Historic Dockyard Chatham: Three Of The Most Incredible Rooms You'll Ever See

By M@ Last edited 20 months ago

Last Updated 13 September 2022

Historic Dockyard Chatham: Three Of The Most Incredible Rooms You'll Ever See
A grey rail wagon bearing the words Royal Dockyard Chatham
Image: Matt Brown

The Historic Dockyard Chatham should be on everyone's radar... or sonar.

The Kent attraction is simply stupendous. Honestly. I've spent 20 years writing about the cultural spaces of London, and this pretty much tops the lot. The last thing one wants in a dockyard is a gush, but it's hard to hold back after visiting this remarkable site.

First, the potted history. Chatham dockyard served the Royal Navy for over 400 years. It was formally established in 1567, though this part of the Medway had long been an anchorage for naval vessels. Over the centuries, more than 500 ships and submarines were built and maintained here, including Nelson's flagship HMS Victory. The docks eventually closed in 1984, but live on as a visitor attraction.

A classic ironclad ship with rigging stands beside a peculiar roofed structure
HMS Gannet and Slip 3. Image: Matt Brown

And what an attraction. Classic ships, a submarine you can board, a narrow-gauge steam railway, more gallery space than most museums, and a ton more besides. It's worth a visit for the architecture alone. A dizzying number of historic buildings survive and, I'm told, the site contains a higher concentration of listed structures than any comparable area in the country. That heritage explains why everyone from Call the Midwife to Marvel use it as a filming location.

A full account would run to book length, so let's just dip into three of the rooms you'll see at the Historic Dockyard Chatham.

The room that's a quarter of a mile long

A wood-framed ropery sretching off into the distance
Image: Louise Hubbard

Have you ever been inside a room so vast that people get around on bicycles? That's the deal at Chatham's Grade I-listed ropery. This is a building that seems without end, whose far wall lies somewhere beyond a vanishing point and, you fancy, betrays the curvature of the Earth in its receding deck.

It needs to be long. The easiest way to make rope is to pull and twist its strands along a linear pathway. To accommodate this protracted nativity, Chatham's ropery stretches to 335 metres. You could lay the Shard down on its side and still have room for two buses parked end-to-end.

A bunch of guys in white smocks and red hats go about the ropemaking business, while a top-hatted boss man looks on. The room is very long and very wooden with a circular contraption at centre left
Historic image of ropemaking at Chatham. The view has hardly changed. Image: The Historic Dockyard Chatham

Ropes have been made here for some 400 years, including those for HMS Victory. Remarkably, this now niche-industry is still a going concern at Chatham. A handful of Master Ropemakers still spin out rope for boats, but also twist up tethers for garden furniture, dog leads, 'Go Ape'-style adventure parks and myriad other uses (Pirates of the Caribbean was a big client).

If you visit the dockyard on a weekday, you can watch a very noisy, very energetic demonstration of this ancient industry. The Master Ropemakers use equipment dating back to Victorian times, with one of the tools surviving from 1811. It's the "If it ain't broke, don't fix" mentality taken to extremes.  

Four or five spools of blue rope stand vertically. Some hooped poles hang down in front.
Completed rope, made from artificial fibres. Image: Louise Hubbard

The ropery buildings also contain a new gallery, where you can learn the history of rope-making (it takes a few twists), and even have a go yourself in the demonstration room.

The room like a vast upturned hull

A Polaris missile with Royal Navy on the side stands inside a building. A "This Way Up" sign is painted on the wall beside
A Polaris missile points the way to the roof. Image: Matt Brown

As features of interest go, you'd think that a Polaris nuclear missile would be hard to beat. But No.3 Covered Slip contains an even greater treasure: itself.

This great barn-like structure (see it from the outside in the image second-from-top) was completed in the first year of Victoria's reign and was the largest timber-span structure in Britain at the time.

A vast wood-frame roof with many windows
Image: Matt Brown

It is still immense today. I challenge you to enter this space and not emit a "Wow", or equivalent. The capacious chamber resembles an upturned hull, but one containing 400 windows. It is the god of mansard roofs.

No.3 Slip, designed by Sir Robert Seppings, was a space for constructing ships. The epic roof had to keep the elements out while also permitting plenty of light — hence the many windows. It is now unique, and Grade I listed. The only comparable structure is at Devonport, and that's a different shape, and smaller.

View of a large warehouse space packed with engines and other machinery, from a mezzanine level
Image: Matt Brown

Today, the slip is known as The Big Space because it stores Big Things. Here you'll find various ship's engines and auxiliary systems, with the Polaris missile as a centrepiece. You've never seen anything like it.

The room that could fire torpedoes from 200 metres underwater

A bulbous-nosed submarine in a dry dock
HMS Ocelot. The bulbous nose contains the sonar equipment. Image: Historic Dockyard Chatham

"How do you titillate an ocelot? You oscillate its tit-a-lot." Surprisingly, my guide for the day had never heard that choice bit of wordplay. I couldn't help but try the pun as we gazed up at the mighty curves of HMS Ocelot, the Oberon-class submarine dry-docked at Chatham.

This mighty behemoth was built here, alongside 56 other subs, and launched in 1962. Over 29 years service, she clocked up 90,000 miles including stints in the Arctic, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

A black and white photo of a sub leaving a covered slipway, with lots of shipwrights looking on from within the slip
HMS Ocelot is launched on 5 May 1962. Image: Historic Dockyard Chatham

And you can go onboard. There aren't many places in the UK that the general public can take a look below decks in a sub, and HMS Ocelot is one of the biggest and best. I was lucky enough to get a tour from its former captain, Chris Reynolds. The seasoned sailor showed me from bow to stern, revealing the confined spaces that were once home to 70 men. Even the Captain's cabin is tiny — I've seen wardrobes that are more roomy.

Inside a submarine. White-painted metal flooring recedes into distance and a ladder descends
Onboard the sub. Image Historic Dockyard Chatham

The torpedo room stands out. Though much of a sub's business is reconnaissance and deterrent, it has to be prepared to show its teeth. Torpedoes have only been used in anger once in recent decades by British subs — during the Falklands conflict — but that doesn't detract from the aura of trepidation in this space. Pull a few levers, and the weapons fired from this cramped room could have taken hundreds of lives.

Six torpedo tubes. The one at top-right has an open hatch. A high-vis rescue suit is on the right.
The torpedo tubes. You might just see the small yellow seat where a submariner would have to squeeze to manually prep the tubes. Image Matt Brown

Captain Reynolds told many colourful stories of life beneath the waves. Although British subs have an excellent safety record, he'd personally experienced a number of life-threatening incidents, including an onboard explosion and near misses with Russian subs. Much goes on in the deep that remains classified, and the phrase "I can't tell you about that," was a frequent one.

A panorama of a black submarine
Don't miss the walkway heading underneath the sub. Image: Matt Brown

You can get a taster of HMS Ocelot thanks to the Google Street View imagery, but nothing beats a physical tour of the space. You even get to swing yourself feet-first through the hatches like a proper submariner. Be sure to also walk beneath the submarine for some truly unique views.

And the rest

A blue-green-hulled warship in a dock, seen from the bow
HMS Cavalier, a WWII ship which also serves as the National Destroyer Memorial. Image: Matt Brown

The Historic Dockyard Chatham is a huge site, with too much to explore in one day. Look out also for warships HMS Gannet (1878) and HMS Cavalier (1944), the latter of which stands in the dock where HMS Victory was built.

I barely had chance to look through the numerous gallery spaces, but you could spend a day inspecting the many models and artefacts from Chatham's history. One highlight is the remains of HMS Namur (1756), a ship that fought in many famous engagements. Its timbers were rediscovered under one of the buildings at Chatham in 1995, though not identified until 2003.

A large model of the 18th century HMS Victory in a gallery
A model of HMS Victory in one of the galleries. Image: Matt Brown

And this is a very family-friendly museum. Kids will love the spectacles of the steam train, slip space, ropery and sub, of course. But the dockyard also boasts some very good hands-on galleries designed with kids in mind. Throw in a softplay area for little ones and an outdoor playground, and you've got a day out everyone will enjoy.

Getting to Chatham

A panoramic view of an entrance building with multiple triangular roofs.
The main entrance, itself a listed building. Image: Matt Brown

Catch the right train from St Pancras and you can be in Chatham in just 42 minutes. Alternatively, trains go from London Bridge, Victoria and Charing Cross and take a little over an hour (or you can take the Elizabeth line to Abbey Wood and change there for a 49 minute journey). Once in Chatham, it's a 20-30 minute walk to the site (but a very interesting one), or catch one of the many local buses that head that way. If walking, bear in mind that the entrance is at the north of the docks, not the closer southern end with its inviting Georgian gatehouse.

Drivers will find ample parking. Use postcode ME4 4TY in the sat-nav.

The Historic Dockyard Chatham is open daily February to November. Standard entrance fee (bought online, in 2022) is £25 per adult and £15 for a child, with tickets allowing return visits for one year.