A charming place with an explosive past

STRUCTURE Marc Farrance from Explosion! at a Victorian magazine building dated from the 1800s. Picture: Malcolm Wells (122336-9892)
STRUCTURE Marc Farrance from Explosion! at a Victorian magazine building dated from the 1800s. Picture: Malcolm Wells (122336-9892)

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A charming listed building sits in a secluded spot of lush grass and wild flowers.

But despite its peaceful surroundings, the attractive Victorian structure gives hints of a dramatic and dangerous past.

PAST TIMES The Royal Navy's armaments depot in  the 1950s

PAST TIMES The Royal Navy's armaments depot in the 1950s

First there are the blast walls surrounding the one-room brick building.

And then there’s the light placed on a facing wall to shine into the room from outside – a sign that it would be hazardous within the walls.

With birds singing from abundant foliage and hardly a soul around, it’s difficult to imagine that this room was once packed with potentially disastrous explosives.

And it’s even stranger to think of people working here in a highly restricted and regimented environment but still risking their lives by dealing with hazardous substances and weaponry.

The structure is one of the hidden gems uncovered by volunteers who have been working tirelessly to clear the centuries-old ramparts at Priddy’s Hard.

The earth defences are on land next to Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower and, along with the museum buildings, formed the Royal Navy’s armaments depot for over 200 years.

The volunteers have cleared a jungle of bracken, gorse and bramble to reveal buildings that no one has seen since the site’s closure as an armaments base in 1989.

And it has made way for visitors to be able to tour the ramparts, which were part of the earth defences around Gosport, developed to protect the harbour in the 18th century.

Marc Farrance, Explosion’s visitor services officer. says: ‘From an archaeological and nature conservation point of view this is an extremely important site, but we’ve had to address the huge amount of overgrowth.

‘It’s quite amazing how much has been covered in 25 years. It’s also very exciting because we’re able to look at buildings that we’ve only been able to see in pictures and plans.’

Uncovering this historical treasure began a couple of years ago when the site, owned by the Naval Base Property Trust, famously became the home for a herd of goats.

They were supposed to munch their way through the foliage, but there were problems when some escaped and they turned out to be fussy eaters. They’d devour ivy leaves but leave the twigs, letting the creeping plant grow back.

‘We shouldn’t underestimate what the goats did for us publicity-wise though,’ says Marc.

‘We even appeared on Countryfile and it was actually because of that show that a couple of volunteers came forward.’

About six people have spent the past year putting in hundreds of free hours to make the site accessible.

‘You couldn’t see all this, We have had to cut down so much, But by cutting back the gorse we’ve created a better environment because more species can now grow here,’ says Explosion assistant visitor services officer Phil Hazell.

But it’s the spirit of discovery that has kept the workers going. Parts of shells and bits of brass and copper fittings (used because they aren’t prone to sparking) are constantly being found, but there are strict procedures in place should the workers stumble upon anything potentially dangerous.

This area was known as the ‘clean’ area because of the delicate and dangerous work that went on there, including explosives testing, experimentation and storage,

The buildings, developed between the Victorian era and the 1930s, include stores, rooms for changing into regulation clothing, latrines and air raid shelters. The path follows the route of the narrow-gauge railway that ran around the site and there is a footbridge so people could cross the site without going through the procedures for entering the ‘clean’ area.

A sunken building used as a store and designed so any blast would be carried upwards brings home the hazardous nature of the former workplace.

At the Priddy’s Hard site as a whole there were accidents, but fatalities were thankfully uncommon. There were only about 20 from the 1800s to the 20th century and these occurred in the pre-health and safety era.

The ramparts and a moat area, which would have protected the garrison town of Gosport and the harbour in the event of a land invasion in previous centuries, can also be seen.

And for wildlife watchers there are wild flowers, reptiles, deer and plenty of bird life. Clearance work has been temporarily stopped so nesting birds and other creatures aren’t disturbed.

Tours around the site are run by Explosion and must be escorted.

‘It’s not safe to have people wandering around on their own because of the state of some of the buildings. We are looking at a plan for the area but people seem to enjoy how it is at the moment. It’s that sense of discovery I suppose. We wouldn’t want to sanitise it too much,’ says Marc.

The area has plenty of potential and could be used as a film set.

Explosion runs an annual Spirt of the ‘40s event and this year was the first time the ramparts area was used for Second World War battle re-enactments.

‘It’s pretty unique because we have an elevated viewing area and there are buildings, paths and trees. These things usually take place in a field,’ says Marc.

And once within the ramparts, 21st century technology – the bane of period film-makers – is hidden.

Clearance and further discovery are ongoing, but Phil and Marc are delighted with progress and thrilled to see buildings that have been hidden behind a bramble barrier for so many years.

Explosion!

The Museum of Naval Firepower is housed in a group of listed buildings, which centre around the original powder magazine of 1771.

Explosion traces the development of naval armaments from gunpowder to the Exocet missile and explores the 18th century origins of Priddy’s Hard.

The museum also looks at the social history of the site and the thousands of designers, seamen and munitions workers who worked at this major armaments depot for the Royal Navy over the centuries.

The museum has an extensive collection of small arms, cannon and guns, shells and munitions, mines, torpedoes and modern missiles.

But visitors are educated as well as entertained and the human, social and moral consequences of war aren’t forgotten.

Explosion is open between 10am and 5pm daily from April to October and 10am and 4pm at weekends only between November and March.

For information, visit explosion.org.uk or call (023) 9250 5600.

Walks

Tours of the ramparts with Terry Hinkley take place on August 4, September 1 and October 6. The walks are not suitable for under-12s and other children must be accompanied by an adult. Places are £2 per person and must be booked in advance through Explosion.

Hilsea Lines

The line of defences around Portsmouth also form an area that is rich in military and natural history.

Hilsea Lines is a popular attraction for walkers as it is one of the most varied wildlife havens in the city.

The first defences were built there in 1544 to protect the navy from inland attack. More were developed in 1757 and the defences were replaced in 1871 with the renewed threat of a French invasion.

This stronger structure consisted of chalk and earth ramparts, six bastions and a moat.