Hampshire days out

Victorian Festival of Christmas at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

At last, it’s December and perfectly acceptable to mention…Christmas! To be fair, I’ve been doing it quite a lot having already shared our pre-Christmas bucket list a whole month ago.

Last weekend we ticked off one of the activities I was most excited about: the Victorian Festival of Christmas at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (27 to 29 November).

My first experience of this annual event was two years ago when Tin Box Tot was just nine-months-old and Mr Tin Box was away with the Royal Navy. TBT was too small to appreciate the snow scenes, street actors and market stalls, but I still had a great time.

Tin Box Tot and Traveller with a fake snowman during their first visit

So I was excited to be returning this year with the whole Tin Box family. We booked our tickets for the Sunday as TBT had a birthday party to go to the day before. As it turns out we picked the best day for the weather. It was blowing a gale but there were only a few spots of rain.

We live on the west side of Portsmouth Harbour so often get the Gosport Ferry over to the city to avoid the traffic. We knew that the Festival would attract lots of visitors so decided the ferry would be the best choice on this visit too. TBT also loved pretending to steer the boat.

Tin Box Tot on the Gosport Ferry

A bit about Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

This is Hampshire’s top historic attraction and the only place you’ll find the complete history of the Royal Navy, as well as an insight into today’s Senior Service and where it is going in the future.
You can tour Nelson’s famous HMS Victory, discover what made HMS Warrior such a formidable ship, and find out about the epic mission to recover and preserve Henry VIII’s Mary Rose.
There’s also the chance to experience what its like to serve in the modern Royal Navy at the interactive Action Stations. New attractions include HMS M.33 – the Royal Navy’s only surviving ship from the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 – and Boathouse 4, which focusses on boat building and the smaller boats of the Royal Navy with hands-on exhibits and a mast climbing experience.

What is the Victorian Festival of Christmas?

The Festival turns the Historic Dockyard into a winter wonderland from years gone by with the 19th Century streets filled with historic characters and around 200 market stalls. The weekend-long event has been held for the past 16 years.

Victorian characters in a choir
Victorian wenches

What’s included?

During the weekend there’s a programme of festive music, theatrical performances and street artists. You can mingle with what feels like hundreds of Dickensian characters roaming the Dockyard including chimney sweeps, wenches and gentry. Even Queen Victoria herself can be seen walking the streets.

A traditional Father Christmas can also be found in the Dockyard. We saw him outside the National Museum of the Royal Navy and queued for about half an hour so Tin Box Tot could speak to him. She waited very patiently and was delighted to tell him that she would like a ‘choo choo train’ this year. This was news to me – I’ve already bought her a wooden dolls house! Oops.

Tin Box Traveller, Tin Box Tot and Father Christmas

There’s a variety of food, gift and boutique market stalls. The entrance to the market street was quite snowy when I visited two years ago but there wasn’t much of the fake white stuff on the floor when we went on Sunday. Apparently much of this had been washed away by the rain during the previous two days, but there was still a bit being pumped into the air by the snow machine.

New this year was a Christmas tree maze made up of 270 Danish fir trees. To be honest this sounded grander than it looked. We decided not to go in after queuing for Father Christmas for a while and already feeling quite wind swept.

Christmas trees in front of HMS Victory

Your Festival entrance fee includes access to all the regular Historic Dockyard attractions. We ducked in out of the wind to see some of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and HMS Warrior.

Mr Tin Box and Tot looking at an interactive museum display
HMS Warrior
Tin Box Tot sat at a table on HMS Warrior

Not included in the price of our tickets were the Victorian fairground rides, electric boats and laser quest. TBT asked for a ride on the Victorian Carousel and was very insistent that she sat on the ‘big chicken’ rather than one of the majestic horses. This ride cost £2 per person and lasted for about five minutes. I felt it was money well spent as I was able to find a quiet spot nearby – a cannon in fact – where I sat and gave Tin Box Baby her milk.

A Victorian carousel

Eating at the Festival

There was a whole street of food stalls selling everything from cakes, to pork rolls and roast chestnuts. Mr TB couldn’t resist stopping for a mid-morning snack, leaving us at a picnic bench and returning with a mini-feast of a hot sausage roll, a slab of carrot cake, a doughnut and pastry. Apparently he couldn’t make up his mind so got it all.

At about midday Tin Box Baby needed her lunch. After putting our heads round the door of the large dining hall at Boathouse 7 we decided to try to find somewhere quieter.

Midships – the cafe upstairs in Boathouse 4  – was a hidden gem and had plenty of room. We found a table straight away and our yummy afternoon tea (£16.95) arrived in super quick time.

There were also great views out over the boathouse and Portsmouth Harbour. The only downside was we had to leave the pushchair downstairs and there were no highchairs in the restaurant.

Afternoon tea cake stand

Later on we found that hot food was being served in the galley on HMS Warrior and the tables were empty. Something to remember for next time, although we wouldn’t have been able to get the pushchair onboard.

Tips for visiting Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

  • If you want to see the award-winning Mary Rose Museum arrive early and make this your first stop. The queues are always long.
  • Come prepared for the weather. While all the attractions are inside you are quite exposed to the elements when walking between them because of the harbour location.
  • Use the Portsmouth park and ride which is just off the M275 on the way into the city. This drops you off at the bus station right outside the Historic Dockyard. Alternatively, park in Gosport and use the ferry if you are coming from the west.
  • If you buy a ticket to visit the Dockyard you can use it as often as you want within 12 months (excluding special events). However, tickets for the Victorian Festival of Christmas are for one day only.
Tickets to the Victorian Festival of Christmas cost £17.50 for adults and £15.50 for children aged five to 15-year-old. We got a discount on our tickets by buying them in advance, online.
Have you been to the Victorian Festival of Christmas or Portsmouth Historic Dockyard? What did you think?
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