‘It was really exciting, not knowing what I was going to find’

IN FOCUS Photographer Philip Woolway inside Fort Brockhurst.  Picture: Sarah Standing (121137-5001)
IN FOCUS Photographer Philip Woolway inside Fort Brockhurst. Picture: Sarah Standing (121137-5001)
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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As Philip Woolway creeps into a dark, dusty room in long-abandoned Fort Gilkicker he suddenly feels something brush against his head.

The photographer thinks he is alone in the eerie darkness of the cold, cobwebbed Victorian fort so saying he is startled is putting it mildly.

Caponier at Fort Brockhurst

Caponier at Fort Brockhurst

But having jumped out of his skin, Philip can eventually breathe again as he realises this isn’t some military spirit or maniac intruder but one of the building’s current residents.

Accompanied by the pigeons who have set up home in the Stokes Bay fort, Philip has been allowed to explore every room, nook and cranny and take a stunning set of images.

And these pictures, along with others taken at Fort Brockhust and other defences, now form a Portsmouth exhibition.

Exploring the forts has been a fascinating but scary experience, says the Gosport photographer.

‘I would honestly say in my opinion that not many people have been round that fort [Gilkicker] in the way I did. It was really exciting, not knowing what I was going to find. I tried to explore every room, corridor and passage. You’re going along in pitch black, damp passageways and occasionally you see a dark room entrance or window. You can hear the noises of creatures scurrying around and then something will brush against your head. It was just the pigeons panicking, you’re obviously coming in and it’s the only way they can get out.’

Apart from the pigeons, the 57-year-old is one of the last people to have explored Fort Gilkicker in its current state. Developer Askett Hawk has now started work to transform the historic building into houses and apartments – a move that has angered residents who say the development will spoil the area.

Philip says: ‘Having been inside I feel I now have a greater understanding of what they’re doing. I think they’ll be extremely sympathetic to the style and architecture and preserve everything they can.’

Philip asked English Heritage for access to Fort Brockhurst and the developer access to Fort Gilkicker because he realised the buildings had many hidden areas not seen by the public.

He says: ‘It amazed me that people pass these structures and don’t know much about them. And from the point of view of Fort Gilkicker I was well aware these pictures could form an important record of the fort, so I took pictures for that reason as well as artistic merit. But the structures and workmanship are incredible. All those magnificent curves made for great picture opportunities.’ The exhibition pictures are in black and white to emphasise shadow and contrast.

Fort Brockhurst is open to the public on certain days of the year but Philip also had access to areas that other visitors never see.

‘Some of these rooms hadn’t seen the light of day for a long time,’ he says. ‘I opened some shutters which wasn’t easy because they were armour plated and rusted, but when I did I could almost hear the fort breathe and go aahh.’

THE FORTS

Forts Brockhurst and Gilkicker are part of the string of defences around Portsmouth and Gosport built in the Victorian era to protect the city from a French invasion.

In 1852, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Louis seized power in France and declared himself emperor. He had a large army and people in this country began to panic that he was planning to invade. But by the time the forts had been completed, the threat had passed.

Because they were never needed, they became known as Palmerston’s Follies after the then prime minister Lord Palmerston who approved their construction in 1860.

Fort Brockhurst belongs to English Heritage and stores a treasure trove of objects from the organisation’s reserve collection.

The fort is largely unaltered and the parade ground, gun ramps and moated keep can be viewed.

It is open between 11am and 3pm on the second Saturday of each month between April and September and for events like Gosport’s Big Day Out and Heritage Open Days.

Fort Gilkicker was completed in 1871 and used to defend the deep water anchorage at Stokes Bay.

In 1986, Hampshire County Council bought the crumbling Gosport fort to protect it until an alternative use could be found.

Work to transform the Grade II listed fort into 22 luxury houses and apartments has recently started. Askett Hawk, the development company, says turning the fort into a residential development is the only way to save it. But local residents and heritage campaigners have fought the plans.

EXHIBITION

Philip Woolway’s exhibition, Remnants of Defence, can be seen at Le Cafe Parisien, Lord Montgomery Way, Portsmouth until April 26.