Growing Up with History: Hilsea Lines

As the son of a sailor, I grew up in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, and I was lucky enough therefore to grow up surrounded by amazing relics, artefacts and traditions of the Royal Navy and military defences.

Dad used to take us along to watch the Field Gun Run crews practising (which was always astounding to watch), and I was often awoken in the morning by the rattle of musketry from the Tipner rifle ranges, a half-mile away. My brother has a cannonball, too, which he found whilst mudlarking opposite Whale Island (HMS Excellent), but the area where we spent most of our time playing as children was Hilsea Lines.

For us, the 'Lines' were a series of steep-sided earth embankments and spooky tunnels to hare around with a nearby moat we could fish in, but as I grew to appreciate them more, these overgrown vaulted defences - along with so many other aspects of Portsmouth's military history - became much more instructive.

[the pics below should present both halves of the rather beautiful map]

Occasionally over the last few centuries, Portsmouth has been described as one of the most heavily defended cities in the world, and as the home of the Royal Navy in a position strategically vital in relation to mainland Europe it's easy to see why. The Lines were built to defend the city (well, Portsea Island, at least) from a landward attack, and in their current incarnation were constructed during the mid 1800s, in sympathy with a huge network of fortifications around the port, known variously as Palmerston's Follies. Thankfully, they never saw battle as intended, although they were used for AA defences and shelters during the 20th Century.

This is what information boards should look like!

After too many decades of falling into abandonment and disrepair, local agencies seem to have started to appreciate them, not only as a part of Portsmouth's proud history, but more importantly as a quiet place where locals can walk their dogs and children, where kids can explore and push the boundaries of risk (and their parents' patience!) and - possibly more importantly - where nature can thrive and be enjoyed.

In the 80s, this courtyard was a deeply unpleasant spot in which to find oneself!

Now, those casemates and tunnnels are slowly being cleaned up a little, and there are informative signs peppered around (shamelessly photographed and 'reproduced' here) and I'm pleased to say that the site feels considerably less grubby and intimidating than it did during my childhood forty years ago!

Growing up surrounded by these monstrous brick edifices often felt rather foreboding with nuclear war looming in the background, but now? - maybe now they're something a bit more positive.

...from the author's private collection!

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