Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Portchester Castle and Fort Nelson

The keep of Portchester Castle

I met up with my friend Giles for this interesting walk: it turned out that we had both always wanted to have a proper look at Portchester Castle. We started our walk from the car park, where there is a great view of the Norman keep. We were surprised to learn that the great square perimeter wall of the castle actually dates back to Roman times: the Romans built a fort here in the late 3rd century AD which remains the most completely preserved Roman fort north of the Alps. In the 5th century, after the Romans left,  the fort became a Saxon stronghold against Viking raids. The Roman walls are especially dramatic along the harbour side.

In the centre of this wall is the Sea Gate (the Land Gate can be seen in the distance, aligned with it). I was lucky that the tide being out allowed me to take this picture.

We walked around the outside and entered through the Sea Gate to find the simple and charming parish church of St Mary, the only surviving part of an Augustinian priory that William Pont de l’Arche founded within the walls in about 1128.

We headed across the large enclosed area to visit to the Norman castle. William the Conqueror granted Portchester to a powerful associate, William Maudit who probably created the inner bailey in the north-west corner of the fort, protecting its buildings with a ditch and timber palisade. William Pont de l’Arche was probably responsible for redeveloping it in stone in about 1130. The photo, take from the top of the keep, gives an idea of the great scale of the castle.

Fearful of French invasion, Edward II (r.1307–27) garrisoned the castle and between 1320 and 1326 set its buildings in order, remodelled the two main Roman gates. Richard II (r.1377–99) undertook the last important medieval alterations in 1396–9, creating a grand series of royal apartments around the south and west sides of the inner bailey. The shape of these is still very clear. Portchester was originally a defensive castle but Henry IV it became a place to prepare for attacks on the French, most famously the campaign that culminated in his victory at Agincourt.

From the 17th century onwards the castle was mostly used as prison and we heard with astonishment how 1000 French prisoners were held in the keep during the Napoleonic War.

These prisoners probably didn't enjoy the great view from the keep of the old part of the town of Portchester.

At length we set off along a path on the north side of Portsmouth Harbour and at the end turned inland to reach a very pleasant park: one small area of which had been imaginatively sown with wildflowers. They made a lovely sight.

After the park about a mile and half behind houses and then along roads brought us to our other target, Fort Nelson, on the edge of Ports Down.

Fort Nelson was one of five forts built along Ports Down under the recommendations of the 1859 Royal Commission by Lord Palmerston.  Their role was to prevent a land attack by the French on the Portsmouth dockyard only 8 kilometres away. Fort Nelson never saw service of course and was disarmed in 1907 and then used for accommodation. In the second world war it was used as an ammunition store and then abandoned in late 1950s. In 1979, after years of neglect and vandalism, it was sold to Hampshire County Council. The Council, with assistance of volunteers from the Palmerston Forts Society, restored it at a cost of £3-4 million, and it opened to the public in 1994, becoming part of the Royal Armouries in 1995. After a further recent upgrading, it now houses their collection of artillery.

One of the first exhibits stands on the grassy area into front of the fort. It is Mallet's Mortar, designed in 1854, it is the largest bore piece of artillery ever built. Sadly, and rather appropriate to its location really, it was never successfully used. It did however influence the development of artillery.

The museum contains a large selection of artillery and if that's your thing, it would be a must-see. We focused more on trying to understand it as a building. It is basically a hexagon with the entrance side indented so that there are in all six walls. It occupies a surprisingly large space and it was very frustrating that it wasn't possible to walk around the raised perimeter - the dreaded Health & Safety notices prevented it. This picture will give some idea.

One of the most interesting features of Fort Nelson was the tunnel which runs from front to back. This was a bit damp, but very atmospheric.

When we finished our explorations we turned left out of the fort and went to see the Nelson Monument.

In fact, this was the original Nelson's Column. It was built in 1807-8 and funded by the deduction of two days' pay from every man who fought at Trafalgar and from naval prize money. No public subscription then. It had to be rebuilt in 1899.

We crossed the busy road and headed downhill back to Portchester. This was the old part of the town at street level.

Conditions: grey but mild, a threat of rain didn't materialise.

Distance: about 7 miles.

Map: Explorer 119 (Meon Valley: Portsmouth, Gosport and Fareham).

Rating: four stars. Very interesting.

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