Here are some brief notes on accessible places, starting at the Eastern end.
Land around Fort Purbrook
The boundary between Portsmouth City Council and Havant Borough Council runs across the front of Fort Purbrook. Within PCC's area, ten hectares of horse paddocks and other land have been designated as a SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation). A distinctive white orchid, Autumn Lady's Tresses, may sometimes be found in the paddocks if the grazing is not too heavy. This may also be a good area for hearing skylarks, even if they are out of sight.
The fort is home to the Peter Ashley Activities Centre, and venue for various events such as the craft fair and the jazz festival. Land to the south and east of the fort is well-known for the impressive annual display of Pyramidal Orchids. Less obvious is the modest display of glowworms during June and July, probably the only area for them on the hill. Small numbers of Dingy Skipper butterflies have been seen on the northern side of the approach to the fort from Crookhorn Lane. Slightly further west, on the footpath below the fort, look out for Small Blue butterflies. Portsdown Hill is inevitably rather windy, so the mosaic of bushes here is useful to create warmer, sheltered areas which favour butterflies and other insects.
There's an indication here that the forts aren't going to last forever. Part of the retaining wall around the dry moat fell away early in 2001, as seen at the time in the picture. This has yet to be repaired as its a pretty low priority even compared to other historic buildings. On close examination there appear to be concrete anchorings, possibly from a previous repair. The patchwork of brick and flint panels also raises the possibility of earlier trouble. Vegetation is now busy colonising the bare chalk.
A footpath runs around the back of the fort, but a thick hedge affords only the briefest glimpses of the construction.
Moving west, 1.55 hectares west of Farlington Avenue form another SINC. Some was previously horse paddocks, and the rest is a square field popular with dog walkers. It is now being managed by occasional cutting to encourage a greater variety of plant-life.
Yet another SINC, of just 0.53 hectares, lies south east of The George Inn, surrounded by roads. This usually has a remarkable display of Bee Orchids in early summer. An enlightened mowing regime means it is not cut until later in the year.
After being retired as a source of chalk, Candy's Pit was a popular stopping-off point on London Road at the crest of the hill, complete with tea-rooms. Of more recent times the area has become unattractive and heavily shaded by trees, mostly Sycamore. Work is now underway to open up the paths and fell some of the trees to let light back in. By exposing the chalk face of the quarry it will be possible to trace the fold which gives the hill its shape. Candy's pit is good for this because of the angle of cut. A circular trail from the top takes you down one flight of steps and back up another.
A new information board was installed in January 2012 at the top of Candy's Pit (about half way between the Churchillian PH and George PH), paid for by the Friends of Portsdown Hill. It details the geology and history of the pit. Many thanks are due to Richard and Linda Jones for research and design work.
A painting, London Road, Portsdown, dated 1847 by George Cole (1810-1883) shows a view down London Road with brick-making in Candy's Pit on the right. Copyright law prevents an image appearing here without paying a significant fee. However, it is owned by Portsmouth Museums and Records Service and features on the BBC's Your Paintings website. You can search for Portsdown (or anything else) to find other paintings.
Go down Widley Walk from the Churchillian PH and after the steepest part of the descent you will see a path on the left leading through the trees of Widley Dell. It is thought to have originally been the site of chalk and flint excavations. Two large trenches with a heaped-up bank between can be seen by walking around the lower path. Farming would be impossible here without some major earth-moving, and as a result trees and scrub now dominate. Many of the trees are Sycamore, which can rapidly spread and out-compete native species. Much of the ground is covered by Ivy, valuable for wildlife but its genes lack a "that's enough" function! As an experiment, a small area of the bank, about six feet high, was cleared in December 2011 to expose the chalk, and some of the Sycamore was felled to let in more light. It will be interesting to see what comes up, but don't expect too much as it is north-facing and still very shaded.
This has its own set of unlikely users, along with the Portsdown Hill Countryside Service and the Equestrian Centre. It has recently been used for training emergency services to deal with earthquakes, and was the location for the 1996 TV drama series, "Call Red", based around a medical helicopter service. This never achieved any great acclaim, and was pulled after one series. Curiously the fort is now a good place to watch the real-life helicopter ambulances landing on Q.A. hospital.
Running around the back of the fort is the Fort Widley trail, with some very tired information boards. From here the layout of the defences can be seen (first photo), showing how the fort is designed to defend against an attack from the north. Originally the earthworks were kept free from scrub and trees, and the same applied to farmland to the north. Recently the fire services have moved in to provide training for disasters and accidents. This involves some elaborate and scary set-pieces (second photo). Imagine trying to rescue someone from the caravan! The area covered by the trail (about two hectares) is a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC), in view of its chalk grassland flora. Another network of paths creates a longer walk lower down the northern side of the hill, as shown on the information boards.
30th March 2013 saw the opening of the WW1 Remembrance Centre at Fort Widley, the brainchild of Charles Haskell. Admission is £3 for adults, and will be open daily from 10.30am to 6pm. Work is still in progress, and voluntary assistance is welcome.
69.14 hectares of the hill are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), stretching 4.5km from Skew Road, Portchester, eastwards to London Road, Cosham. The basis for SSSIs was first created in law in 1949, and was last revised in The Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act (2000). Amongst other things, this gives Natural England new powers to control the management of SSSIs, and if necessary, to resort to compulsory purchase in order to preserve the site. Hopefully this won't be necessary here, since many years of effort has been put into fencing all of the SSSI, allowing it to be grazed.
An example of the value of the site can be seen on old tracks running north-west up to Fort Widley. With the thinnest of soil over the chalk these are good places to find uncommon plants such as Bastard Toadflax and Autumn Lady's Tresses. Horseshoe Vetch occurs in a few places, and is significant because it is the only foodplant for caterpillars of the Chalkhill Blue and Adonis Blue butterflies. While the Chalkhill Blue can be seen in good numbers, particularly further west, the hope is that one year the striking colour of the Adonis Blue will make an appearance.
To graze the SSSI area effectively, fences have been installed to split it into various compartments. A map is available showing the numbered compartments and some other features. Boundaries will be added soon. Note that these compartments are generally not the same as the larger units defined by Natural England to monitor their condition.
Parallel to Southwick Hill Road is the embanked tramway (photo on right), thought to have been built to supply materials for the construction of the forts. Another tramway ran along the ridge of the hill.
In recognition of the amount of work involved, the Top Field, west of the roundabout, now has its own page.
Humps and Bumps
Just east of Paulsgrove chalk pit are a series of apparently random mounds. These may be the result of training exercises during WWII.
If you had been here in 1936 the scene would have been shockingly different, with a tall drilling rig, steam, smoke and an large array of sheds. The oil men had arrived. They drilled down to 6556 feet, but failed to find a commercially viable supply. Another attempt nearby in 1948 also drew a blank, though later exploration near Horndean proved successful. Drilling at Paulsgrove was based on the idea that oil would be trapped in a reservoir formed by the shape of the folded rocks. It is now thought that the oil had already collected elsewhere when Portsdown Hill was pushed up.
Alan Jewell has been looking at the conflicting data on the drilling site, and gives it a grid reference of SU 6395 0656 (10m grid), which is just to the east of the quarry. He says "I researched the various grid and coordinate locations. The British Geological Survey grid reference put it well in the quarry. The drillers original coordinates were too low down just east of the pylon. Using the height information from the drillers (222ft/ 68m), and sighting the pylon as in the original photo, I located a distinct platform and disturbed ground. It is just clear of the quarry and in a very dense thicket. Old-Maps research suggests this is the original 1930's pylon, albeit increased in height".
Paulsgrove chalk pit - the old end
This end of the chalk pit has a distinctly lived-in look, perhaps from days when the chalk was removed without powered machinery. Stand here quietly and you will here the irregular trickle of small pieces of chalk falling down. One use of the chalk from here was to transform two islands into the present-day Horsea Island, with the enclosed lake for testing torpedos. Chalk was taken by a narrow-gauge railway down to a quay, from where barges were pulled across by a specially modified static railway steam engine on the island.
Early summer 2009 was exceptional for Small Blue butterflies here. Pyramidal Orchids are scatttered along the quarry floor.
Paulsgrove chalk pit -the new end
Chalk was removed from this area to build the M275, leaving a series of terraces which have now gained vegetation. The bund along the quarry floor has created a permanent pond, now called the Paulsgrove Newt Pond, a surprising feature in a chalk landscape. There is a good population here of Common Newts (also known as Smooth Newts).
Running up the western end is a steep track, created from building spoil. Pause to admire the view while you catch your breath. The white flowers of Nottingham Catchfly may be found here.
Promontory below Fort Southwick
In 2005 a lot of work was done with excavators below Fort Southwick to remove large areas of scrub which had grown up. This was paid for by the M.O.D. since they are obliged to look after SSSI land in their ownership. Existing patches of grassland were retained where possible. This was by far the most radical programme of scrub control ever seen on the hill, and was a major step towards maintaining a greater proportion as open grassland, with on-going help from grazing animals. Three years before this picture was taken the scene was like a moonscape of white chalk.
Tunnels below Fort Southwick
This network of tunnels was dug during WW2 for secret communications centres. They now make a brilliant location for combat games run by Cracking Day, using plastic pellets as ammunition.
Nelson and Navigation
At the western end of the hill is Fort Nelson, run by Royal Armouries as the home for the national collection of artillery, known as The Big Guns! There is a new visitor facility and galleries, featuring amongst other items the impressive display of sections from the Iraqi super-gun.
Just up the road is Nelson's Monument, built in 1808 and deliberately placed to act as a navigation aid for ships coming into Portsmouth Harbour. Jane Smith, a member of the Nelson Society, has written a booklet about the monument:
"The Nelson Monument - Portsdown Hill - A Seamark Re-discovered" ISBN 978-0-9537200-6-4
Copies may be available from the Friends, price £2.
On the opposite side of Monument Lane, surrounded by a much smaller fence, is a much more modern navigation aid, in the form of an Ordnance Survey bench-mark. Apparently unused and unloved, this is part of a national network of precisely surveyed points, referenced to the GPS sat-nav system, and superceding the traditional trig-points.
This is managed by Fareham Borough Council and forms the western end of the SSSI. There are some areas of long grass and scrub, but large parts of the common look noticeably different to areas further east, primarily because a higher number of rabbits keep the grass closely cropped. As with other parts of the hill, cattle graze here during the winter.
The North Side: Tesco Bags of Help
The north-facing slope is much less steep than the south-facing slope, making it more suitable for agriculture. There are no SSSI or SINC designations here, allowing a variety of uses such as horse paddocks, a golf course and a few buildings. It is well-suited for public open space, and good progress with creating more access has now been made thanks to a grant from Tesco Bags of Help. The Friends of Portsdown Hill obtained a grant of £10,000 to establish a new walkway from Pigeon House Lane up to and alongside Southwick Road. A neglected hedge has been cleared out and laid where possible, with new shrubs added in the gaps. A long run of new fencing has been completed by contractors. Other fencing, gates and various jobs have been done by volunteers, mainly on Wednesdays. Various additional refinements are in progress.
The new walkway enables various alternative walking routes. It connects with the path from Mill Lane (opposite the kissing gate shown above) to Pigeon House Lane which was established by volunteers in 2016, and follows the line of an old hedgerow between fields. Paths are shown superimposed on an OS map.
Grant money comes from the 5p charge made for carrier bags in Tesco stores. Two other local organisations received grants of £12,000 and £8,000. The Friends would like to thank everyone who voted for our project in the Cosham and North Harbour stores.
Working on the new walkway
All photos here : Alan Thurbon