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The regeneration of Portsmouth’s waterfront has opened up a wealth of possibilities for events
In 2005, Portsmouth discovered its waterfront. Formerly MOD land in a relatively down-at-heel part of the city, the creation of Gunwharf Quays, with its array of bars, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues – with plenty of sunny waterside terraces – has transformed the area.
The development was based on the Victoria and Albert waterfront in Cape Town, and, on a sunny May afternoon, the comparison doesn’t feel as absurd as it might have done five years ago. The city owes much of its rapid progress to a forward-thinking council, which has not been too shy to sanction bold additions to its traditional maritime architecture, most notably the striking Spinnaker Tower. The new arrivals now sit side-by-side with the meticulously restored tall ships and the handsome naval buildings for which Portsmouth has long been renowned.
While it may not be a city for five-star hotels or gleaming conference centres, the varied range of quirky traditional and contemporary venues, combined with a pro-active, efficient convention bureau and easy access from London, make Pompey a playground for the imaginative organiser.
The New Waterfront
A breakfast reception on the observation deck of the Spinnaker Tower (tel: 023 9285 7520), 100m above sea level with views stretching 23 miles on a clear day, is the perfect introduction to the city. The iconic building, an inspiring modern structure that soars skywards from the waterfront, was opened in 2005 and has fast become an emblem of the new Portsmouth. Two of its three observation decks are available to hire for morning and evening events, with space for a 150-person reception on the first (with a dizzying ‘don’t look down’ glass platform), and a sit-down meal on the second. Branding can take a more traditional form – screens in the entrance hall, for example – or there’s always the less conventional option of abseilers delivering brand messages from outside the windows of the observation decks. For those without a head for heights, the sunny south-facing roof terrace, just above ground level below the main body of the tower, can accommodate a marquee seating up to 200.
At the foot of the Spinnaker, bustling Gunwharf Quays (tel: 023 9283 6700) can provide a fresh, contemporary backdrop for events. The complex does have function rooms, but far more interesting are the outdoor spaces, including the central plazas, pontoons and canalside areas, which are used predominantly for product launches and exhibitions. There are branded restaurants and bars by the bucketload, as well as a bowling alley and comedy club Jongleurs (tel 023 9229 8563), which hosts corporate comedy events for 360 cabaret-style, though the venue can hold 1,200. The enormous Tiger Tiger (tel: 023 9288 2244) also offers ample space for entertaining, with six bars across two floors, though the nicest space is the 200-capacity restaurant, which has a balcony overlooking the harbour. A shiny new 130-bedroom Express by Holiday Inn (tel: 023 9289 4240) also offers two pleasant enough conference rooms for 50 delegates each and there’s on-site parking.
For an edgier approach, contemporary art gallery Aspex (tel: 023 9277 8080) has been installed in a former naval storehouse next to Gunwharf Quays. The ample proportions of the historic building lend themselves to the minimalist modern style of the gallery, with a fresh, whitewashed main space for drinks receptions of 150. The café and Intro area seats 50 for food or 80 for theatre-style presentations on a huge projector screen. The excellent in-house catering majors in simple, well-sourced ingredients, and a small boardroom seats 10.
Portsmouth is justifiably proud of its naval heritage, and the handsome dockyard is home to three of the most famous ships in the world: HMS Warrior 1860, HMS Victory and the Mary Rose. HMS Warrior (tel: 023 9277 8600), a Victorian Battleship, is the only one available for hire. Its sleek iron-hulled exterior hides a meticulously restored interior and evening drinks receptions can be arranged on the enclosed deck, before guests retreat to the spaces below for dinner.
The intimate Wardroom seats 20 for dinner and there’s a larger Half Deck for up to 60, but the most exciting space is undoubtedly the Gun Deck. With 24 bench tables of 10, between the huge black canons that line either side of the room, atmospheric evening events can be bathed in torchlight or set to sea shanties.
As well as its shining maritime showpieces, the Dockyard’s converted boathouses offer sizeable and versatile event spaces in Portsmouth’s naval heart. Action Stations (tel: 023 9289 3338) in Boathouse No. 6, is home to navy-based interactive exhibitions and experiences, but also has a 275-seat auditorium and cinema, while a single pared-down function space in Boathouse No. 7 (tel: 02392 728065) has a dinner capacity of 350 people. On the other hand, if you’re planning to go all the way with the historic theming, the Mary Rose Museum (tel: 023 9281 2931) celebrates the ship’s 16th-century heyday with costumed guided tours and Tudor Banquets complete with buxom wenches and old English fare for up to 56.
For further information about holding events in Portsmouth, including other venue and accommodation suggestions, contact Portsmouth Conference Office on tel: 023 9283 4727
Three of the Best - Forts
Set on a rock in the middle of The Solent, this 19th-century fort has been converted into a 180-capacity conference and party venue. A short ferry ride from the mainland, the alfresco spaces are well worth the journey, and the venue is renowned for its spit-roast dinners. There is accommodation for four in the fort’s lighthouse.
The Solent, tel: 01329 242077
Built in the 15th century, this two-floor tower, with
a roof overlooking the harbour approach and a number of original Tudor features, comes fairly rough and ready. It’s therefore best suited to exhibitions and shows, but if you’ve got a production budget, it’s a memorable setting for dinners of 60 upstairs and 80 down.
Broad Street, tel: 023 9282 7261
Portsmouth’s principal defence against invasion for nearly 400 years, this fortress on the point in Southsea is available for exclusive hire for dinners of 100, which are held in a purpose-built marquee in the castle grounds. It’s the place to come for atmosphere rather than technology, but conferencing facilities are also offered.
Clarence Esplanade, tel: 023 9282 7261
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2008.