By Emma Marshall
Like most people in the UK, this year has been more about day trips at home than holidays abroad.
And as someone without a car, I’ve been looking for destinations that would make interesting day trips from London by train. For the first on the list, I chose Portsmouth in Hampshire.
This was my first time to Portsmouth and I was surprised at just how much there is to do in this historic port city. A forthcoming post will outline the top things.
As one of the main things I wanted to do was go up Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower, I thought I would answer a few questions that you might have if you’re thinking of visiting.
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What is the Spinnaker Tower?
The Spinnaker Tower (which is officially the Emirates Spinnaker Tower) is one of the main landmarks in Portsmouth. Standing at 170 metres high, the Spinnaker can apparently be seen from over 23 miles away.
The tower stands in Gunwharf Keys and its construction was part of the regeneration of the city’s harbour area. It took four years to build and opened in 2005.
According to the tower’s guidebook, the idea was that the landmark should be part of Portsmouth’s regeneration for the new millennium.
Three designs were put to a public vote. The Spinnaker Tower won, gaining the support of 60% of local residents.
The structure’s name reflects its design, resembling as it does, a spinnaker sail. This is apt given Portsmouth’s location and its history as a maritime city.
The guidebook says that the steel forming the bows weigh 1,200 tonnes which is the equivalent of the weight of 12 blue whales.
Click here to purchase Spinnaker tower tickets (and see below for more information on prices).
What can you do in the Spinnaker Tower?
There are viewing platforms in the tower from which you can look out at the surrounding area. So the question is probably more what can you see from the Spinnaker Tower.
Aside from the superb panoramic views, there are a few added extras. The main viewing deck is View Deck 1 which is 100 metres above sea level.
Here there is a glass section of the floor (the Sky Deck) in the centre. If you’re brave enough, you can walk across this and look directly down to the sea below. I wasn’t brave enough but my friend was!
You can usually walk from the first deck up to a higher roof section to experience the spectacular views in the open air (note that this section is closed until further notice, presumably due to Covid restrictions).
There’s a café and restaurant (The Clouds) where you can stop for tea and cake (this was also closed except for pre-booked high tea experiences).
When you leave the Spinnaker Tower, you’ll find a shop on the ground floor selling souvenirs. There is also another café – The Waterfront Café – located on the ground level.
For the really intrepid visitor, you can also abseil down the side of the tower (April to September only). We watched a few people do this and I have to say I was quite in awe of them.
The day we visited was really quite windy and it looked like they had just stepped off a small platform from the side of the tower. Just watching it from that high made me feel a bit wobbly.
But judging from the faces of those who’d abseiled down, they’d absolutely loved the exhilaration of the descent.
What can you see from the Spinnaker Tower?
The main viewing area in the tower is View Deck 1 which sits at 100 metres above sea level. This has huge glass windows that present stunning 350 degree views across Portsmouth and the Solent.
The north view
To the north, you can make out many of the famous attractions that draw people to Portsmouth.
This includes HMS Warrior moored in the harbour opposite the train station’s side entrance, as well HMS Victory which can be found in the dry dock just behind it. Nearby is the naval base with HMS Nelson.
There’s also the Mary Rose Museum, which has housed King Henry VIII’s ship since it was raised from the sea in 1982.
These are all attractions that you should check out when visiting Portsmouth.
Further out there is the 11th century Roman Porchester Castle and Fort Nelson. The likelihood of seeing these might, however, be dependent on the weather and visibility on the day that you visit.
The east view
The east view is more of an inland view, and overlooks Gunwharf Quays, a modern shopping mall with loads of bars and restaurants.
You might have walked through this to reach the tower so it’s quite interesting to see it from this vantage point.
You can also see many of the city’s churches and cathedrals, as well as the university.
In the far distance, you can see Southsea Common with its 16th century castle and the D-Day Museum. This is another must, especially as it nows houses the landing craft tank LCT 7074 in dry dock. You can visit it from 2021.
The south view
To the south is another sea view. It’s also where you can watch the ferries and hovercraft sail across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, 14 miles away.
In the middle of the busy waterway, there’s Spitbank Fort, one of three military forts constructed in the Solent as protection against French invasion.
I’ve always been intrigued about this fort as you can book to stay in it (note it is currently closed). It would be a luxury night away with its hot tub, sauna and fire pit on the roof, but regrettably it is out of my price range.
What’s also beyond my budget is the cost for buying these forts – all three are currently on the market for £9 million…
In your immediate sightline is Spice Island, an area of the city that evoked memories for my friend of visiting during her student days. Curious about how it came to be so named, I’ve since looked it up and it’s a bit unclear.
It may relate to spices that came in on the ships or as Wikipedia suggests, its “seedy reputation” – a place for drinking and meeting prostitutes so somewhere easy to find people to press gang into Nelson’s navy.
The west view
The west view offers another coastal view around Portsmouth. You can see the ferries moving across the bay. They connect Portsmouth to Gosport, a town on the other side of the harbour. The sailing time is only 4 minutes.
The Isle of Wight is also in your far sight line, as is Southampton. Beyond the marina is the Royal Navy submarine museum where you can climb aboard and explore a submarine.
How much does it cost to go up the Spinnaker tower?
You can buy a day ticket that gives you unlimited access to the tower during the day. You get a small discount for booking online which makes tickets £11.95 for an adult and £9.50 for children between the ages of 4 and 15 years. Younger children can visit for free.
Students and people over 60 can purchase a Spinnaker Tower ticket for £11.00. If you visit as a family, you can buy a combined ticket for £39.00 which permits entry for 2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children.
You can also purchase annual passes which gives you unlimited access to the tower all year round, plus discounts on other things, including the shop, café and other local attractions.
For adults, this ticket is £33 and for children between 4 and 15 years it is £25.50. So if you think you might be visiting the city a few times, or live locally, an annual pass might make more financial sense.
Do you have to book the Spinnaker Tower?
Judging by the queue at the base of the tower when we visited, I’d say you definitely should.
We weren’t sure if this was because we visited at a weekend, or because social distancing reduces the number of people that can go up to the sky deck at any one time. But either way, even with a booking, we had to queue for 90 minutes to get in.
So my advice would be to book in advance, visit on a week day and during school holidays if you can, and arrive early in the day or late afternoon. If you book in advance, you also get small discounts on the cost of your ticket.
How do I visit Portsmouth and the Spinnaker Tower by train?
Portsmouth has a number of train stations, but if you’re visiting the Spinnaker Tower (and also the main sights in the harbour and dockyard), then you need to catch the train to Portsmouth Harbour station.
This comes out right by Gunwharf Quays where the tower can be found.
South Western Railway runs trains to Portsmouth from London Waterloo. The journey takes between about 1 hour and 40 minutes and 2 hours.
If you do plan to travel by train, it’s worth checking out the rail operator’s website and their “2for1” offers for entry to certain attractions. Depending when you visit, you might find the Spinnaker Tower is included as part of their special offers.
For more ideas for short breaks, visit my website.