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Did You Know … ?
- The Mayflower sailed from Southampton (but had to return to Plymouth before heading to America).
- Portsmouth is home to the Victory, the world’s oldest commissioned ship (launched 1765, commissioned 1778).
- The Titanic nearly collided with another ship at Southampton, an accident that would have precluded later catastrophe.
- Hayling Island, at Portsmouth, is the birthplace of windsurfing.
- Southampton has the world’s oldest bowling green still in use (c.1299).
A pair of port cities
Portsmouth and Southampton are middling-sized cities (less than a quarter of a million people each) only 30 miles apart on the southern coast of England. From medieval times, they were rival port cities, a rivalry that mostly manifests itself these days in their competing sports teams.
For the tourist, it makes sense to combine the two in a single itinerary, relishing their different claims to fame as well as the types of attractions and activities that both can offer.
As to those differences, Portsmouth is the city noted for its literary connections. Charles Dickens was born there, but several other authors have historical links to the city. Today Portsmouth is host to a couple of annual festivities with heavy literary connections.
Southampton still retains a historic city center where visitors can see remnants of the medieval town and walk the old defensive walls.
Both have fascinating stories to tell about their ports. The Mayflower and the Titanic docked at Southampton before the transatlantic journeys that made history. Most of the Titanic’s crew lived in Southampton. Today, Southampton is Europe’s largest cruise port. Portsmouth, long home to the Royal Navy, boasts an 800-year history of serving the navy.
Because of their military importance, both cities were badly damaged by enemy bombing during World War II (and, in places, that damage is recast in unimaginative modern reconstruction), and massive numbers of landing craft left from these and neighboring ports for the D-Day invasion of the continent.
Today, both offer visitors the attractions of waterfront vistas and activities (more so in Portsmouth at the moment) and opportunities for harbor cruises, private sailings aboard chartered yachts and excursions by ferry to the Isle of Wight, a resort destination good for relaxing days — or adrenalin-charging water sports.
The area’s recent and not-so-recent past on the front lines of Britain’s defenses are marked in several museums, most notably the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (actually a complex of attractions), but also Southampton’s Solent Sky Museum, celebrating aviation development in the area, and, in Portsmouth, the Royal Marines Museum and D-Day Museum.
Things to do for Venturers
- Compete in the Great South Run, a 10-mile road race scheduled for Portsmouth every October.
- From either city, take a ferry to the Isle of Wight and take a clifftop walk from Freshwater Bay to The Needles, the island’s dramatic eroded chalk cliffs. Or rent the gear and go kite surfing in island waters.
- Be a dockyard apprentice for a day and learn something of shipbuilding at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
- At either city, charter a yacht and go sailing. If the timing is right, you can be on hand to watch yacht racing.
- Break for lunch and a pint in a traditional pub, in either city.
- Try windsurfing at the home of the sport, Hayling Island, accessible by passenger ferry from Portsmouth.
Things to do for Centrics
- Make the Royal Navy a sightseeing theme: See the museums and historic warships at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Also, take the ferry to nearby Gosport to see the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
- Play beach volleyball at Southsea’s seafront at Portsmouth.
- Opt for a session of kayaking or canoeing on the River Itchen in Southampton.
- See the D-Day map in the Map Room at Southwick House, near Portsmouth, where Prime Minister Churchill and General Eisenhower met during planning stages for the 1944 Allied campaign to retake large parts of the European continent. Also, the D-Day Museum is in Portsmouth.
- Go biking or horseback riding in the New Forest to the west of Southampton.
- At Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays, shop by day, dine and enjoy the nightclubs by night.
Things to do for Authentics
- Take a harbor cruise in either Portsmouth or Southampton.
- Devote some sightseeing to Southampton’s medieval sites, and allow time to walk some part of its old walls. Also, look for the places and museums associated with two famous ships, the Mayflower and the Titanic, both of which sailed from Southampton.
- Explore the keep, underground tunnels and ramparts at the 16th century Southsea Castle at Portsmouth.
- Take a themed guided walking tour focused in the literary figures associated with Portsmouth, including Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen. If books are a special interest, attend the Portsmouth BookFest in October.
- Shop and have lunch on Southampton’s pedestrian-only QE2 Mile. Also, shop or just gawk at the well-preserved Victorian High Street on Old Northern Road — where you can buy memorabilia from the Titanic and the Lusitania.
- Ascend Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower for sweeping views of the city and the coast. The tower rises 558 feet above the city.
For more information, consult Visit South East England at www.visitsoutheastengland.com.