FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Protector of the Western Solent

Posted in England, Lymington, Milford on Sea by folkestonejack on August 1, 2015

This weekend’s escape has brought us to Lymington, a charming Georgian market town, which looks as though it has a larger population of yachts than it does houses. It’s a lovely place to stay (we opted for the delightful Angel and Blue Pig) with a pretty impressive selection of places to eat and drink. However, pretty as this place might be, it was just a springboard for a visit to an even more remarkable place – Hurst Castle.

Hurst Castle's two lighthouses (1867 and 1911) and the director tower (1941)

Hurst Castle’s West Wing includes two lighthouses (constructed in 1866 and 1911 respectively)

Hurst Castle is located in almost splendid isolation at the end of a one and half mile long curving shingle spit and has been protecting the entrance to the Western Solent since the 1540s, guarding the approach to the strategically important ports of Portsmouth and Southampton. The only other buildings in the vicinity of Hurst Point today are the High Light (1867), the Lighthouse keeper’s cottage and the former Commanding Officer’s House.

The isolated location is part of the appeal – the only way you can reach the castle is by walking along the spit from Milford-on-Sea (a steady walk of around 30 minutes) or by taking the ferry from Keyhaven. The precarious nature of the place is reflected in the failed attempt to connect the castle to the water mains in 1942 which came a cropper when the shingle shifted (to this day supplies of drinking water are ferried to the castle).

Nevertheless, in spite of all the complications of life at such an exposed location it was home to a small community of mariners and fishermen in the mid-nineteenth century, with the population reaching a high of 163 in 1861. Over time the small collection of buildings, which included an inn and a schoolhouse, have disappeared and the last inhabitants had left by the 1980s.

The east wing of Hurst Castle and the High Light (1867)

The east wing of Hurst Castle and the High Light (1867)

Hurst Castle’s most famous resident (albeit an involuntary one) was Charles I, who stayed at the fort for nineteen days in the winter of 1648 on his journey from the confines of Carisbrooke Castle to trial at Westminster Hall in London. The castle and its surroundings did not make a favourable impression on the king’s servant, who described it as a ‘wretched place’ with rooms that daylight rarely penetrated. Although a prisoner, the king was allowed to walk along the spit for his daily exercise which must have been welcome respite from his gloomy chambers in the keep.

The most impressive views of Hurst Castle come from the air, as this makes the unusually elongated footprint of the castle walls most apparent. Be in no doubt, this is a castle shaped around function with two lozenge shaped wings of armoured batteries extending on either side of the Tudor fort. The two wings housed 41 huge guns in their casemates, providing a formidable challenge for any invasion fleet irrespective of their slow loading nature (only one shot could be fired from each gun every 2.5 minutes).

The narrow-gauge railway line to the military jetty

The narrow-gauge railway line to the military jetty

To get the shells into the magazines, located at the far end of each wing, a narrow gauge railway was constructed from the military jetty into the castle. Tracks ran the entire length of the castle but avoided the Tudor Fort at the centre, instead running out of the gateway to each wing to connect with the track outside of the castle walls. Much of the eighteen inch track remains today, as can be seen on the ground floor plan provided by English Heritage. The line appears to have been hand-worked, rather than using locomotives.

As you might expect, the fort was adapted in both the First and Second World Wars. The latter saw the installation of two Director towers and a series of searchlights. One of the director towers remains to this day, providing a complete four hundred year span in the evolution of the fortifications on view.

One of the more unusual features in the castle is the Garrison Theatre created in the casemates during the Second World War, including painted background scenery and a proscenium arch made from pine, chipboard and metal. It is reckoned to tbe the last example from the war to have survived.

The decommissioned  low light of 1911

The decommissioned low light of 1911

The first lighthouse was constructed at Hurst Point in 1786 and three can be seen today, though only one is operational – the twenty-six metre tall ‘High Light‘ constructed in 1867. The two decommissioned lighthouses can be seen inside the castle – a stone built low light from 1860 and its successor, a metal low light built in 1911. Both of the low lighthouses are painted grey to avoid any navigational confusion. Appropriately, the castle houses the museum of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers.

The biggest challenge to the castle today comes from the forces of nature – an unintended consequence of the coastal protection works further along the coast which robbed the spit of its natural source for shingle replenishment. Studies concluded that without human intervention it was possible that the spit would be breached and the castle marooned on an island, whilst the salt marshes beyond would be left exposed to destruction.

The sea-battered remains of the west battery (1850)

Sea-battered remains from the west battery (1850)

The winter storms of 1989 demonstrated the potency of these threats, rolling the spit back 80 metres over the salt marshes. The spit was strengthened in the late 1990s in an effort to stabilise the spit, but the coastal erosion continues to threaten the future of Hurst Castle. Ultimately, the fate of the spit, the marshes and the castle are all intertwined.

Practicalities

To get to Hurst Castle we took the X1 bus from Lymington High Street. If you are attempting this trip on a Saturday, please note that the bus route is altered to avoid the street market in Lymington High Street – buses start from the stop outside the Post Office rather than in Gosport Street.

The hourly bus to the bus shelter in the centre of Milford-on-Sea village takes 12 minutes and it is a 45 minute walk from this point to the castle (one mile on paved roads, followed by one and a half miles on the shingle ridge). An alternative would be to take the ferry across the marshes from Keyhaven, but this is not an option that we explored.

Strolling along the Spit

Strolling along the Spit

The walk along the spit offers some wonderful views of the Sturt Pond (a local nature reserve), the Keyhaven Salt Marshes, the Needles and Fort Albert (one of the Palmerston Forts on the Isle of Wight, now converted into flats). It’s worth a wander even if you do not want to visit the castle, but it does need a good day because of its exposed position – I can’t imagine it being much fun in cold, wet and windy conditions!

Admission to the castle currently costs £4.70 for an adult, which is very reasonable for the amount to see inside (we spent a couple of hours, but could easily have doubled that). The guidebook on sale at the castle does a great job of explaining the buildings and the pivotal moments in the castles history.

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