Sample the southern shire

Date Posted: 13/03/2012

There are plenty of new attractions and anniversaries to attract groups to the historic region of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in 2012, writes Jeannine Williamson.

With its stirring maritime heritage, stately homes, wildlife parks, and a host of museums, groups will never be short of things to do on a visit to Hampshire, which is also home to England’s ancient and captivating capital, Winchester.

Itineraries can take in the New Forest, once the royal hunting ground of William the Conqueror and now a National Park with herds of free roaming ponies, and visits to attractive market towns such as Georgian Lymington. In north Hampshire, the town of Farnborough is probably best known for its biennial International Airshow, and the next one takes place this year from the 9th to the 15th July.

Just across the water lies the Isle of Wight, which is extremely accessible with numerous daily ferry crossings. Once you are there the island measures just 27 miles by 13, so whilst there’s plenty to see if you stay for a couple of days or more, it’s also easy to take in some of the attractions on a day trip, such as the famous natural landmark of the Needles, Queen Victoria’s favourite seaside spot Osborne House, and towns such as seafaring Cowes, the island’s largest town of Ryde, and Sandown with its golden sand beach.

Mary Rose reborn

One of the most eagerly awaited projects in the region this year will be the opening of the £35 million Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It is 30 years since the wreck of the famous Tudor warship broke the surface of the Solent and the impressive boat-shaped museum, scheduled to open in the autumn, is the dockyard’s most significant development in a decade. It will reunite the ship’s hull with an amazing collection of almost 19,000 artefacts that were raised with the Mary Rose

Until the opening of the new building, groups can see a selection of the exhibits in a small museum along with the dockyard’s other major attractions covering 800 years of naval heritage, including Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory; HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled warship powered by steam; and dramatic hands-on exhibitions such as Action Stations. The dockyard has a dedicated group booking line, and benefits for parties of 15 or more include discounted entry for standard admission and special events.

The dockyard has more exciting news with a Heritage Lottery Fund award of over £1.4 million to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, to create new exhibitions on the navy in the 20th and 21st centuries. The grant will cover the restoration of an 18th century storehouse to showcase the seafaring history of the period in detail for the first time, and the scheme is due to be completed by 2014.

The name’s Bond

If your group members are James Bond fans, they will want to make tracks to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu as it is currently hosting the world’s largest exhibition of cars and vehicles that played a starring role in the films. Opened last month, Bond in Motion celebrates 50 years of 007 films with a collection of 50 vehicles, with the opportunity to see them under one roof.

The special display, organised in conjunction with Eon Productions, also marks 60 years since Beaulieu opened as a visitor attraction. Running until December, the dazzling exhibition includes the Phantom III Rolls-Royce from Goldfinger, Lotus Esprit S1 from The Spy Who Loved Me, miniature Bede Acrostar jet plane from Octopussy and Aston Martin DBS from Quantum of Solace. Aside from the motor museum, Beaulieu has much to offer those organising group travel, including the stately home Palace House, 13th century Beaulieu Abbey, and beautiful gardens, plus GTOs have a choice of themed and tailormade tours.

Have a Dickens of a time

This year is the bi-centenary of the birth of one of our best-loved authors, Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth on the 7th February 1812, in what is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum. At the heart of Portsmouth’s celebrations is A Tale of One City, a Heritage Lottery funded project that will see new life breathed into the museum with costumed guides and readers to bring his novels to life. There will also be an exhibition in the City Museum, opening this month, which will include part of the original manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby on loan from the British Library.

Group Travel Organisers can organise a visit to coincide with some of the many special events taking place throughout the year, including a new dramatisation of Barnaby Rudge at Southsea’s Kings Theatre in August. The elegant Edwardian playhouse offers discounts on group bookings of ten or more on many shows. For the latest information on Portsmouth’s Dickens 2012 celebrations, click here.

Good value for groups

The Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth has joined forces with other local attractions to offer two brand new joint ticketing options in 2012. Groups can take a fantastic Up, On and Under itinerary into the clouds at the tower, discover the depths of the ocean at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, and enjoy a boat trip across Portsmouth Harbour. Alternatively, start the day at the tower, with views stretching out for up to 23 miles, before going to the Royal Marines Museum to find out about the inspiring lives and stories of the marines from 1664.

Many fascinating museums and galleries in Hampshire offer free admission. These include the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson, a restored Victorian artillery fort overlooking Portsmouth Harbour, and the Aldershot’s Army Medical Services Museum, where a highlight is the carriage used by Florence Nightingale during her time in the Crimea. Andover Museum, open to pre-booked groups, is housed in a former townhouse that was visited by Jane Austen, and Southampton City Art Gallery has a diverse display of more than 3,500 works, ranging from Renaissance masterpieces to contemporary video art.

Five great group attractions

• Birdworld: Set in 26 acres of landscaped gardens in the Alice Holt Forest, Farnham, one of the UK’s largest bird parks also has an aquarium, and offers discounted entry and meal packages for groups of 12 or more.

• Bucklers Hard: The picturesque 18th century hamlet on the banks of the Beaulieu River played a major role in the country’s shipbuilding industry, and groups can enjoy a cruise and themed tours to discover more about the village untouched by the passage of time.

• Highclere Castle: Newly famous as the setting for Downton Abbey, the castle has a fascinating connection with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose family live at Highclere, and the story is told in the Egyptian exhibition.

• Portsmouth Blue Reef Aquarium: Groups will be amazed by animals ranging from local marine species to the hundreds of tropical fish in the gigantic ocean display, complete with an underwater tunnel.

• Winchester Great Hall: The first and finest of all 13th century halls, and the only remaining part of Winchester Castle, is home to the greatest symbol of medieval mythology - King Arthur’s round table.

Five places of interest on the Isle of Wight

• Carisbrooke Castle: Experience 800 years of colourful history, including the imprisonment of Charles I, at the castle that resisted a siege by the French and saw off the Spanish Armada.

 Isle of Wight Steam Railway: Running through more than five miles of unspoilt countryside from Smallbrook to Wootton, this award-winning railway offers discounted tickets to groups of ten or more.

• Osborne House: Group benefits include exclusive guided tours of Queen Victoria’s beloved seaside home, both during and outside public opening times.

• Owl & Monkey Haven: Providing a safe environment for primates and birds of prey that cannot be released into the wild, this captivating attraction was a gold medal winner in the Beautiful South Awards for Excellence 2011.

• Ventnor Botanic Garden: Nested in the microclimate of the Undercliff, the garden is famous for its vast collection of subtropical and exotic plants.

Useful contacts:

Isle of Wight Tourism: 
Visit Hampshire:

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