From the Historic Dockyard to Southsea Castle, Portchester Castle to the Palmerston Forts in the Solent – the city and its environs have always been essential to the defence of the islands.
But while those venues are well known, less familiar is Fort Nelson, on the slopes of Portsdown Hill, near Fareham, which is home to the Royal Armouries national collection of artillery – The Big Guns.
Fort Nelson was also one of Palmerston’s Follies – a derogatory term given to all the Palmerston Forts owing to their almost immediate redundancy following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. They constituted a massive ring of brick, masonry and earth forts and took their name from the Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston.
The imposing Victorian Fort Nelson was also built on the recommendation of the 1860 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom and cost a huge amount to construct. Nelson was unusual in that its guns pointed inland and not out over the sea. The reason for this was simple: to protect the vital naval port from an inland attack; but for years the people of Portsmouth believed it – and its sibling forts including Wallington, Southwick, Widley and Purbrook – had been built the wrong way round.
It is now a historic monument and has been restored to its 1890s’ condition, with visitors able to access most areas of the fortifications to see how the fort would have operated. Displays trace the development of artillery from pre-gunpowder siege machines to modern-day super guns, with more than 350 big guns on display.
A recent multi-million pound redevelopment has seen a new visitor centre, café and galleries, including the magnificent Voice of the Guns gallery.
It is a fascinating day out for all the family and, what’s more, entry is free. For more details go to: www. royalarmouries.org/visit-us/fort-nelson or visit us at: Royal Armouries Museum, Fort Nelson, Portsdown Hill Road, Fareham, PO17 6AN.