Tuesday 24 June 2014

Isle of Wight Costal Defenses - The Needles Batteries, Bembridge Fort & Others

In Victorian times the Isle of Wight (and the whole area around the Solent) was heavily fortified by the Palmerston Government.  This wasn't because they were that concerned with the island in itself, but it's capture would seriously endanger the Royal Navy's home base at Portsmouth.  The same logic of course applies to defending the entrances to the Solent and the Isle of Wight proved to be the ideal place to situate guns to do this.  On my recent trip to the island we couldn't help but visit several of the sites of these defences.

The first evidence of these defences were the sea forts in the Solent that I featured briefly in a previous post, a couple of days later though we made our first dedicated trip and this was to the New and Old Batteries at the Needles.

Entrance to the Needles old battery
The needles are of course THE iconic isle of wight location and there was no way we could go on holiday to the island and not visit them, however the more interesting part of the trip was the battery.  There is actually two battery's at the needles, the old battery and the new battery.  The old battery is nearly complete and overlooks the needles themselves.

The parade ground of the needles old battery

The site consists of a parade ground with one battery (originally 5 guns, now 2) which faces to the north to guard against any enemy ships attempting to enter the solent, an observation tower and a bunch of magazines and other buildings that the picture above was taken from on top of.  There used to be other buildings in the parade ground, the outlines of some of which can still be seen.  One of the coolest parts is a small tunnel that goes down from the parade ground to an searchlight post that overlooks the needles.  It's an interesting site, but a little pricey considering it's so small and that you have to pay for parking separately as the car park is owned by someone else, I'd still recommend it overall.

The Needles New Battery

Also at the needles site is the Needles New Battery, there is nowhere near as much to this site, a single large low concrete structure to hold the guns (all gone), however it's free to look at and in the basement there is an interesting exhibition on the British space program which used the area around the Needles as a test area for rockets.

Hurst castle & Fort Albert guarding the western approach to Portsmouth (click for a bigger image)

There were several observation huts around the Needles Old Battery and one of these gave this fantastic view of Hurst Castle on the mainland (my favourite castle to visit actually) and fort albert on the isle of wight.  So even if you got past the needles you were a long way from being able to hit Portsmouth.

The Entrance to Bembridge Fort.

The other major site we visited was the Bembridge Land Fort, this is owned by the national trust (like the Needles batteries actually) and isn't open properly to the public as its in rather a poor state and actually has a chemical factory in it, however once a week the NT do open up for guided behind the scenes tours at the price of £3.50.  If you have an interest in military history and are on the Isle of Wight I can't recommend this enough.  The fort is on top of Bembridge down, which is on the other side of the island to the Needles.  Whilst Bembridge mounted eight large guns these weren't for attacking ships but for controlling the area and the east coast of the Isle of wight, in the victorian era it acted as a command centre for all the batteries and forts along the east coast of the isle of wight and would have served as a last refuge if these costal defences were attacked and taken.

Caponier Outside and Inside
The guided tour takes you into the heart of the fort down dark tunnels and into basement magazines, there is still rubbish everywhere and on occasion you need to use a torch to see where you are going.  It's a very different way to see a historical site than the usual sanitized version.
Interior of Bembridge Fort

Bembridge was occupied in both world wars and was particularly busy in WW2 which saw all three services using the fort for various observation and training purposes.  after WW2 the fort was leased out to be used as a factory, some of the buildings you can see in the pic above.

Fort Victoria

If you managed to sail down the Solent past the Needles and then through the narrow gap defended by Hurst castle and fort Albert you would then have to get past the guns of Fort Victoria.  Nowadays only the casemates remain the rest of the building having been demolished.  The casemates now house a variety of 'attractions' including a planetarium, an aquarium and a tea-shop.  You can walk along the top of the casemates and this gives a great view along the Solent.
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