FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Portchester

Posted in England, Portchester by folkestonejack on June 4, 2012

An early morning escape from London got us to the south coast for mid-morning with a plan to visit a couple of places that I have never been to – Portchester Castle and Fort Nelson. The two sites are a little over half hour apart on foot but present quite a contrast, one having started life as a Roman fort and the other a Victorian fort that saw use well into the twentieth century.

The walls of the Roman fort hold a medieval castle, the Norman parish church of St Mary’s Portchester and a generous amount of green space. It’s quite a delightful scene today – though probably a far cry from its former life as a prison (during the Napoleonic wars this place was home to 7,000 French prisoners). If you step through the Saxon watergate you find yourself at the water’s edge with a view across to Portsmouth.

The castle is now under the guardianship of English Heritage and certainly makes a good way to spend an hour or so (with some terrific views from the rood of the keep). I usually appreciate the added insight that their audio guides provide but on this occasion the commentary from Laurent Moreau, a French prisoner, was exasperating. It sounded as though he had just stepped out of an audition for Allo Allo rather than out of history!

After a refreshing stop at The Cormorant (highly recommended) we walked to Fort Nelson using the footpath up from the crematorium. Our timing was spot on as we arrived moments before a 21 gun salute to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It was a spectacle that I wouldn’t have missed. Once the sound and fury was finished we walked around the fort, which is far larger than it first appears. We spent a couple of hours wandering around and had barely seen half the complex.

Fort Nelson is home to the Royal Armouries national collection of artillery and tells the story of the development of artillery. It is very effective in its blend of state of the art 21st century displays within the Victorian infrastructure. One minute you find yourself wandering along a Victorian rampart admiring the contemporary artillery and the next minute you can find yourself looking at a segment of the impounded Iraqi supergun.

The 20th century infrastructure in the fort is really fascinating. Inside the Victorian fort a 600mm gauge track captured at the end of the First World War had been installed in the late 1930s to assist with the movement of anti-aircraft ammunition in preparation for the coming war (with the fort now in use as an ammunition depot). Once the ammunition boxes had been brought along the track they were transferred onto a conveyor belt to take them down a long tunnel into an underground magazine. It was fascinating to wander down the tunnel and see all of this. I really wish I had not underestimated the time needed to see the fort as we really didn’t do the place justice.

As an aside, you have to love a place that has inscribed on its doors the poem ‘The German Guns’ (the greatest poem from that genius of English literature, Private S. Baldrick).

Finally, our energy exhausted, we set off down the hillside and caught a train from Porchester to Southampton – our resting place for the night.

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