10 things you might not know about Portchester

Portchester (Illustration by Lucy Atkinson)

Portchester (Illustration by Lucy Atkinson) - Credit: Archant

Its history dates back to the Roman times, but Portchester also has an important cultural legacy

What the Romans did for Portchester

Portus Adurni - to give it its Latin name - may be a pleasant little town overlooking Portsmouth Harbour now. But back in the day - mainly because of its advantageous position - it was listed as one of the 28 cities of Britain. Despite the passage of time it is still considered the best-preserved Roman fort north of the Alps, mainly because its walls still stand to their original height with many original towers.

The Castle

The Saxons moved in after the Romans moved on and they in turn got the order of the boot when the Normans rocked up after the conquest and threw up one of the most impressive castle keeps in Britain. Its impregnability meant it was used it as a prison, mainly for prisoners of war. It housed 2,500 black and mixed-race prisoners from the Caribbean in 1796-1797, as well as a group of French prisoners who set up a theatre in the keep in 1810.

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Kings and the Castle

King John treated Portchester Castle as a royal Travelodge, staying in 1200 before marrying Isabel of Angoulême. He was back again in 1204 and 1205 to plot the re-taking of his lost French possessions. In 1415 Henry V used the castle to plan his triumph at Agincourt. In October 1535 the real celebs arrived - Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The last royal visitor was Anne's daughter, Elizabeth I, who held her court at the castle.

Black History

During the French Revolution, Victor Hugues captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain in 1794 . He declared an end to slavery, with many of the freed men joining military units. When the garrison was conquered many of the men - and their families - went to Portchester Castle as prisoners of war. A Dr Johnston and some prison officers provided clothing suitable for a British winter, including extra socks until shoes could be provided.

Something to Eat and Drink

For food with a view of the water, amble on down to the highly-regarded Salt Café at Wiccor Yacht Marina. They serve brunch from 9am-2pm, as well as divine coffee and cakes. Up in Castle Street, The Cormorant will sort you out for a rib-eye steak, pie of the day and treats including deep-fried brie wedges. Darcy's Restaurant in West Street does toasted sandwiches, cakes, breakfasts and much-praised coffee.

Soap Opera

Turret House in West Street is long gone. The plot is now home to the town library. But pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais is thought to have painted his artwork Bubbles there. The image of a young romantically-dressed boy blowing bubbles was used to advertise the Pears soap company. The boy was five-year-old William Milbourne James, Millais' grandson. He later became commander in chief of Portsmouth and a Tory MP.

Outstanding Romanesque Church

It's easy to forget how important the church that lies within the castle has been to Portchester's history. Even Nikolaus Pevsner - the prickly architectural historian - could find little to criticise, pronouncing the church's west front as a "splendid piece, virtually unmutilated". He also records the money donated by Queen Anne, towards the church's restoration following a fire in 1705.

The Other Nelson's Column

On the top of Portsdown Hill, in Monument Lane, is a memorial to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. The foundation stone for the 110ft tribute was laid in 1807, two years after Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar. It was created from subscriptions raised by naval officers and sailors who served under the admiral. It is said the monument is still used as a marker point by ships sailing in Portsmouth Harbour.

What to do in Portchester

Portchester Community Centre in Westlands Grove offers classes and clubs including a youth theatre, adult tap lessons, Pilates and badminton. The Country Market takes place on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month in West Street from 9am-3pm. Wildlife lovers will want to check out Portchester Common. There you'll find rich chalk grassland and, if you're lucky, the blue carpenter bee.

A Tale of Two Neils

Portchester has been the birthplace of two important literary figures - both called Neil. Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman, Coraline, and American Gods, as well as some Dr Who episodes, was born in White Hart Lane, Portchester, in 1960, and grew up in Purbrook. Neil Astley has written poetry and The End of My Tether, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. He founded Bloodaxe Books, which publishes new poetry.


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