Visiting Hurst Castle near Milford on Sea

You can really see how the castle has expanded over the years from a bird's eye view

You can really see how the castle has expanded over the years from a bird's eye view - Credit: English Heritage

One of England’s most important lines of coastal defence for over 400 years, today Hurst Castle near Milford on Sea continues to reveal its secrets to visitors. Viv Micklefield goes ashore

Hurst Castle's garrison theatre is the only one to survive in the country

Hurst Castle's garrison theatre is the only one to survive in the country - Credit: Archant

Just imagine if The Famous Five had discovered an ancient castle at the extreme end of a narrow promontory stretching out into the Solent. Enid Blyton’s intrepid young adventurers would have been in their element. From scampering around the Tudor tower, to hiding within its Victorian gun batteries, Hurst Castle conceals the naval history of our island nation within its mighty walls.

Although it’s possible to reach this remarkable building by walking along the windswept shingle spit from Milford on Sea, by far the best way to arrive is aboard the small ferry that navigates its way through the yachts and rowing boats in Keyhaven Harbour. Whilst the abundant waterfowl – this is a sanctuary for brent geese, little egrets and oyster catchers, provide a fleeting distraction, the sense of anticipation builds rapidly.

“This castle is the largest coastal fort of its type in the country, in terms of its physical size, and we’re doing our best to preserve it for future generations,” says my guide Mat Dickson, who, having volunteered for eight years with the Friends of Hurst Castle, has swapped his paint-splattered overalls to help promote the visitor attraction. “Since Tudor times, and over the following centuries, as wars have come and gone it’s been brought out of mothballs,” he observes, adding: “The last occasion being during WW2, and it remained a manned garrison right up until 1956. Then it was handed over to the Ministry of Works, the predecessor to English Heritage.”

This certainly underscores the Castle’s defensive significance in guarding the Needles Passage and with it the approach to Southampton Water, against the ebb and flow of attack.

Entering through the so-called West Wing, Queen Victoria’s coat-of-arms carved above our heads, it’s tempting to play historical detective amongst the warren of later additions to this fortress. But we head instead towards the original 16th century gateway, complete with its portcullis. This castle, within a castle, is Hurst’s beating heart.

Continuing the history lesson, Mat confirms that Henry V111, having distanced himself from the Roman Catholic Church, was expecting invasion from Spain and France. And despite major rebuilding works to increase the Castle’s firepower during the Napoleonic Wars, plenty is left intact, its stone bastions included. “There’s a lot of Tudor history within these floors, and with the remains of the Master Gunner’s Room and the basement of the central tower, where the gunpowder was stored, it’s very atmospheric.”

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But if these walls could talk, the gossip would be of the Castle’s most famous ‘visitor’. “In the 17th century it was used as a prison,” he explains. “Charles I was the most notorious prisoner, staying here for three weeks before his trial and execution in London. The only other inmate, that I’m aware of, is the sad case of a Franciscan friar, imprisoned here for the best part of 30 years for being a Catholic - despite pleading for his freedom.”

Having patiently made way for a group of excitable schoolboys, we climb the narrow staircase up to the roof. Our reward: an amazing 360? view that extends towards Sway Tower and Portsdown Hill on the mainland, while turning seawards, the Needles shimmer off the Isle of Wight’s western tip. It’s quite mesmerising.

Jason Crane

Jason Crane - Credit: Archant

This vantage point also provides an opportunity to take-in the immediate landscape. Today, only the Crane family has direct ties to the spit, managing Hurst Castle on behalf of English Heritage. However, as well as scurrilous smugglers, it was once home to fishermen who eked out a living, and later customs officers and lighthouse keepers and their families.

According to Mat, civilian numbers also grew to support the enlarged Victorian garrison of over 460 men, following the construction of the two gigantic wing batteries. “Then there were 40 large guns installed which never fired a shot in anger, although there was plenty of target practice in the Solent.” Today, it’s possible to stand within the reinforced granite and iron casements alongside examples of the impressive 38 tonners, as well as catching sight of where the famous Bofors guns would have subsequently been (there’s an actual gun too, but more about this later).

One of the Castle’s highlights however, is the 20th century Garrison Theatre thought to be the only surviving one of its kind in Britain. While Dame Vera entertained elsewhere, forces stationed at Hurst says Mat, had their own sweetheart. “After the Friends of Hurst Castle rebuilt the stage in 2007 we managed to trace Betty Hockey who’d performed over 1000 shows to the troops in the New Forest area. She came back over in her nineties and was thrilled to see the theatre refurbished.

“Additionally, the Friends have created an impressive display of weaponry and other memorabilia, on long-term loan from a local military historian. And we have two rooms with artefacts connected to lighthouses, which have become a bit of a mecca for enthusiasts, given the proximity of the Hurst Point lighthouse and those at the Needles and St Catherine’s.”

There’s just time to check-out the D-day Room which recounts nearby Beaulieu’s involvement during this momentous WW2 operation, before crossing into the less developed East Wing, with its recently opened memorial room to The Great War’s fallen soldiers.

“The East Wing is a restoration project - it’s a blank canvas,” says Jason Crane, the Castle’s current custodian, who acknowledges that despite the extensive conservation work undertaken since the 1950s, there’s plenty left to be done. The former NAAFI canteen for instance, needs its roof mending, and the aforementioned Bofors gun lies in pieces. Although visitor numbers are on the rise (around 40,000 come each year), it’s a long-term project which under Jason’s watch remains charmingly rough around the edges. “What I love about Hurst Castle is that you’ve got history and big skies, it’s a great combination,” he says, adding: “And now I want my children, and others to enjoy the childhood that I did. This Castle was my playground.”

Of course, as Mat points out, military re-enactments “instantly bring Hurst Castle back to life” - however, half the pleasure of coming here is letting your imagination wander. Three hours hasn’t been nearly long enough.

Mat Dickson

Mat Dickson - Credit: Archant

Military milestones

• 1544 Henry V111’s Tudor fort is built to protect key ports and landing places from Continental attack

• 1648 Charles 1 arrives under armed Parliamentary guard - imprisoned for 20 days

• 1790s The central gun tower is re-fortified and becomes a temporary military hospital after the Battle of Corunna

• 1860-1873 The wing batteries are constructed, creating a protective barrier against the French, with forts across the Needles Passage

• 1914-18 Shell and quick-firing guns remain loaded, searchlights scanning the night seas for German submarines

• 1940 Re-activated as a signal station, providing early warnings of Luftwaffe air raids, or strikes by torpedo gunboats

• 1945 The WW2 garrison closes its doors

• 1956 Hurst’s military role ends after the Coastal Artillery unit is abolished

Pay a visit

• SatNav: SO41 0TR - from Lymington take the A337 to the B3058 signposted Milford on Sea. At Milford take the Keyhaven Road. Car parking is available at Keyhaven (charges apply)

• By public transport: Buses go to Milford on Sea or catch the train to Lymington Town

• Keyhaven-to-Hurst Castle ferry: Departs every 20 minutes call 01590 642500/642344 for latest timetables and fares - alternatively it’s a 1½ mile walk along the spit from Milford on Sea

• Castle: Open daily 10:30am-5.30pm until 30 September; closes 4.00pm during October. Winter months: weekends only.

• Admission: Adults £4.70, 5-15yrs £2.80



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