Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth’s new flagship marina, shopping and entertainment centre, occupies a site with naval connections that go back some nine hundred years. In the 12th century King Richard I established a facility here that came to be known as Richard’s Docks. Then in the 17th century it became the main ordnance supply depot for the Royal Navy, where weapons tested by the army were loaded on to fighting ships, hence Gunwharf Quays. Nelson’s HMS Victory would have been munitioned here.
At the end of the First World War the site was taken over by the Naval Torpedo School and renamed HMS Vernon, a centre for the development of torpedoes and for training in their use, gaining a reputation for its clearance diving team and deep diving trials unit.
HMS Vernon closed in 1986 and in 1997 an ambitious plan was approved by the City Council to redevelop the land with shops, bars, cafés, restaurants, a cinema complex, bowling alley and a marina. It opened to the public in 2001.
Rising majestically above Gunwharf Quays and providing an important visitor attraction is the elegant Spinnaker Tower, which has quickly been accepted as one of England’s new iconic structures in much the same way as the Angel of the North and the London Eye. At a height of 170 metres, it is the tallest publicly accessible building in the UK, and forms a significant feature on the horizon for miles around.
Originally intended to mark the new millennium though not opened until 2005, three rival designs were unveiled for Portsmouth’s citizens to make the final choice. This, the winner, achieved a resounding 60% of the 13 000 votes cast. It evokes a ship’s mast with a spinnaker sail billowing before it in the wind, echoing Portsmouth’s long maritime history.
In just a few seconds a lift whisks visitors 100m up to the first viewing platform, offering an almost full-circle panorama. To the south across the Solent lies the Isle of Wight. England’s south coast stretches away east towards Chichester and west towards Southampton. Most fascinating of all, the view north gives a bird’s-eye look downwards on to Portsmouth and its historic dockyard, with HMS Warrior and HMS Victory prominent in the foreground. For the brave, there is also Europe’s largest glass floor. From here stairs lead up to a café on the second viewing platform and then on to the Crow’s Nest, the highest of the three at 110m and which is open to the sky above.