LET’S be honest – a day out to Gosport is rarely on anyone’s must-do list. But it should be, as the town has an amazingly rich history and heritage, especially from the last two centuries. It bills itself as “the little town with a big history”.

For the last 50 years the members of the Gosport Society have been aware of the treasures of a place often regarded as being on the “wrong side” of the Harbour. With Portsmouth, so the story goes, it was gold-braided admirals and fine ships, leaving Gosport with dangerous explosives (Priddy’s Hard), abattoirs (Clarence Yard) and venereal disease (Haslar Hospital).

The real story is rather different, as outlined in Gosport 2020, a collection of articles edited by Gosport Society chairman, Dr Louis Murray. As well as the stark “Palmerston” forts from the 1860s, three of which are on sale, there are elegant Regency and Georgian houses in the Alverstoke area, an erstwhile medieval settlement at Bury and examples of Art Deco in Lee-on-the-Solent.

And then there’s Burrow Island (also known as Rat Island), only accessible at low tide, where the remains of prisoners from the hulks in the harbour have long been suspected of being buried. The grim ongoing findings of archaeologists are being recorded by local photographer Harvey Mills.

It is a little-known fact that Heritage Open Day, held in normal times throughout the country, was first piloted in Gosport, with contributions by local author Lesley Burton and others. It claims to have been “the first town in Great Britain to offer a complete HOD”. The town has also been placed in the top ten places in the Heritage Index of the Royal Society of Arts. And Gosport is the home of the world-famed yacht builders Camper and Nicholson.

In a government sponsored initiative, Gosport has been designated a Heritage Action Zone, with projects that include the Gosport Line Fortifications, WWI training trenches at Browndown, the Rowner and Blockhouse forts, Haslar Barracks, the wardroom of HMS Daedalus – the former RN Air Station at Lee-on-the-Solent – and the world-famous submarine escape training tower at HMS Dolphin.

Prime attractions are the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower at Priddy’s Hard and Submarine Museum at HMS Dolphin. In 2011 the Historical Diving Society – the first of its kind in the world – decided to open its Diving Museum in Gosport, in Number 2 Battery, at the west end of Stokes Bay Road.

It is a fitting place for such an exhibit, as John Deane and his brother Charles (who fell out big time) were based at Gosport in the late 1830s when they made pioneering dives in Spithead on the wrecks of the Mary Rose and the Royal George. On display at the Diving Museum is “the first workable diving helmet in the world”, as well as other relics, including a set of medals awarded to Buster Crabbe, the British diver who mysteriously disappeared in 1956 whilst working alongside a Russian naval vessel in Portsmouth Harbour.

The hamlet of Bury, or Berry, on the west side of the town has its origins in the thirteenth century and much later became a favoured site for seaside villas. Recent research by Malcolm Stevens and the discovery in the structure of an “engraved brick” have shown that the mansion Bury House dates from 1720.

A parliamentary report of 1733 by Hampshire MP Sir John Cope, seated at Bramshill, pinpointed the first owner, John Hatch, as “one of the main smugglers operating along the Hampshire coast”. In 1725, he had been found guilty for his crimes and dispatched to the notorious Fleet Prison in London. Following the report he was released, but only on payment of a huge fine of £2,500.

The Borough of Gosport extends to Lee-on-the-Solent – plain “Lee” to residents – which was developed as a seaside resort by Sir John Robinson and sons in the late 19th century. In the 1930s it was a prime site to view the Schneider Trophy races.

One of its attractions, as well as the beach, is the Hovercraft Museum, founded in 1986 and sited on Seaplane Square, where WWI aircraft were based in 1918. They were originally craned into the sea, but easier access came later when a huge chunk of cliff was removed for a slipway, which is still there.

From the late 1950s, the site at Lee was involved in trials of hovercraft built at Cowes by Saunders-Roe, starting with the SRN1. Later models included the iconic Westland SRN4 Mountbatten, with a capacity of 62 cars and 423 passengers, which plied the Dover Straits. The only surviving example, The Princess Anne, is in the museum, which was visited last year by the Princess Royal herself to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the naming of the craft.

One of the endearing features of Gosport is its love of Service humour. Where else would you find a local amenity group that gives its history leaflets titles such as Naval Gazing in Gosport and Curious Encounters in Gosport Parks and Gardens? And the town’s adopted “anthem”, The Gosport Men’s Shed, honours a thriving charity for men who are at a loose end.

Gosport also has a band of celebrated sons – including Richard Collins the miniaturist, Martin Snape the artist and Alastair Stewart the TV presenter.

Gosport 2020 can be purchased online at www.gosportsociety.co.uk. For more information on Hampshire, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk.