Hidden history buried in the hills

Katherine Ryan

REVIEW: Katherine Ryan at the Portsmouth Guildhall

It's dark, damp and claustrophobic. But an area underneath Portsdown Hill played an important role in Portsmouth's history.

It's dark, damp and claustrophobic. But an area underneath Portsdown Hill

played an important role in Portsmouth's history. It was in these long tunnels, dug beneath the hill, that thousands of residents sought refuge from wartime bombs raining down on the city.

Today, these subterranean shelters still exist – yet many people don't know anything about them or the vital part they played in protecting men, women and children during the Second World War.

There were two key air raid shelters built under Portsdown Hill – the Wymering shelter and the London Road shelter.

During the war and afterwards, the Wymering shelter received a lot of publicity, but the London Road one was almost completely ignored.

Yet, during the 1940s, it was a home from home for many people in and around the city.

The entrance to the London Road shelter is near what is now housing in Cliffdale Gardens. Bob Hunt – pictured right – has spent many years researching the tunnels after developing an interest as a child.

The 54-year-old from Newbolt Road, Paulsgrove, grew up in the heart of the city and loved to escape to less populated areas such as Portsdown Hill.

He recalls: 'The chalk downland opened up in all directions and I could look down on the city where I lived and, in stark contrast to the crowded city streets, the wide open spaces of grass rolled on as far as the eye could see.'

But it was what lay hidden underneath the hill that was to really grab his attention.

Bob's mother told him stories of her experiences during the war when she had sheltered in one of the tunnels for protection.

Over time, he began to collate information about the history of the tunnels.

Now he has his own website and questions come in from all over the world.

He says: 'Most people it seems, walked several miles each night to make use of its protection.

'It gave people a lot of security and peace of mind. It definitely protected them. It gave them mass shelter and they felt safe.'

Bob adds: 'People used to try to live in there because they didn't want to go home and come back the next day.'

When the air raid sirens sounded, people from across Portsmouth would flee their homes for the night and make their way up to the shelter to seek protection from the bombs.

Carrying supplies such as clothes, mattresses and bedding, people would cross the fields up to the shelters at the top of the hill.

There was enough room for 2,535 people, but numbers often stretched to double this in times of need.

The combined length of the two shelters stretched to 1.8-miles and cost 73,298 in 1943 to construct.

Often, there were as many as three or four air raids during one night.

Evenings were often disturbed and many people struggled to get a good night's sleep.

Not only was there noise from the air raids and the bombs being dropped, lights were kept on while children cried and screamed through the night.

Inside the London Road shelter lies proof of civilian life during wartime.

On the floor are copies of old newspapers and comics.

Bunk beds have rotted and safety posters line the walls.

The bunks were set out in tiers of three, in the style of those in the London Underground shelters.

Canteen facilities were provided, with hot and cold drinks available and, for the keen smokers, there was a designated smoking area.

The tunnel also provided entertainment for people sheltering from the war.

There were men's and women's toilets in addition to huts and washrooms for general hygiene.

There was also a recreation area to cater for the children if they got bored.

Each shelter had a storage tunnel that provided a safe drinking water supply for the occupants.

The tunnel also had a first aid room where people could be treated for accidents, infections or diseases.

There was an isolated area for patients with infectious diseases with medical staff consisting of a medical officer and two duty nurses.

There was no specific ventilation system – in fact it was known as natural ventilation, meaning that the tunnels were incredibly stuffy, with condensation running down the walls.

However, there were two vertical shafts within the tunnel which provided ventilation and an emergency exit route.

Steel ladders were provided in the shaft with platforms to avoid anyone falling and hurting themselves.

Eventually, the Wymering shelter closed on February 5, 1945, and the London Road shelter soon followed.

The tunnel has now been closed to the public for more than 40 years. Yet underneath the hill lies a piece of the city's history, a part of Portsmouth that is just waiting to be explored.

Bob believes that although it would be fantastic for the public to be able to access the site it would cause more harm than good in the long run.

He says: 'It would be wonderful to open it up to people so they can preserve their heritage and see how our

parents and grandparents sheltered during the Second World War.

'But the shelters are still in wartime condition. They were never used again for anything else.'

He feels that a lot of development would be needed in order to allow access to the site and this would destroy the way that it originally looked during the war.

Bob says: 'For health and safety there would have to be lights in there and disabled access.'

He suggests more photographs should be taken or a film produced so that the public can get a real insight into the shelter as it is today.

Bob adds: 'Around 1996 the Fire & Rescue Service entered the shelter to

make a final inspection prior to the entrance being sealed up.'

Nick Adams, a 23-year-old freelance photographer from Southsea, has been in the shelters via another entrance.

He says that he believes public access would be beneficial, not only to the public but to the city as a whole.

'It's part of Portsmouth's history,' he says.

'It was a public shelter in wartime and helped thousands of people.

'I believe it should be closed to the public so kids can't get in there because it's dangerous,

but I think there should be a big steel gate at the entrance.'

Nick feels there should be restricted and supervised access to the tunnel.

'I just think the council is making a big mistake,' he says. He has spoken to some elderly people who used the shelter as children and thinks the tunnels are an important aspect of our local heritage.

But Portsmouth City Council says it won't open the shelters, as it could be dangerous for the public to go inside. Spokeswoman Stephanie Light says: 'One of

our staff here actually blocked the entrance

up in Cliffdale Gardens

more than 20 years ago

for health and safety reasons.

'We believe the

Ministry of Defence

built the tunnels and coaches used to take people up there when the air raid sirens went off.'

It seems the tunnels will stay a mystery, at least for the time being, and one of Portsmouth's most fascinating secrets

is still waiting to be explored.

For more information on the shelters, please visit www.portsdown-tunnels.org.uk.