In March 2020 the Victorian fort closed and its famous guns fell silent for a year like no other. The lights were turned off, the tunnels shut and the parade ground emptied for what the team at Fort Nelson has described as a ‘very strange time’.
With Boris Johnson’s roadmap slowly unfurling, Fort Nelson’s gates are preparing to be reopened to the public on Monday – and the team could not be more excited.
Nigel Hosier, the operations manager at the fort, has been busy organising his 26 staff to ensure the site is ready for visitors next week. He says: ‘It was very strange when we had to close. We’re in quite a rural location up on the hill so we quickly felt the effects of lockdown and the stay-at-home message. We really saw the wildlife come out which was lovely.
‘It wasn’t necessarily hard to shut the fort down because it was just a case of switching everything off. Switching it back on again was the hard bit because it had never been closed like that before.
‘We normally have around 12 people on site each day but there are 26 staff in total. Some of those I haven’t seen since July or August.’
Set in the grounds of 19 acres – the size of nine football pitches – there is plenty of space to social distance and explore. While the museum galleries cannot open until May 17, families will be able to enjoy atmospheric tunnels and the high ramparts with panoramic views of the Solent and South Downs.
Marcus Harrison, the visitor services supervisor and duty manager, has been gearing up some new outdoor activities for children to enjoy. He says: ‘There is a new Explorer Trail and a Dragon Hunt around the site, plus people can take on the challenge of a low-level maze on the parade ground.
‘With many children experiencing disrupted schooling in the past year, the fort is an educational resource. One of the best things about the job for me is imparting knowledge. If I can teach one person something or they leave the fort with a bit more understanding of its history, I feel like I have done my job.’
Fort Nelson, on Portsdown Hill, was built in the late 19th-century to protect against a potential invasion by the French which never materialised. The fort played a significant role in both world wars; as barracks for troops waiting to be deployed to the front line in the first, and as an anti-aircraft ammunition supply depot during the second.
For artillery enthusiasts, Fort Nelson houses more than 300 weapons and guns dating back to the Middle Ages. Marcus, from Botley, who is an experienced archaeologist, explains artillery on display ranges from a bronze cannon built in 1762 for King George III to sections of the 156-metre-long supergun commissioned by Saddam Hussein.
One of the most popular events at Fort Nelson was its live black-powder firings of historic artillery pieces. However its return is currently on hold as Nigel and the team plan to make the events better than before. Nigel, 61, says: ‘The guns have been silent for more than a year now but we have big plans for their return in 2022. They are the life, sight and smell of the fort. We plan to revamp and remodel how we do it.’
Before the pandemic, Fort Nelson was welcoming more than 100,000 visitors a year and hosting more than 15 weddings a season. But last year there were just two. Nicole Morris, the catering and venue hire manager, says: ‘During the first lockdown we were still getting queries about weddings because I think people were optimistic about the summer.’
Nicole, 34, from Portsmouth, says the wedding industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and it’s been tricky staying on top of the ever-changing guidance. She adds: ‘Weddings last year almost seemed a bit clinical. The registrars definitely made the best of it, but it was weird to have to measure a two-metre distance between everything, sanitiser everywhere and Perspex screens.’
Nicole has been busy preparing for the fort’s cafe to reopen. ‘The fort is such a beautiful place and we had regulars coming up here frequently. I think people are feeling positive about the future.’
The team hopes a fourth national lockdown will never materialise. Although admission to the fort is free, Royal Armouries has lost more than £2m in self-generated income in the past 12 months or £6 out of every £7 of self-generated income.
Operations manager Nigel, from Cosham, says: ‘We’re glad we’re approaching spring and summer, normally our busy period. It’s a key time for venues across the country. I think the government has begun marketing campaigns to persuade people to holiday at home this year or even steer them away from places like Cornwall and to Hampshire and Sussex instead. If venues had to close again in June, it would be disastrous.’
With venues starting to reopen, the team at Fort Nelson wants you to spend a day at the Covid-safe site for a sense of normality. ‘It’s really important people start socialising again and the fort is a great place to meet and have picnics with your friends,’ says Nigel. ‘It’s vitally important, not just for the economy but also for the mental and physical health of the nation. Hopefully the fort reopening offers a bit of normality.’
:: Fort Nelson reopens on April 12. Admission is free however you must book a time slot for entry. Go to royalarmouries.org.
A lot can change in a year
March 2020: Fort Nelson closed on March 18, following a government ‘Stay at Home’ announcement.
April 2020: A move to digital engagement with the Fort Nelson community via its social media channels, education films on a new Home Learning Hub, an online lecture series and online shop.
August 2020: Fort Nelson reopens its outside areas to visitors.
October 2020: Museum galleries and café reopened on October 5. School parties returned for the first time since March.
November 2020: Site is shut for second month-long lockdown.
December 2020: Reopens on December 2, before closing again on December 19 due to Tier 4.
January 2021: Fort remains closed for third UK lockdown.
March 2021: Team prepares to reopen outside areas on April 12.