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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Fort Nelson

Fort Nelson, Victorian forts, Palmerston's follies, Portsmouth, Portsdown forts, Britain
To the north of Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, is Portsdown Hill, a long chalk elevation that dominates the city and harbour 400 feet below.  And on the top of Portsdown Hill, the Victorians placed five large forts – from east to west: Purbrook, Widley, Southwick, Nelson and Wallington.  Redoubts were dug slightly to the east, at Farlington and Crookhorn.  Another fort was built at Fareham, and a further five on nearby Gosport on the west of Portsmouth Harbour.  Four further forts were constructed in the Solent itself, and off the coast of the Isle of Wight.  Additional fortifications were established at other locations in the UK – for example elsewhere along the south coast, around the Bristol Channel and the Clyde.  What on earth was all this about?

The short answer is fear of French invasion.  France had been considered a rival for years, but in the late 1850s was revitalising its military power under Emperor Napoleon III.  At the same time, the Crimean War (1854-56) had exposed weaknesses in the organisation of Britain’s armed forces.  Britain was also slow to modernise its armaments, such as introducing breech-loading rifled small arms and artillery; France was not.  Many in Britain felt insecure and concern about French aggression was widespread; whether justified or not, Palmerston, Britain’s Prime Minister, maintained that the French hated the British and would loose no opportunity “to inflict a deep humiliation”.  In 1859, France launched La Gloire – the world’s first screw-propelled, steam-powered, iron-clad battleship.  The new naval base at Cherbourg was a short distance away for a modern, powerful, steamship; Portsmouth, with its premier Royal Dockyard essential for the maintenance of ships protecting Britain’s growing empire, looked dangerously vulnerable to attack.

Fort Nelson, 68 pounder gun, Palmerston's follies, Portsmouth, Portsdown Forts, Britain
Palmerston set up a commission to “Consider the defences of the United Kingdom”, which reported in February 1860.  Amongst other things, the commission recommended a chain of coastal defences, which included an intensive programme of fort building to protect the Royal Dockyards.  The estimated cost was in the region of £11,850,000 – which I think is equivalent to about £870 million today – including the cost of land purchase, construction and armaments.  By 1888, Parliament was advised that the cost had spiralled to £17 million – about £1.48 billion at today’s prices (?) – and the programme had still not been completed.

The irony is that the French army was annihilated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and whatever threat of invasion there had been from across the channel evaporated.  Indeed, Britain’s future rival in Europe was more likely to be Germany, newly created under Prussian domination; and any German fleet would find the relatively undefended east coast of England a little easier to get at than the well-fortified south.  By 1900, the defences on Portsdown Hill had been declared obsolete.

So, we are left with the remains of this massive network of very expensive brick and masonry fortifications, some of which have decayed or disappeared, and some of which have found other uses.  You may conclude that all of this was a staggering waste of money that could have served better purposes.  Unsurprisingly, the fortifications are collectively known as “Palmerston’s Follies.”  There is, of course, a view that they served as a deterrent – which I mention in an attempt to be fair.  Certainly, Fort Southwick was a working Royal Navy establishment well into the second half of the 20th century, and may still be owned by the Ministry of Defence.

3Fort Nelson, Portsdown Forts, Palmerston's follies, 3.7 AA gun, 88mm gun, Britain
In any event, Fort Nelson was at the cutting edge of How To Defend Yourself Against Military Attack in the 19th C.  It is now open to the public and houses the national collection of artillery.  You will find a labyrinth of passages, tunnels and rooms which, as you explore, make you realise the expertise and ingenuity that lay behind the design and construction, even if it may have been misplaced.  Like its sister-forts, its purpose was to defend Portsmouth; the fear was that an invasion force would come ashore elsewhere along the coast and bring long-range guns to bear down on the naval dockyard from the north – so the major defences of these forts face inland.  And they are impressive – an enemy would be confronted by a low profile fortification dug deeply into the chalk, with a moat, massively thick walls, bristling with guns and mortars, and where the 220 defenders could often stream ‘enfilade’, or flanking, fire onto the attackers.

The first troops were stationed at Fort Nelson in 1871, but the big guns did not arrive until the 1880s and were removed in the early 20th century.  The fort then seems to have been used as a combination of barracks and store until the Second World War, when it became a munitions store for anti-aircraft batteries defending Portsmouth and its environs.

£3.5 million has been spent transforming Fort Nelson into an amazing place to visit.  In the ‘Voice of the Guns’ gallery you can see, amongst other things, an amazing Turkish cannon from 1464 and, at the other extreme, a section of Saddam Hussein’s infamous ‘supergun’.  But despite being dedicated to artillery, this place is not just about lots of big guns.  There is much about the fort’s own story, the men (and women) who lived there – and various displays such as a recreated barracks room from the 1890s.  The views from the fortifications are good, too.  Personally, I just enjoyed wondering about – because it’s fascinating; I was particularly impressed that they built a separate tunnel for troops passing the magazines, so that sparks from their boots did not ignite the munitions.  And there’s a decent café – what more could you ask?

Fort Nelson is lovingly cared for by the Royal Armouries, the same people that bought you the Henry VIII armour experience – their website is HERE.  It was named for the neighbouring monument to Horatio, Lord Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest admirals and victor of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

You’ll find Fort Nelson near Fareham in Hampshire on Portsdown Hill Road - west from the A3 or north off the A27 onto Downend Road.  From the M27, come off at J11.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

National Army Museum

National Army Museum, London, Chelsea, soldiers, Britain at war
This tells the story of the British Army.  But don’t expect to see some sort of Xenophobic celebration of British militarism.  Though there is, inevitably, plenty about battles and bravery, the museum explains the development of the institution in the context of an evolving society, and nation.  So, it is a reflection of Britain’s recent story to some extent, covering changes to the world map as well as shifting attitudes – for example toward women and welfare – right up to the present day.  There’s an angle on scientific advances too, not least in the field of medicine.  One of the paradoxes of war is that whilst it is on the one hand destructive, on the other it is a catalyst for technological improvements – not necessarily limited to ever more ingenious means of killing and maiming people.

The museum is set out more or less chronologically, is easy to follow and includes an impressive array of displays and items – weapons, of course, but also uniforms, personal effects, quirky bits and pieces, artwork, photography and maps.  There are some realistic reconstructions – and a good number of fascinating anecdotes and facts.  Did you know that the expression “the thin red line” dates back to a description in The Times newspaper of the 93rd (Highlanders) Regiment at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854?  What the journalist, William Howard Russell actually referred to was the “thin red streak, topped with a line of steel”, which stood facing the advancing Russian cavalry.

Napoleon's horse, Marengo, Waterloo, National Army Museum, Britain at war
There are two obvious prerequisites for a national army museum: a nation and an army.  So when did these two things come together?  The modern British state did not really exist until the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 – though all constituent parts of Britain started sharing the same monarch from 1603.  Traditionally, armies served dynastic or tribal interests, and were mainly comprised of men who owned allegiance to overlords.  So - the ‘English Army’ was really the ‘army of the King of England’ - the concept of a wider national interest would have been alien to most people.  Moreover, armies were temporary things, formed for particular campaigns and then disbanded; apart from a very small number of soldiers, the men returned to their fields when they could.  So whilst the roots of warfare are buried in the distant past, the roots of a modern standing British Army are more recent.  They lie in the Civil War of 1642-51 and the New Model Army largely created by Oliver Cromwell.  This was the first professional army in the British Isles since Roman times. And it was answerable to Parliament, not the King.

The well-disciplined New Model Army was a decisive factor in defeating the Royalist cause in that Civil War, and then helping sustain what was effectively a dictatorship until the monarchy was restored in 1660.  Some of these troops went on to form the basis for the Coldstream Guards – named for the Scottish Town where the regiment crossed the border to give support to the monarchy, and the oldest regiment in the British Army.  These troops swore service to King Charles II in 1661.  And it was Charles who founded the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, next door to the National Army Museum, as a refuge for retired soldiers of the Crown.

Earl of Uxbridge, Waterloo, National Army Museum, Uxbridge amputation, British soldiers
In the late 17th and into the 18th century, Britain was in the process of acquiring, almost by accident, an empire that at its height was responsible for 25% of the world’s population.  Whilst it relied on the Royal Navy to keep the trade routes open, it was the Army that was expected to police it on the ground – and sometimes help expand it.

Partly because of its role as imperial enforcer, the British Army has served all over the world.  Indeed, it would be easier to list the countries where British troops have not served, either in a combat role or as peacekeepers.  When I visited the museum, there was an exhibition of 20 of “Britain’s Greatest Battles”.  Whilst the criteria for inclusion or rejection are unknown to me and may be debateable, the list does partially illustrate the breadth of Britain’s theatres of operation over the past four centuries:

Date Location
14 June 1645
13 August 1704
16 April 1746
23 June 1757
13 September 1759
Lexington and Concord
19 April 1775
22 July 1812
18 June 1815
28 June 1846
25 October 1854
Rorke’s Drift
22-23 June 1879
South Africa
25 April 1915 – 9 January 1916
July – November 1916
19 – 25 September 1918
Palestine (Israel)
El Alamein
23 October – 4 November 1942
Imphal and Kohima
7 March – 18 July 1944
D Day
6 June 1944
Imjin River
22 – 25 April 1951
Goose Green
28 – 29 May 1982
Falkland Islands
Musa Qala
Summer 2006

The National Army Museum tries to tell the tale of the millions who have served the British Army, from private soldiers to generals.  And it does a pretty good job of it.  It does not hold back from describing the harsher aspects – for example the sometimes cruel discipline.  British soldiers were not always willingly recruited, many joined to avoid poverty or prison – the Duke of Wellington referred to them as “the mere scum of the earth” and is also meant to have said (but may not have done), “I don’t know what effect these men have on the enemy but, by God, they frighten me.”  The British Army wasn’t – and isn’t – always comprised of Britons, of course; for example, even in this post-imperial age, Gurkhas from Nepal fight for the United Kingdom.  Notwithstanding any pressure that may have been exerted on potential recruits in the past, unlike many other nations Britain has traditionally mainly relied on volunteers for its fighting services.  Conscription was introduced for the first time during the First World War in 1916, reintroduced for the Second World War in 1939 and this morphed into ‘National Service’ in 1947.  But National Service ended in 1960 and the last National Servicemen left the Army in 1963.  Indeed, one of the fascinating galleries, which relies heavily on the words of those who were there, is devoted to the period of National Service.  Today’s Army is a professionally trained force of men and women who have chosen to join.

National Army Museum, gas attack, Britain at war, soldiers, London museums
You’ll be glad to learn that the National Army Museum boasts a café, as well as a gift shop where you can buy anything from toys to place mats – and there is a good range of books.  The museum has something for all ages – and even those completely disinterested in military matters may be moved by some of the stories.  It’s a great place for kids too – though I should imagine it’s horrendous if there’s a couple of school parties trolling around at the same time as you, dear reader.  But (at time of writing) entry is free…

STOP PRESS The museum is closed for redevelopment until 2016.  Visit the National Army Museum's website for more information.  Currently, you’ll find the museum in a hideous building on Royal Hospital Road, next to the western end of the Royal Hospital.  There's a 25-pounder field gun outside, so it's hard to miss and it's just a short walk from Sloane Square tube station on District (green) and Circle (yellow) lines.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Whitesands Bay

Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire, Wales, St Davids

Whitesands Bay is stunning.  A huge expanse of sand, with rocks at either end and overlooked by the craggy hill of Carn Llidi in the distance.  Come to stroll, make sandcastles, fly a kite, watch the gulls, or surf.  Walk north to St David’s Head, or south toward St Justinian lifeboat station.

Local websites suggest that an ancient forest can be revealed at very low tides and that the remains of animals, including the (presumably fossilised) skull of the extinct auroch, a type of cattle, have been found.  The bay also has associations with St Patrick - see St David's Head for a bit about this.

Whitesands is in Pembrokeshire National Park – check out the Visit Pembrokeshire website for more information.  There’s a car park (fee paying), café and loos.  It’s about 2½ miles from St Davids, Britain’s smallest city, off the A487 and at the end of the B4583.