Adventures by train – exploring Portsmouth

A train ride over the sea

As you disembark at Portsmouth Harbour train station, you’ll shouldn’t worry that your platform is suspended, on its very own pier, directly over the sea.

With a fascinating history of its own and situated right next to Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard and Gunwharf Quays, there are few more appropriate places to start your next adventure by train.

The Portsmouth Harbour walk

Start and finish train station: Portsmouth Harbour

Author’s adventure tip: Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard has some amazing ticketed attractions but you can also explore the docks and Boathouse 4 with a free Historic Quarter Pass. Just arrive at the Visitor Centre between 10:00 and 16:00.

Viewing Portsmouth Harbour from the water is a fascinating experience. The easiest and cheapest way to do this on your train adventure is to catch the Gosport Ferry right next to Portsmouth Harbour train station. It’s a quick 15-minute one-way trip but you get amazing views of Portsmouth Harbour on your return journey.

Practicalities: Portsmouth Harbour train station does have toilets (including accessible toilets) but it doesn’t have baby changing facilities. There are plenty of opportunities for food (including family-friendly Boathouse 7 on the Historic Dockyard) and even some indoor Commando style adventure for the young ones at Action Stations (check opening times).

Your train adventure

Flickr, Uli Harder

All train journeys are a trip through history but when you travel to Portsmouth, you’ll be passing layer upon layer of social and naval history, and here’s why.

Take the train to our island city

Portsmouth is England’s only island city. When you look at the map, it’s easy to spot Langstone Harbour to the east and Portsmouth Harbour to the west but keep an eye out as your train passes under the A27 and you’ll see where the diminutive Ports Creek (Portsbridge Creek) and the Hillsea defensive moat provide a barrier from invaders in the north.  Luckily for you, your train has a more modern bridge than the first wooden railway bridge into the city, which was built in 1847.

A heavily fortified city

Portsmouth has long been an important defence base and dockyard. As such it has been much fortified and often attacked. Such events have led to a plenitude of stories, and the great thing about Portsmouth is that, with the continuing presence of the Royal Navy, it’s never short of new stories to tell.

And you’re about to discover some of them

Your Portsmouth harbour walk

Boats around every corner

From the minute you leave the train station, you won’t know which way to look on this walking tour of Portsmouth. Ports are always interesting places to be but Portsmouth’s unique combination of historic and modern sea activity delivers added bonuses around every corner.

Fortifications with views

Your walk takes in sections of the Millenium Promenade (look out for the chain link path and motifs in the pavement) as well as Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. On the way you’ll spot sea vessels ancient and modern as well as some very impressive fortifications.

Take a slower pace

With attractions and historical interest around every corner we recommend allowing more time than you usually would for your walk.

NB: It’s definitely NOT safe to swim anywhere along this walk as the area has strong currents.

Your Portsmouth Harbour walking route

Flickr, Steven Vacher

This is a linear 5.7 km walking route but it can be as long or short as you like. As well as allowing plenty of time to explore, we recommend building in regular stop-and-stare moments. You certainly won’t run out of things to look at.

You’ll be on the coast for most of the time and Portsmouth is a breezy place so make sure you take a jacket and perhaps a flask of something hot and tasty.

Planning a walking route using OS Maps

Walk distance: 5.7 km

Total ascent: 8 metres

Your walking route on OS Maps: Adventures by train – Portsmouth Harbour

Route description

As you leave Portsmouth Harbour train station, don’t forget to take a look at the pier it’s built on. This structure no longer has its original wooden legs but it’s existence is no less impressive and vital to the train line.

Head for the Historic Harbour

Flickr, Henry Burrows

There are signposts to the Historic Harbour but on the way along The Hard don’t forget to give your regards to iron-hulled HMS Warrior’s impressive figurehead. The chap you see is the third version, the first was cheekily claimed by another ship following a collision and the second damaged by a super-cold winter.

So much to explore

We’d recommend a separate day if you want to explore in detail the Mary Rose Museum, HMS Victory and the other highlights of the National Museum of the Royal Navy but pop into the Visitor Centre just after the impressive Victory Gate and ask for a Historic Quarter Pass, which will allow you to wander around, take in the atmosphere and get up close to Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

Fascinating and free

While you’re exploring the Historic Harbour, take the time to pop into Boathouse 4. You won’t need to pay, and inside you’ll discover a fantastic exhibition as well as a whole range of educational and fun family activities. You might even be able to watch the team of conservation volunteers as they demonstrate their boat building skills.

Find Gunwharf Quays

Leave the Historic Harbour but don’t head straight back to the station. Continue beyond this and look instead for the pedestrian walkway into Gunwharf Quays that takes you underneath the railway line. Head down past the shops to the waterfront.

Don’t forget to look up

As you emerge from the shopping area, you’re going to turn left but first look right to gaze up at the impressive Spinnaker Tower. It’s up to you whether or not you want to walk the transparent floor, eat a high high tea or abseil back down but whatever you choose, don’t forget to find out what a spinnaker is and why the tower has that name.

Selfie spot

If you spot the chain of the Millenium Promenade here, follow it around the waterfront as you enjoy the views across Portsmouth Harbour towards Gosport. As you turn inland up Vernon Creek, look out for the HMS Vernon Figurehead; with his nifty hairdo and bright red sash, he makes a great selfie partner but if longer hair is your thing, you might like to wait for a shot with his friend the HMS Marlborough Figurehead on the other side of the creek.

Something fishy

Continue around the waterfront towards the Isle of Wight Ferry. If it’s leaving, listen out for the sound of car alarms, the rock of the boat often sets them off. From the ferry terminal head up towards Gunwharf Road then along it until you reach Viviers Fish Market (take a bag so you can treat yourself). The area just past Vivers is known as the Camber and is the site of the original Norman fishing settlement which started the town of Portsmouth. There’s still a small fishing fleet there today.

The spice of life

As you head onto the the Point, you’ll notice a couple of tempting looking hostelries. This area was once known as Spice Island because of its imports but it had a dodgy reputation and was often considered to be outside the boundaries (and laws) of Portsmouth. If you arrived here in Nelson’s time, you ran the risk of being press-ganged into the Navy.

King of the castle

Harbour mouths have always needed protecting and Portsmouth is no exception. It definitely worth exploring between the Round Tower (climb it for fabulous harbour views) and the Square Tower but if you have time to continue along the coast here all the way to Henry VIII’s Southsea Castle, you won’t be disappointed.

Five fantastic beaches on the South West Coast Path you can visit by train.

Author’s adventure

Five romantic ideas for days out by train

Portsmouth from the water

I’m lucky enough to have a friend in Gosport who knows a lot about boats and is also an excellent tour guide. She picked me up from Fareham Station and we travelled over to Portsmouth Harbour on the Gosport Ferry. The ferry terminal is right next to Portsmouth Harbour train station and combined bus and ferry tickets from Fareham Station are available.

So much to see

Although this train adventure happened in February, we were blessed with a breezy sunny day and Portsmouth was sparkling if a touch chilly. As soon as we stepped off the ferry, it was clear we weren’t going to be able to see everything in one day.

A day at the docks

Despite not paying for tickets to view the Mary Rose and the inside of Victory I felt we could have explored the Historic Dockyard all day. And we were lucky enough to see aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales both in port.

Family fun with friends

On top of that, Boatshed 4 was fascinating and we had a lot of fun with the activities. I discovered I wasn’t quite as good at pulling my own body weight up by block and tackle as I thought I might be. I didn’t however do too badly when it came to rowing speed.

Boats ancient and modern

The interest didn’t end when we left the Historic Dockyard. A unique blend of modern and old, Portsmouth gave us something to discover around every corner. I loved the age contrasts. One minute we were gazing up at the Spinnaker Tower, the next we were chatting to an old figurehead.

A sense of journey

For me, a particular highlight came towards the end of our walk when we sat, beer in hand, in the window of the Still and West pub on Spice Island and watched the ferries depart. We had seen plenty but perhaps had only just discovered Portsmouth secret. As well as being a destination in herself, she’s also the beginning of the journey.

A journey you could easily take by train.