City’s hidden gems

Darren Bridgman helps his team-mates over the wall on the obstacle course.  ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131787-781)
Darren Bridgman helps his team-mates over the wall on the obstacle course. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (131787-781)
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Heading down corridors that twist and turn into each other, some in complete darkness, Fort Purbrook can seem like a maze.

With stone spiral staircases and slits in the walls for shooting at any enemies, it feels like stepping back in time.

Finally emerging into sunshine, you look up at stone walls that are at least 30 feet high. At the bottom of a moat which is more than 150 years old, there’s a game set up for laser tag.

The Peter Ashley Activity Centres, a registered charity, has owned Fort Purbrook since 1981 and Fort Widley since 1990.

With archery, air rifle shooting, assault courses, rock climbing, horse riding and teambuilding activities, these historic buildings are a popular place to visit for schools and clubs from home and abroad.

Officially opened in 1985 by Prince Charles, the activity centres have between 45-60,000 visitors a year.

Graeme Bryant, 62, lives in Copnor and is chairman of the Portsmouth Youth Activities Committee, which runs the charity.

He says: ‘Before the forts came to us they were just used as a storage place for the council, but they are a major part of Portsmouth.

‘Part of our role is to preserve the buildings and much of our time is spent deciding how to keep them accessible.’

At Fort Purbrook there’s archery available inside and outside, climbing walls in a specially-adapted 700sq ft area and there are also teambuilding exercises, which involve heading underground through a dimly-lit tunnel (see picture on front).

The World War One Remembrance Centre was also recently opened at Fort Widley, with its very own purpose-built trench and various memorabilia. Meanwhile Fort Widley’s Equestrian Centre provides private tuition and group horse-riding lessons for visitors.

The team behind the forts wants to highlight the history of these Victorian monuments to the public.

Graeme says: ‘The forts are very historical, so it’s important that we include that in the activities that are available.

‘They have the perfect atmosphere for things like spooky ghost walks, and we want to keep it that way.

‘Youth organisations such as the Cubs and Scouts and various schools come here often to use the facilities, but they are also open to the public.’

Wedding receptions can also be held at the forts, as well as sports ranging from football, basketball and table tennis to rounders, volleyball and pool. There are various function rooms and visitors can even camp there.

Darren Bridgman is the activities manager and young instructors are brought in on an hourly basis for visitors.

Group school trips from France and Italy, as well as across the UK, have been known to visit the centres. With dormitories available, many stay for a couple of days.

Graeme explains: ‘They come here to learn about England and they get to do all of the activities here, I think they feel like they are staying in a British castle.’

But one of the main problems the charity has found is attracting funding. Graeme says: ‘We want to keep the fort open as much as possible, but we only receive a very small grant from the council.

‘We don’t receive anything from English Heritage and at the moment we just hope we can carry on bringing people in.’

To Graeme, the forts are one of the city’s hidden gems.

He says: ‘They are a versatile space, and we have an open day on July 14 which will hopefully bring people in.

‘We want to make sure they are available for future generations and they’re a great place for young people, especially children to learn about local history and actually play amongst it.

‘I think they’re a wonderful place and a controlled, safe environment for parents and teachers to bring their children.’

David Horne, 68, lives in Paulsgrove and is the general manager of the centres. He believes bringing children in to see the forts are important.

‘School groups from across the country come to visit. It’s perfect for them to stay here and be in that historical setting, but they can also go down and explore the rest of the city too.

‘Normally the kids are too excited to go to sleep – if we weren’t here, they wouldn’t get the chance to visit these forts.’

It’s more important than ever to keep the monuments open to the public.

David says: ‘If we weren’t here then no-one would preserve them and the whole thing would fall into disrepair. As they are historical monuments for Portsmouth, that would be a massive shame.’

He adds: ‘They’re a fascinating place to work in. I don’t know any other place in the country where you can have a horse riding lesson, explore underground and play laser tag, all in one historical setting.’

The charity has many ideas for the future, including rope courses and abseiling, but it all depends on money.

David explains: ‘It costs a lot of money just to keep the buildings up and running. But I do believe they are crying out for facilities.

‘I hope the people of Portsmouth will realise that this is all available on their doorstep, because we probably have a lot more people from outside the area knowing about it.

He adds: ‘I want local people to come here and see that it’s a fantastic place. We have something for everyone and if I had a pound for every time someone came up and said “I didn’t know this was here”, I would be a rich man.’

Go to peterashleyactivitycentres.co.uk for more information.

PALMERSTON’S FOLLIES

Fort Purbrook and Fort Widley are part of a group of forts built along the south coast in the 1860s and known as Palmerston’s Follies. The others on Portsdown Hill are Fareham, Wallington, Nelson and Southwick.

They were built during the Victorian period following concerns about the strength of the French navy, but there was debate in parliament about whether the cost could be justified. The name comes from their association with Lord Palmerston, who was Prime Minister at the time and promoted the idea. The first ones around Portsmouth had their main armament facing inland to protect from a land-based attack, which gave the impression that they faced the wrong way to defend from a French attack.

The forts were also criticised because by the time they were completed, any threat had passed and the technology of the guns had become out-of-date. They were the most costly and extensive system of fixed defences undertaken in Britain in peacetime.

PLEASANT SURPRISE

Lisa Wheatley, the manager of the Equestrian Centre at Fort Widley, bought a horse in October last year to be part of the riding school.

Although she was unbroken, which means she’d never had a rider before, Ebony was welcomed into the fold and soon began training.

But it wasn’t until a couple of months later that staff realised Ebony was pregnant. A little over a week later, Lisa came down to the field to find the horse had given birth in the night to a foal, Ivory.

Lisa, 32, who lives at Fort Widley, says: ‘We were so shocked, especially when she arrived that quickly. There were no problems and they are both healthy. The foal will stay with her mum now until she’s about six months old, and then when she’s about four we’ll start bringing her in to train with the school.’

She adds: ‘It’s like we got two for the price of one.’

FORT FACTS

The Peter Ashley Activity Centres, based at Fort Purbrook and Fort Widley, have a wide range of activities taking place seven days a week.

Fort Purbrook includes a junior and senior obstacle course, indoor and outdoor initiative tests (teambuilding), indoor rifle shooting, indoor archery, two indoor climbing walls, a table tennis room, laser tag and facilities for hire include basketball, five-a-side football, volleyball, rounders and pool.

There are also function rooms, a parade ground, classrooms, meeting rooms and a cafe. Visitors can also use the BBQ facilities, camp at either Fort Purbrook or Fort Widley and stay in the forts, with bed and breakfast included.

Fort Widley includes horse riding at an indoor or outdoor school, camping on the parade ground and the World War One Remembrance Centre. Conducted tours can be arranged at both forts. There will also be a family fun open day on Sunday, July 14 from 11am until 4pm.

Individual prices for events can be found at peterashleyactivitycentres.co.uk or call (023) 9232 1223.