series, so it’s a now ‘must watch’ programme for the pair of us.

Fast-forward to early August and I was pleased to hear CHD had been awarded CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport) Coach Friendly status. Therefore, in late August, accompanied by my parents and my better half, as part of CBW’s ‘Catering for Coaches’ series, I thought it would be interesting to find out what the attraction can offer groups and why it’s gained the prestigious status.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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Coach Friendly status

When CHD was awarded Coach Friendly status, it became the only Kent attraction to hold this title.

CPT only awards this status to attractions and locations across the country that understand the needs of coach companies and their passengers and offer the best facilities, access and information for coach drivers.

CHD’s impressive visitor facilities include not only a restaurant that can cater exclusively for group lunches, free coach parking, with dedicated drop-off and collection points close to the visitor entrance.

Group rates for 2018 remain unchanged – £15.50 for adults, £14 for concessions and £11.50 for children. Group rates are also offered at the venue’s two most popular events – the Festival of Steam & Transport and Salute to the 40s.

Asked about driver incentives, Susanna Hodder, PR & Marketing Assistant at CHD, replied: “Drivers are offered free entry and a complimentary meal voucher to the value of £10.”

Three coach drop-off and pick-up bays are located on the road by the entrance. Drivers should be aware however, that there is a distinction between the bus stop bays for local services, the open-top tour and touring coaches. Seven coach parking spaces are on-site – and more can be accommodated if required.

Highlighting some of the arrangements which are available for coach groups, Susanna said: “Visits can be tailored to each party’s requirements by working with our dedicated group sales department, who are experts in planning your day. Itineraries can include guided visits of the site, either walking or on-board your own coach, with fantastic knowledgeable tour guides, allowing your group to discover maritime history through buildings, architecture, ships and people.

“Our popular Call the Midwife experiences are also available for groups. A costumed ‘midwife’ will take your group around areas which have been used as locations for many of the scenes in the popular TV series. We offer the opportunity to combine this with an exclusive chance to have afternoon tea in Commissioner’s House, which was also used as a 1950s-style restaurant in an episode from series two. The minimum group size is 15.”

The Call the Midwife tour is sure to be of interest to coach groups. Led by a CHD ‘midwife,’ this guided tour visits areas of the dockyard that have been used as locations for the popular television drama series. Throughout all five series, CHD has been transformed into 1950s Poplar Dock many times and has had countless scenes involving the show’s stars, including Miranda Hart and Jenny Agutter, filmed across its 80-acre site.

Susanna added: “The Call the Midwife tour starts alongside HMS Cavalier. For example, the alleyway is transformed to show shop fronts and so on.”

The Lisbon Buildings, which is part of the Ropery complex, is also recogniseable as a ‘Call the Midwife’ prop. Wooden steps are replaced by ‘stone’ on set. Other ‘doorways’ are a facade – they’re glued on so it doesn’t damage the brickwork. One door archway is nothing specific in the series, but it has been used as various places, including a police station and a pub.

Other productions which have been filmed at CHD include Sherlock Holmes and Mr Selfridge.


Visitors are normally offered two tours to book on – we chose the ropery. Rope has been made at Chatham Dockyard for almost 400 years – since 1618. Today Chatham is the only one of the original four Royal Navy Ropeyards to remain in operation and together with its related buildings, it forms the finest integrated group of 18th century manufacturing buildings in Britain.

The machinery, which dates from 1811, is housed in what is believed to be the largest brick-built building in the world. The structure, which is a quarter of a mile long, was constructed in order to meet the Admirality standards of the day – 40 fathoms of rope.

Employing a small team of full-time staff, the rope is sold on a commercial basis for uses as diverse as climbing frames, dog leads and household ornaments. Proceeds are reinvested in the museum.

I highly recommend the informative Victorian Ropery Tour. You can watch rope being tensioned before your eyes. In my opinion, it’s just the right mix between narrative and demonstration. While groups can arrange their own dedicated tour, it is worth remembering that the tour and demonstration takes place at 1230hrs on weekdays only – a ‘Rope Walk Talk’ takes place at weekends. Spaces on the weekday tour have to be booked.


In partnership with the RNLI Heritage Trust, the dockyard is home to what is believed to be the UK’s largest collection of historic lifeboats.

Vessels large and small are displayed on a bed of shale gravel, which in my opinion provides a rather more authentic and attractive setting than a bare concrete floor in what is a cavernous shed.

Exhibits range from an 1897 pulling and sailing lifeboat, to the familiar Arun class and Blue Peter inflatable inshore vessels, showing how lifeboats have changed over the last century.

Furthermore, visitors can get up close and personal with the boats – some can even be viewed at two levels – thanks to the provision of elevated walkways. Accessible for all, the walkways are gently-graded.

3 Slip: The Big Space

Housed in the same covered 18th-century slip complex as the lifeboats is a collection of ‘large objects’ containing exhibits from the CHD and Royal Engineers Museum collections. Machinery includes diggers, cranes, bridge sections, a WW1 torpedo boat, army vehicles, ship engines, carts and railway engines.

A 1904-built mezzanine floor, which was originally used to store ships’ boats, allows the impressive roof to be admired at close range. While a traditional wooden staircase is thankfully preserved in operational condition, a lift is provided, which again is an example of how the museum has done its utmost to be accessible for all.


Three striking warships can be found in the dry docks – all of which can be explored.

The oldest, HMS Gannet, was built on the River Medway at Sheerness in 1878. Designed to patrol the world’s oceans, she ‘flew the flag’ protecting British interests around the world. Powered by both sail and steam, with a hull constructed from stout teak planking on a strong iron frame, this significant vessel forms part of the UK’s core national collection of historic ships. A hole where the engine was once located is now glazed over.

1944-built HMS Cavalier served in the Arctic, Western Approaches and British Pacific Fleet before finally paying off at Chatham in 1972. Today she is preserved as The National Destroyer Memorial commemorating the 11,000 lives and 142 Royal Navy Destroyers lost during the Second World War. One of 96 war emergency destroyers, HMS Cavalier currently resides in No.2 Dry Dock on the site of the Old Single Dock, where the Royal Navy’s most famous Chatham-built ship HMS Victory was constructed – a fitting location for a vessel once known as ‘the fastest ship in the fleet.’

There is a steep ramped access with a non-slip surface to the main deck. Other decks, both up and below can be explored by the more agile. Mum and I were pleased we climbed to the top of the bridge – the view was quite surreal.

Goods on the shelves in the vessel’s shop brought back memories and it was interesting to read for example, contemporary notices detailing the fare available from the mess.

Not being fans of confined spaces, we chose not to tour the submarine (which must be pre-booked), HM Submarine Ocelot. Launched in 1962, it was the last Royal Navy warship built at Chatham. Equipped with a stealthy diesel electric engine, Ocelot made for the perfect surveillance vessel and was selected to undertake missions in the deep waters of the world’s oceans – some of which remain top secret. An online Google tour of both Ocelot and Gannet is available.


A standard gauge railway runs through the heart of the museum’s ‘main street.’ It is however, purely a demonstration line – passenger rides are not offered. The railway operates broadly on two weekends a month during the main season.

The surving section of line, just under a mile, is largely laid tramway-style, with the rails emebedded in the ground. It starts from a point just outside the Historic Dockyard, adjacent to No.7 Slip, and then runs through the middle of the historic dockyard to the far end of Anchor Wharf. This section of line is used for the running of freight trains, steam crane demonstrations and other ancillary operations.

The collection of rolling stock includes two locomotives which spent their working lives at the CHD. More information can be found on the railway’s own dedicated webpages at www.dockyardrailway.co.uk.


CHD offers two main catering outlets, meeting a variety of tastes and dietary requirements.

We sampled the Wagon Stop Canteen for lunch, which is located in the railway restoration shed – the serving area being housed in a mock railway goods van body. We enjoyed a scrumptious hot Kentish pie and a piece of tempting cake for desert – the sponge was delicious. We all rated the tea and coffee too. Sensibly priced, it was also good quality.

Other cuisine includes hearty ‘doorstep’ sandwiches and ice creams, which can be consumed either indoors or outside.

We didn’t try the main restaurant but did observe that it looked appetising and was nicely presented, with good portions.

“We have a selection of different catering packages exclusively for groups. To ensure that you choose the menu that is best suited please talk to us about your requirements,” explained Susanna.

“Groups can lunch independently or reserve spaces by pre-ordering lunches in advance.”


I cannot recommend a visit to CHD enough. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s no shortage of things to see. I would recommend staying there for as long as possible – we arrived at 1000hrs and left at 1800hrs. In my opinion, it is a destination in itself – it’s not the sort of place to combine in an itinerary with another attraction.

For me, it was a pleasure to see and be able to get close to so much hardware – it’s thankfully not a sea of non-working touch screens and dumbed down explanations. That is to say exhibits were labelled, informative and well-presented. The entrance fee is excellent value-for-money.
CHD has not been spoilt with commercialism either – there’s no constant effort to squeeze extra pounds from visitors, with a coffee shop round seemingly every corner.

I have to say too, that all staff we spoke to were friendly, approachable and interested in and proud of what they were doing – and there appeared to be camaraderie between them.

Loos were clean, tidy and not in short supply. Facilities are present for all ages and a lot of effort appears to have gone into making the site as accesible as possible without impacting on its historial appearance.

It was made clear to me that CHD wants coach groups – hence seemingly going out of its way to cater for coaches. The CPT Coach Friendly status is richly deserved.

In short, a visit to CHD is unforgetable – it’s something of a hidden gem. Even two months on, my mum’s still talking about it… Next time, I’d literally like to take the plunge and explore the submarine.