Historic Dockyard Chatham: There's life in the old docks yet

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"Mind your heads!" said the boiler-suited guide, grabbing a shiny horizontal bar and swinging expertly through a low porthole doorway, followed by our group of six. There was a resounding crack and an expletive as the biggest chap I've seen in a long time landed in a heap. I'm not claustrophobic, but it did occur to me that if he got stuck I really didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a 295ft-long, 26 and 1/2 ft-wide retired O-Class submarine from the Cold War.

We had seen the torpedo tubes and the tiny bunks and the intricate tangle of brass and steel tubes and stopcocks down the sides. It felt like being inside a giant clarinet, but at any moment the klaxon might sound, followed by "Dive! Dive! Dive!" and the whole thing would tip up at an 80-degree angle and disappear under the North Sea. Three months, 90 men, three loos? No thanks. I popped up out of the rear hatch with relief to survey the view beyond.

Over the sinister black bulge of the sonar I could see the Georgian and Victorian spread of The Historic Dockyard Chatham, a spectacular concentration of period buildings occupying 80 acres of a promontory on the River Medway on the north Kent coast. On April 1 it celebrates 25 years as a heritage site, with a 25-gun salute, Champagne and cake for visitors, a small exhibition and some exciting news: in 2010 "National Museums at Chatham" will open in the old timber-seasoning sheds, with space for touring shows and an exhibition of ships' models – the precious blueprints of the time – in collaboration with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and the Imperial War Museum.

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