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Portsmouth -- towering city on the south coast

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Is Portsmouth the most exciting city in the south? Judge for yourself. But here is a list of things you shouldn’t miss, including famous old ships, Dickens’s House, Nelson’s Trail, en epic embroidery, a big in-your-face castle and a very high view. Picture - HMS Victory, by the author.

Top tower

Portsmouth’s big, bold Millennium project, the Spinnaker Tower - Britain’s tallest tower outside London - opened in 2005, five years late and way over budget. But unlike the troubled Millennium Dome, this a landmark to be proud of, a glorious sweep of steel and glass in the shape of a sail. And the views from the observation deck, 328 feet up, are sensational. We saw great ships, ancient and modern, in the dockyard below, and hovercraft buzzing over the Solent to the Isle of Wight. To the west was mighty Porchester castle, Henry V’s base before he sailed for Agincourt. To the east the wide lawns of Southsea. Stepping onto the glass floor, gave me an instant tingle. It was a long way down.

Born to write

There’s a touching tale of Charles Dickens, at the height of his fame. Like a character from his own books, he wandered Portsmouth’s smoky streets in vain for the house where he was born and lived his early years. (He’d been back twice before, to research locations for Nicholas Nickleby, and give readings.) No such problems today. Helpful signs point to the modest house, in Old Commercial Road, once the main road to the old port. All the house’s original artifacts are lost, but it’s been redecorated it a style Mr and Mrs Dickens would have recognized. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of ace Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes, lived in Portsmouth too. The excellent exhibition, “A Study in Sherlock” is in the City Museum.

Hero’s steps

Even if you never take guided walks, take the Nelson Trail. It’s a short stroll through the streets of old Portsmouth in the footsteps of Nelson. He walked this way in 1805 to the beach at Southsea to leave England for the last time. He was rowed over to the Victory, at anchor in the Solent, and on to his triumph and death at Trafalgar. Many buildings, including venerable old pubs, of the age survive, spared the random World War II bombing. 023 9282 6722,.
In the same spirit of heroic departures, we found embroidery, such a gentle pursuit, depicting epic events. The Overlord Embroidery at the D-Day Museum on Southsea waterfront recounts the greatest naval invasion in history, on the Normandy beaches in 1944.

Best vessels

A few hundred yards from Portsmouth Harbour Station (this city is easy day trip for many, or a stop before the ferry to the Channel Isles or France) is a display of great maritime history. The timbers of Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship (it overturned in Portsmouth harbour in 1545, and was raised in 1982), drip under a permanent preservative drizzle. No wooden ship anywhere compares to the Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. We walked the cramped decks, via the vast state room, to the spot where Nelson died. Nothing brings you closer to that glorious, terrible battle than Victory’s original topsail, pock marked with 90 shot and cannonball holes, displayed in a darkened room.

Solid stay

Until recently a hefty, foursquare Victorian mansion in the middle of Southsea, much too big for a single family, would have become offices, or flats or an old-fashioned B&B with lots of small rooms. New owners Mark and Sian, cabin crew for British Airways, had higher hopes for this former home of the mayor of Southsea. They upgraded it to boutique hotel standards. It opened in 2007 as the Retreat Guest House, one of the town’s most distinctive places to stay, an easy walk from the seafront. It has just four rooms, furnished way above conventional B&B standards, from around £70-£105 a night. The big feature everyone shares is a magnificent polished wood staircase. Sian served us a breakfast fit for BA first class.
02392 353701

Old and new

Too many retail centres are out in the suburbs, bland and forgettable.
Gunwharf Quays - 95 designer outlets, and a 14 screen cinema - draws shoppers into the heart of old Portsmouth (next to the railway station). We ate at the Loch Fyne fish restaurant, where they endorse the message of sustainable seafood in the hard-hitting documentary on overfishing, ''The End of the Line.''
Gunwharf sits easily alongside old Portsmouth Harbour. Next day we tried the waterside restaurant Abarbistro. It has a fresh, light New England décor, good service and unfussy cooking, and a good selection of wines served by the glass. From our table we watched the ever-changing light show on the Spinnaker Tower.

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