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Protecting Portland

John Newth makes a visit to Nothe Fort, one of Weymouth’s most intriguing attractions

This aerial view shows how well-placed the Nothe Fort is to defend against any seaborne threat to Portland Harbour, to the left, or Weymouth Harbour, to the right

This aerial view shows how well-placed the Nothe Fort is to defend against any seaborne threat to Portland Harbour, to the left, or Weymouth Harbour, to the right

The expanse of water cradled by Weymouth on one side and the north coast of Portland on the other has for centuries been known as a safe anchorage. Henry VIII’s navy used it, and he built Sandsfoot and Portland Castles to defend it. In the mid-19th century, with more warships being driven by steam and the Fleet expanding, the Royal Navy chose Portland as a convenient base between Portsmouth and Plymouth for the re-supply of its ships, and the breakwaters to create the harbour were built between 1849 and 1872. The French under the sabre-rattling Napoleon III were still seen as a threat and naval bases along the south coast were protected by the building of ‘Palmerston forts’, so called after the then Prime Minister. At Portland, more sophisticated defences than Henry VIII’s two castles were needed, and the Verne Citadel was completed in 1881, the Breakwater Fort in 1884. On the Weymouth side of the anchorage was built the Nothe Fort, started in 1860 and finished in 1872.
The builders provided defences on the landward side as well, with a tunnel under the fortifications protected by a drawbridge, but the fort’s main role was to house twelve heavy guns firing out to sea. In the early years these were muzzle-loaded 64-pounders, but they were replaced by bigger and bigger guns, culminating in giant cannon which were originally designed for use on battleships and could throw a 12½-inch shell, weighing 818 pounds, over 3½ miles. Their accuracy was suspect, though, and just before World War 1 they were replaced by a breech-loading gun that fired 6-inch, 100-pound shells but had a range of over six miles. These guns were placed on the ramparts rather than in the original casemates.

Looking at the fort’s massive, solid construction, it is easy to see why it took twelve years to build

Looking at the fort’s massive, solid construction, it is easy to see why it took twelve years to build

The threat to Portland Harbour from the German navy was regarded as so slight that almost all the fort’s armament was actually removed in 1916 and was not restored until 1929. For the next ten years the Nothe was used mostly for training. In July 1940, 68 years after its completion, the Nothe Fort fired its first shot in anger when two unidentified vessels were detected approaching the coast; after a couple of warning shots, they quickly identified themselves as boats carrying refugees from the German invasion of the Channel Islands.
During the rest of World War 2, the fort served as the main storage depot for anti-aircraft ammunition for south-west England. A battery of four 3.7-inch AA guns was stationed in what is now the Nothe Gardens, just outside the fort, and on the ramparts was mounted a Vickers pom-pom, later replaced by a Bofors.
By 1961 the Nothe had no further military use, and in that year it was sold to Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Borough Council. For them it was something of a headache as all the proposals for how it might be used – including conversion to a luxury hotel – were found wanting. For almost twenty years it stood empty and slowly deteriorating, a playground for squatters and any of the youth of Weymouth bent on vandalism. Incongruously, the council also installed a nuclear shelter from which local government could be carried on in the event of a nuclear attack.

Derelict, unloved and vandalised: the state of the Nothe before the Civic Society came to the rescue. Compare this with the picture at the top of this page.

Derelict, unloved and vandalised: the state of the Nothe before the Civic Society came to the rescue

Salvation came in 1979 in the form of Weymouth Civic Society, to whom the local council (by now Weymouth & Portland BC) were no doubt delighted to let the property for a peppercorn rent. Within a year, their volunteers had cleared the site and made it safe enough to open to the public. With very limited funds and manpower, the work continued painstakingly through the 1980s and 1990s and visitor numbers slowly climbed, but it was very hand-to-mouth. The breakthrough came in 2005 with a lottery grant of £2.4 million that enabled the fort to become the attraction that it is now, with an appealing café, disabled access and proper toilets, as well as secure fabric and attractive displays.
Today, the Nothe is run by a dedicated committee reporting to the Civic Society, which still rents the property from the council but is not involved in the day-to day running of the grade II* listed building. That is in the hands of a staff of seven, led by the director, David Joy, who also acts as curator for the collection, and administration manager Steve Booth, also in charge of marketing and business development. They would be the first to pay tribute to the team of some eighty volunteers who put their time, expertise and labour at the disposal of the Nothe. The oldest volunteer, still very active, is 92! Without volunteers, the fort could never have been restored and it would be impossible to run it as it is today; it is worth remembering that apart from the favourable rent, it receives no financial help from the council or any other public body.
Open usually from April to September and during the February and October half-terms, it attracts between 45,000 and 50,000 visitors a year. Those visitors learn not only about the history of the fort itself, because tucked away in its labyrinth of passages are all sorts of displays with a military theme. For example, there is a most impressive collection of military insignia, and one room devoted to a moving exhibit about World War 1. Another display is entitled ‘Weymouth at War’, where a map showing the fall of every bomb dropped on the town during World War 2 is a vivid and sobering reminder of how Weymouth with its harbour, torpedo works and other industries was very much in the front line. One of the most striking displays is a re-creation of one of the massive pre-World War 1 guns, pointing out to sea and surrounded by mannequins representing its crew. In the nuclear bunker, the opportunity has been taken to re-create the control room which would have operated in the now unthinkable event of a nuclear attack.

The life-size mannequins in this display give scale to the replica of the huge gun that could fire a shell weighing over a third of a ton

The life-size mannequins in this display give scale to the replica of the huge gun that could fire a shell weighing over a third of a ton

The Nothe has a reputation for being haunted and one passage in particular is dimly lit for maximum spookiness. It is here that ‘the whistling gunner’ can supposedly be heard. Organisations for investigating the paranormal come from far and wide to spend the night with their equipment tracking the fort’s ghostly inhabitants. Whether they are successful or not, they pay a fee for the privilege, which is useful additional income.
It is a relief to climb up the stairs from the underground level into the open air and up again to the ramparts. The position of the fort, so suitable for sweeping the approaches to Weymouth and Portland, is now perfect for enjoying stupendous views from Weymouth Harbour along the Jurassic Coast to St Aldhelm’s Head.
An important part of the Nothe’s work is its programme for schools, re-creating ‘the World War 2 experience’. Visiting parties learn what life was like as an evacuee. They sit in a classroom of the period, presided over by a schoolmaster with cap and gown – and a cane which, even if it is never used, is a reminder of an age of stricter discipline. They visit a re-created shop, where they handle old money like half-crowns and shillings, and have to organise their ration books. They look at gas masks – but replicas, since some of the originals contained asbestos – and see what a kitchen looked like before the arrival of most of the modern labour-saving gadgets. Some 3000 schoolchildren take part in these popular and rewarding activities each year.

Special events such as this Victorian Fair keep the fort in the public eye and generate useful income. The breakwaters of Portland Harbour are visible in the distance.

Special events such as this Victorian Fair keep the fort in the public eye and generate useful income. The breakwaters of Portland Harbour are visible in the distance.

The Nothe could not survive on just its normal admission fees. It hosts weddings (it is now licensed for wedding ceremonies), business meetings and functions. It attracts extra visitors through themed weekends and themes have included pirates, D-Day, Victorian – even medieval, although that is something of an anachronism. Events are staged on the parade ground in the middle of the fort. Sometimes these are put on by outside organisations like Weymouth Drama Club, sometimes they are produced by the fort’s management: for example, the memorable 2014 son et lumière, telling the history of Weymouth.
In addition, the Nothe Fort Artillery, a re-enactment group, will attend functions and put on a firing display.
The history of the Nothe Fort has probably turned out rather differently from that envisaged by its Victorian builders, but its conspicuous position and distinctive shape have made it an integral part of the Weymouth landscape over the last 150 years. Today, it is playing its part in Weymouth’s appeal to visitors, which is so vital to the town’s economic well-being. There is every chance that it will still be doing so in another 150 years.

www.nothefort.org.uk

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