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Wartime fort slowly reveals its secrets

Friday, September 17, 2010 - 11:17

WIGHT LIVINGTHROUGH the mists of time, Bembridge Fort and its 143-year history has largely been forgotten and is lacking in recorded information.
But a dedicated group of volunteers has helped to open up sections of it to visitors to help unravel some of its many mysteries.
Its owner, the National Trust, has worked hard with local enthusiasts on a long-term project — clearing tons of debris left by former crop spraying equipment manufacturers, Micronair, which went into liquidation in 1998.
It left the trust with the dilemma of what to do with the section unoccupied by the fort’s new tenants, Micron Sprayers Ltd.
The National Trust, in 2000, realised it could not afford to restore the fort as it did with the Needles Battery but it has embarked on a project to prevent it falling into further disrepair by raising funds through guided tours.
Over the past five years, since I last visited the fort, there has been a huge and impressive transformation.
A team of six volunteers, who the trust relies on heavily, has cleared countless skip loads of debris from within the fort and from its ramparts.
Island-based Heather Bradshaw, of the National Trust, said: "When we first started doing the clearance work, the trust used to bring large clearance parties. Once we did the main clearance, we limited the number of volunteers, which works much better.
"We give them a programme of work and they are left to sort themselves out. They get on with it brilliantly."
The fort, which nestles on top of Culver Down, was built in 1867 as part of The Solent’s extensive Palmerstonian defence system. The fortifications were built to repel a predicted invasion by the forces of Napoleon III, which never happened, hence their label, the Palmerston Follies.
The hexagonally shaped fortification was the main stronghold for the Island’s south east coastline, initially with an establishment of four officers and 106 soldiers and an ordnance of six heavy guns.
It acted as a keep to the four coastal batteries in Sandown Bay, commanding the space between Brading Haven and the sea to prevent enemy landings. It was also designed to act as a final retreat had the Island been invaded. During the world wars that followed, its strategic importance was eventually realised and shots were subsequently fired in anger against an altogether different enemy, the Nazis.
Yet, despite the amount of activity that went on there, hardly any photographs or records of the fort remain to help paint a vivid picture of life during its military occupation — before, after or during the world wars.
A team of up to six tour guides take small groups around the fort, trying to tell a tale of what life was like.
The tours run on Tuesdays between August and October.
The guides told me the fort was briefly occupied by a cavalry unit and housed heavy artillery during the First World War and was once an experimental base for anti-submarine and anti-torpedo devices between 1880 and 1900.
Bembridge Fort, which cost £48,925 to build, was sold to the trust from the IW Council in 1965.
Visitors are taken through the extensive work programme, above and below ground, giving them a flavour of what state the fort was in before, what has been done since and what tasks are on the 'to do’ list.
One of the biggest tasks undertaken was the clearance of the southern caponier — a firing position to protect the fort’s dry ditch.
When I last peered into the caponier, it was full of piles of rotten wood, brickwork, rusting metal and other rubbish.
By torchlight, the debris had to be passed up the steep and narrow steps and passageway from the bowels of the fortress, along the chain of volunteers. It was a tricky and laborious task.
What emerged was the remains of a split level area. A number of large slate floor tiles on its upper floor, and some of the rotten girders that once held them in place, were recovered.
The fort’s two other caponiers will be tackled in the future.
One of the Allen WIlliams anti-aircraft gun turrets.
One of the Allen WIlliams anti-aircraft gun turrets.
Work to clear the largest of four salients — open firing positions above the ditch — began at the fort in early spring.
Seventy man-hours of labour has transformed the former Micronair’s accounts office into a semblance of its original form. One of the next major tasks is to clear another office.
Clearance of the main magazine, one of the biggest and most important sections of the complex, was an incredible feat. When I last viewed it, it was chock full of metal racking and metal goods.
Volunteers on a National Trust working holiday joined the project last year to fill skips with dismantled racking. It was sold off as scrap, with the proceeds ploughed back into other aspects of the project.
Heather said: "It was a massive task. It was floor to ceiling and covered most of the space. The items on the shelves were heavier than the racking itself."
The main magazine was the most sensitive area of the fort. Tons of gunpowder were once stored there under stringent conditions to ensure it never caught fire while munitions were being made.
When funds are available, the trust may install an information board with illustrations, similar to that at The Needles fortress, explaining the use of the magazine to visitors.
Interestingly, there are plenty of remains of the former ASDIC system — a forerunner of sonar — which was run from Bembridge Fort and was used to trace boat or submarine movements across The Solent.
The clearance of a former guard room, officers’ living quarters, prison cells, toilet, kitchen and various other smaller rooms, together with corridors for the lamplighter to crawl along, make you realise it was once a living, breathing place of duty.
Repairs have also been made to an ammunition store and the 10ft-thick blast wall.
The WRNS Room, used solely by female naval staff during the last war, is another project to be tackled over the coming year.
On the top of the fort, the volunteers, led by Bembridge historian Robin Maconchy, excelled themselves with their work.
A small building, believed to have been a Second World War radar-monitoring room, was cleared of debris.
A path leading to one of two Spigot mortar emplacements was also cleared. There is also access available to two rare Allen Williams anti-aircraft gun turrets, dating from about 1940, that once fired at Nazi fighter planes.
There is also evidence of a Lewis gun pit on the fort’s terreplein.
The Royal Artillery command post has also been partially restored with its original timber.
A drawbridge winch — found on the ramparts — has been restored to its rightful place. Scrub and plenty of destructive ivy has been cleared.
Even a herd of black Highland goats has got in on the act by clearing the ditch of scrub.
The volunteers also intend to expose the outer defences. The work needs to be done carefully as there is a 40ft drop into the ditch.
Original maps of the design of the fort are currently on display at the Bembridge Heritage Centre.
Places on the remaining fort tours can be booked with the trust on 01983 741020 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Reporter: [email protected]

 


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