From Solent forts to Gosport Lines – how our proud heritage can be preserved for the future

STANDING strong for hundreds of years, military defences and buildings are at risk of falling away to history if action is not taken.

Thursday, 11th July 2019, 3:29 pm
The Round Tower in Old Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (180540-1149)

From the Solent Forts which provided a line of defence for the harbour from the late 1800s until after the First World War, to the Gosport Lines which protected the peninsula from invaders as part of the Palmerston Forts, the Portsmouth area is dotted with former military installations.

But as the years have gone by and the need for defences in the Solent has waned, the region has sought to find alternative uses for these historic sites - safeguarding the nation’s history.

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Dignitaries at the launch of Gosport's Heritage Action Zone. From left, Dr Louis Murray of The Gosport Society; Gosport Councillor Cllr. Stephen Philpott; council chief executive David Williams; Hampshire County Councillor Cllr. Rob Humby; Emily Gee, Historic England regional director; Claudia Kenyatta, director of regions at Historic England and Chris Daniell from Defence Infrastructure Organisation. Picture: Malcolm Wells (190611-2454)

Now Historic England is urging authorities to take action and ensure the chance is not lost.

It comes as the public body announced a heritage action zone in Gosport - unlocking a chance for the borough to get a slice of £44m.

This envisions taking sites across the town and repurposing them for a mix of tourism, business and residential use.

Heritage action zones come with a five-year plan, with Historic England working with agencies.

The Hot Walls in Old Portsmouth, which date back to the 17th century. Picture: Malcolm Wells (190703-3526)

Bosses say many of the town’s historic buildings are ‘derelict’ and in need of a new lease of life – from the Daedalus hangars in Lee-on-the-Solent to the retained buildings in Priddy’s Hard.

More towns urged to follow Historic England’s heritage actions zone plan

Gosport was designated as a heritage action zone due to the volume of sites in the town, but is urging other towns and cities to follow suit.

It is hoped that the sites will be protected, have a future use and people will get access to their area’s history.

The Old Customs House in Gunwharf Quays, which was formerly the administrative building in HMS Vernon

Land at Royal Clarence Yard is in the process of being sold by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation – which is expected to bring in the chance for new business for the marina.

Claudia Kenyatta, director of regions at Historic England, said: 'It's really fantastic to be here for what I know will be five years of innovation to tell new stories about Gosport.

'We now have to teach people about heritage; they want to live in, work in and visit historic places and we want these places to be well cared for.

'Heritage sites can be a driver for economic development.

The fenced off area at Royal Clarence Yard in Gosport. Picture Ian Hargreaves (180187-1)

'It's this power of heritage that's really at the heart of the programme.

'Through this scheme, Historic England is helping to breathe new life into places of heritage, making them more accessible for businesses, trusts and investors.

'Heritage action zones can deliver real change, with £44m in funding from the government - I honestly don't think there's anything quite like this.

'We have already begun work with Gosport to unlock the layered history of Fort Blockhouse.

'Working together we are confident that this action zone can make a really big difference to Gosport.'

‘Fascinating complex of old military buildings’

The Majestic Picture Theatre was opened on December 5, 1921. Now, the building is derelict. Picture: Google Maps

Leader of Gosport Borough Council, Councillor Mark Hook, said: 'For a small borough Gosport has a fascinating complex of old military buildings and even today, the presence of the armed forces is still felt in the town.

'Unlocking the rich heritage of historic buildings is also one of the greatest challenges – it requires significant investment and has to work for the community.

'Outside of two boroughs in London, Gosport has the most listed buildings in the country - we have a chance to ensure that these are protected for the future.'

But while Gosport works on providing interesting developments on historic sites, Portsmouth is seeing some of its oldest buildings thrive after being steered in the right direction.

From defensive lines to bustling artists' studios

One of the best examples of this are the Hot Walls in Old Portsmouth.

Previously, the walls had been designed as a defensive line – dating back to the 17th century.

English cleric George Nelson Godwin once wrote that during the Civil War, around 100 guns stood atop the city walls, with enough fortification to withstand an assault from 40,000 men.

Now, the defensive line is home to the Hotwalls Studios, giving local artists a platform to perfect their craft and make a living from their work.

This transformation, the result of a £1.75m grant from the government’s coastal communities fund, has breathed new life into the area, with 13 art studios, a brasserie and cafe.

Shopping at a former naval base

Looking further along the city’s coastline, The News’ nostalgia expert Bob Hind wrote earlier this year that there is now a ‘generation of shoppers who do not remember HMS Vernon’.

These people might be surprised to know that HMS Vernon, which served as a base for maritime warfare during the Second World War, is now the site for Gunwharf Quays.

Moved ashore in October 1923, HMS Vernon was a frequent target for German bombs during the war, before taking responsibility for naval diving in 1946.

Vernon then lost independent command in March 1986, steadily devolving until the MoD closed the gates for good on April 1, 1996.

Gunwharf Quays was then opened in February 2001 after major redevelopment.

But memories of the old naval base remain at the retail outlet, with the figure of Admiral Vernon (known as Old Grog) sitting outside The Old Customs House, as well as the several field guns scattered around and the former main gate to HMS Vernon still serving as the main entrance to shoppers.

Further examples of heritage being preserved, transformed and re-purposed can be found right across Portsmouth.

Give care to keep buildings going

But the crucial starting point, says Historic England’s Emily Gee, is to give these heritage sites the care they need to remain usable.

She said: 'There are buildings here that just need a bit of tender love and care, so we all have to work together to come up with interesting uses for these sites.

'There's something really quite special about seeing these lovely buildings come to life in unique and exciting ways, as well as spending time inside the buildings themselves.

'Every building is different and has its own stories to tell, so it's crucial to give people more access to that.

'I think there are plenty of sites across the Solent that local authorities can adapt – the more accessible they are, the more people will take an interest, and I think that lends itself to people caring more about where they live.

'It draws people in, without simply turning an area into one big museum; instead, let's make our heritage a living, breathing place to explore and learn about.'

Portsmouth people are ‘hugely passionate’ about the past

But even in Portsmouth, there are buildings that could slip through the net, seeing the city lose some of its precious memories from the past.

Rachel Ballard, who runs the Memories of Bygone Portsmouth group on Facebook, says that residents in the city are ‘hugely passionate’ about their heritage.

She said: ‘People in Portsmouth hold their heritage in very high regard.

‘Everyone knows the obvious heritage sites in the city, but there are other buildings that have a lot of historical significance that could be lost if the council doesn’t take action.

‘Think of buildings like the old cinema in North End – it’s a building with a lot of history and it’s beautiful inside, and people have very fond memories of it.

‘The existing heritage in the city is looked after quite well, but it’s the heritage of the future that we need to be concerned about.’