Meet the big shots of days gone by at Fort Nelson

Tunnels under Fort Nelson
Tunnels under Fort Nelson
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From walking through the new visitor centre cultural hub to looking at the six metre-long barrel of an Iraqi supergun and seeing scratched artwork featuring Adolf Hitler on the cell walls, Fort Nelson is a living, breathing part of history.

The six-sided building was constructed in the 1860s as part of the chain of Palmerston forts. It was built to act as a deterrent in the case of an enemy attack on Portsmouth from land.

Guns on display in the redeveloped Fort Nelson

Guns on display in the redeveloped Fort Nelson

However, the fort was never used to repel invaders, and after being manned during the two world wars, it was abandoned by the Ministry of Defence in the 1970s and fell into a state of decay.

Hampshire County Council sought to salvage the fort after purchasing it in 1979 before the Royal Armouries took over in 1988 to make it into a hub for artillery.

Some £3.5m has now been spent on transforming the fort into a 21st century museum, allowing the big guns to go on display in a huge new gallery.

What was once a desolate, eerily-quiet cavern is now a lively tourist attraction, with annual visitor figures hitting the 100,000 mark for the first time.

Jared Thornton, visitor services officer, says: ‘Fort Nelson has always been an iconic part of the landscape and our aim is to really develop it into a family-friendly showcase of live attractions and historic artillery.

‘We are slowly blurring the lines between museum and attraction here and that’s why what we are offering here is so different.’

‘It’s not just a case of offering a nostalgic look at Portsmouth’s naval past, but more of providing activities and attractions that cater for all audiences.

‘Fort Nelson is becoming one of the premier hubs for artillery restoration. We’re bringing in guns that have legendary status, we put on assault courses every summer and are planning big family events for our live gun firings.’

One of those events is Artillery On Parade on the weekend of July 30-31, in which guns from the Napoleonic period right through to the Second World War and the present day will be fired.

The fort is billing the event as a premier family occasion and hope to draw in hundreds of visitors.

There is no doubt that the guns on show are impressive, ranging from the 1464 ‘medieval wall smasher’ The Great Bombard and the Renowned ‘88’ – most famous artillery weapon of the Second World War – to the 18-inch Railway Howitzer which weighs a staggering 180 tonnes.

However, while the guns are impressive, the tunnels and underground galleries are equally as fascinating.

Their aesthetic brings the gloom of an old historic fortress to life, while the jail cells also prove a highlight with their engravings from the wartime periods, including the soldiers’ thoughts on Adolf Hitler.

The fort is also home to multiple computer-generated gun ranges where guests take the place of a soldier and test out their skills with a rifle. Live firings every day at 1pm also draw the crowds.

Jared adds: ‘It’s the kind of place that has so many layers that we find guests just do not have enough time to see it all in one visit and they come back again and again.’

Ian Whitewood, who provides tours of the complex, says: ‘Since we’ve had the new entrance put in place, I think I’ve really seen the wow factor on guests’ faces when they come in.

‘One of the first things they see is these huge guns and it looks like it has really made a good impression on them. There’s a real buzz in here.’

Preserving the historic artillery is no easy task and conservator Matthew Hancock spends his time at the museum maintaining the appearance of the guns, some of which are hundreds of years old.

‘We are all about making sure none of history gets deleted when it comes here,’ he explains. Matthew writes a condition report of every piece of artillery that arrives at the fort and says it can be ‘quite challenging’.

‘At Fort Nelson, we are very much aiming to create a cultural hub for artillery. We want people to come from all over to see the guns that we have on offer.’