Tunnel vision inside Portsdown Hill

King George VI leaving  one of the tunnels under Portsdown Hill in 1942.
King George VI leaving one of the tunnels under Portsdown Hill in 1942.
The footbridge at Woodcroft between Rowlands Castle and Buriton tunnel.

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No doubt you have heard older people in your family talk about living in the tunnels under Portsdown Hill during the air raids of the Second World War.

Anyone born after 1941 would find this hard to believe. Imagine living on Portsea Island today, walking a couple of miles up to Cosham or Wymering and entering a long, dank tunnel to sleep in a bunk alongside strangers?

Nin Lane.

Nin Lane.

That’s exactly what Portsmouth people did during the early days of the war when the bombing of the city and surrounding area was at its height.

Many who lived this subterranean lifestyle are still with us, including Nin Lane (née Lewis), of King’s Road, Southsea.

She was nine when the war started and living with her mother and gran in Mayo Street, Buckland. They shared an Anderson shelter with their neighbours and emerging from that structure one morning after a raid they found the roof torn off their house. They were evacuated to New Road School.

Within days Nin’s gran was given the keys to a house in Mablethorpe Road, Wymering, but it did not have a shelter so each evening they walked to Horndean. It was while they were there that a woman who lived at Purbrook offered them a bedroom to use each night.

Nin's mother Ethel's Civil Defence card.

Nin's mother Ethel's Civil Defence card.

By 1941 the council had the tunnels built into the chalk pits on the southern side of the hill. Meadowsweet Way has since been constructed alongside the chalk pit where Nin, her mother and grandmother used to enter the tunnel system.

She says everyone who used the tunnels was given a ticket for an individual bunk. ‘When the siren sounded we gathered what we could and ran like blazes up to the hill to get into the tunnels. Then we would find our bunk and stay there for the duration of the raid.’

She often arrived at the tunnel just with her gran as her mother Ethel was a warden and had to be on duty during air raids. After the war she became a cook at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham.

Another who remembers the tunnels is Eddy Amey from Fareham who tells me they were approached by a cinder path from the top of Wymering Lane which led to the north face of the chalk pit where the tunnel started.

The ticket and location of Nin's bunk in the tunnels beneath Portsdown Hill.

The ticket and location of Nin's bunk in the tunnels beneath Portsdown Hill.

On entering you went forward about 10 yards and then passed either side of a huge concrete blast wall. The next section of the tunnel incorporated a first aid room on one side and an air raid warden’s office on the other.

The tunnels were lined on one side with three-tier bunks. On the other were benches. Local residents were allocated bunk permits. There was also an enlarged tunnel which was used as a canteen where an impromptu singalong might have taken place to an accordion accompaniment. Alongside this tunnel was a toilet block.

Eddy says people seldom slept there as they had to get home to go to work (the Dockyard and factories started at 7am) and get children to school.

As a child he vividly remembers hurrying through dark streets in the blackout and along the foot of the hill to the tunnel, usually about 11pm, dressed in pyjamas beneath an overcoat.

Clothing coupons from the period.

Clothing coupons from the period.

Sometimes a chalk notice board announced a visit from a mobile cinema which parked in the pit and showed cartoons and government information films while the audience stood around.

Eddy adds: ‘After the war the tunnel remained open and as kids we used it as a play area. For a dare we would climb the iron ladders which ascended in five or six sections through the two ventilation shafts and emerged on top of the hill. You could not get out however because they ended in a brick cube with wire mesh sides.’