About Portsdown

 Created 12-11-2008    Last update 29-04-2014

Then & Now Photos


About Portsdown

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Here are some more extracts from emails received about Portsdown. Any italicised comments in [] brackets are mine. I would especially welcome any contributions of stories and photographs for this section.

  NEW 19-04-2014  

I wanted to just drop you a quick email to thank you for the wonderful site. I grew up in Wymering and now live in Cosham with a great view of most of the hill. I was completely unaware the chalk-pit tunnels we played in as kids were air raid shelters, and many other details you've written about on the site. I feel like I've just been reintroduced to my hometown, and am seeing it all in an entirely new light.

I, of course, knew some of the local history, it's tough not to with those imposing forts looking over us, but the level of research and detail on your site is truly amazing, and I'm thankful there are people like you recording and publishing this information for all to see.

I haven't been for a walk up on the hill for a long time, despite it being so close. You've inspired me to go and steal my mum's dog and take him exploring tomorrow, with newly found knowledge of what it is I'm walking on and taking photos of. I lost three hours on your site tonight, and will likely be back for more tomorrow.

You've done an amazing job with the site, someone should be paying you to hold up local history in such an all encompassing way.

Thank you, sincerely,

Dana Taylor - April 2014


  NEW 25-04-2013  

I moved to Wymering as a child in 1939 and have many memories of the ”HILL”. I have memories of trenches being dug from top to bottom of the hill adjacent to the west side of Wymering chalk pit. The spraying black of the pit to hide it at night. Nights spent in the Air raid tunnels in two tier bunks or of sitting in the cafe in the tunnel drinking tea. Annoying the wardens or first aiders in their offices just inside the blast wall, climbing the iron ladders in the ventilation shaft to try and reach the hilltop. Back projection cinema van showing Ministry of Information films whilst parked in the pit.

Playing in the spigot gunpit adjacent to the top of racecourse lane, and the pillbox in Pigeon House lane, plus grass sledging down the hill, and many more things of the time including an ”Auster” aircraft flying from a field by Southwick which had a tented American army camp prior to D-Day. There was an ARP post in the field between Lowestoft Rd. and Braintree Road. The troops abseiling down the chalkpit got their first taste of being under fire when us boys threw stones at them whilst suspended on the chalk face.

I remember Bertie Coleman [my uncle] owned the first car in the area. I think it was an Austin 7 with wire wheels which was parked outside the house with the wheels turned inwards to the kerb to prevent it running away down the road. I think his father [my granddad] was a Warden [yes, he was]. In the house was Mr and Mrs Coleman plus Bertie and Jimmy and Violet Littlejohn with children Brian and Shirley whose father was in the Army. He was captured in the desert but released after 48hr.by his captors who surrendered in their turn.

The grenade accident which caused David Longyear (who was one of our gang) to lose an eye and fingers and the other lad a forearm and eye was an accident waiting to happen. We boys used to scour the chalk pits for unused bullets and and thunder-flashes (a great favourite find) and one boy brought a Mills bomb into the Wymering Tunnel on one occasion.

My memory of the spigot mortar base was that it was east of the chalkpit ,approximately 100 yards from where Racecourse Lane reached the foot of the hill and about 100yds up the hill. There was a gun position on Portchester promenade approx. where the Port Solent roundabout is. This took the form of a pit with a revolving steel cupola?. [possibly an Allan Williams Turret?]
There was a large concrete blockhouse in Pigeon House Lane on a curve just before the farm buildings.

I well remember the bomb at Harleston Rd. We got a concrete fence post complete with concrete base blasted into our back garden. There was also the smaller crater on the face of the hill about halfway between Widley and Southwick forts. In addition I have the memory of the terrible sound the Hurricane that crashed alongside Fort Widley made as it came down.

Eddy Amey - April 2013


  NEW 22-04-2012  

My own relationship with Portsdown during the Fifties runs the entire gamut of emotions.

'The Hill', as Cosham residents called it, first came to my attention in 1952, when some mates from Portsmouth Grammar School (PGS) frequently joined me on Sunday cycle rides to Eastleigh, the local 'Mecca' for trainspotting. Regardless of how many gears our bikes had, the climb up past QAH was a challenge, which we surmounted mainly by telling ourselves it was virtually downhill all the way from the hilltop to our destination.

Those unworthy PGS pupils who had the temerity not to shine at sport or athletics were given the 'compulsory option' of cross-country running, starting on the crest of Portsdown and running through muddy fields to the north, finishing back on the hill crest. This thoroughly unpleasant experience ought to have prepared me for my next Portsdown challenge, but failed to do so.

In 1955, my ill-judged habit of cycling home to lunch (Cosham from PGS and back again, in an hour!) landed me in the back of an ambulance, my only experience - so far - of travelling in one with the bell ringing. I spent 8 days in QAH, during which my appendix was removed. I still recall this traumatic event in some detail.

Finally, in 1957, I started my first serious relationship with a young woman who lived on Portsdown, in Widley Road: it lasted nearly ten years, was a major part of my life, and was character-building at the time, although regrettably did not develop into a permanent arrangement.


Mike Foster - April 2012


  NEW 13-01-2011  

Came across your website today, triggered some memories, and note that Portsdown main is set to be demolished from 15/4/2010. I can remember climbing the hill with my parents and the family dog before the site was built and used to be fields. I moved to Paulsgrove in 1948 when I was 4 living in the new estate built after the war. I remember the Paulsgrove Lime Works and the lorries continually going up and down Woofferton Road. We used to walk to Southwick passing along a path behind the Flats in Leominster Road along what must now be Lime Grove. At the eastern end of the chalk pit we would climb the hill and skirt round the fence of ASE before following the road to Southwick.

I later worked at National Provincial bank in Gosport with a Sally Cooper who I believe was a member of the Cooper family, she married and became Appleton in early 1960s. There were some orchards belonging to the Coopers sometimes raided by some of the younger inhabitants of Paulsgrove, near where the M27 leaves Paulsgrove and crosses the A27. There also used to be Fuel Depot with a storage tank and a pier, Esso, if I remember correctly, in the creek to the north of Horsea Island there was an old derelict submarine.

Ken Gillam - January 2011


  NEW 19-09-2010  

Just a few words to say what a fantastic web site. My first ship was a County class destroyer HMS Kent. I was based at Collingwood three times in my RN career and worked in intelligence for three years training of which done at Mercury East Meon. I went out with a girl in Fareham who showed me all the wonderful places around Portsmouth.

I was born in Yorkshire and here I now live, but part of my heart is in Portsmouth. I spent hours on your great site.

Dean (Spider) Webster

Ex Weapons Engineer RN - April 2010


  NEW 14-02-2010  

I have just spent a few hours totally absorbed in your marvellous website which I stumbled across whilst looking at the online Portsmouth Evening News website.

I was born at the QA back in 1960 and lived in Cosham until moving 'up North' in 1968. Went back now and again when I was younger to visit family and friends but last time must have been 30 odd years ago and I no longer have any family 'down home'. We lived on Medina Road, No 111, right opposite the Wymering Arms, wonder if it's still there? [it's now closed], and can remember my dad giving me a tanner [6 pence in pre-decimal money] to go over to the off sales on a Sunday dinner to get a bottle of pop if I'd been good.

Dad worked on the Southern Region as a fireman and remember walking down to Cosham station to meet him when he came home. I well remember my Grandad taking me for walks up on the hill and looking for grass snakes although don't recall if we ever found any. We used to walk up the main road out of Cosham and used to stop at a drinking fountain on the left hand side just before some steps up to the old footbridge. Expect these have both long gone.

Grandad used to tell me he'd been in the Home Guard during WW2 as he was too old for active service, having been in the Navy in WW1, and was on rockets [Z Battery] in Alexander Park. I remember him telling me a story about how one day they let fly at a 'Jerry' bomber and the resulting explosions of the rockets going off in a box around the 'plane so 'put the wind up' the pilot that he 'dumped his bombs and got the hell out of there'. Anyway, when Grandad got home from duty he found that the bombs had fallen across Cosham and Wymering and one had narrowly missed his own house! Don't know if this is true as suspect Grandad used to sometimes 'spin a yarn'.

I remember having a large concrete air raid shelter in the back garden of No 111 Medina Road but expect this has also long gone. I can also remember being able to get into one of the old shelters on the hill but not very far as was all blocked up and also getting down into the moat at Fort Widley, although we often used to get chased off.

Anyway, must stop waffling on but would like to say how much I've enjoyed the website and look forward to visiting again.

Garry R. Cole - February 2010


  NEW 14-02-2010  

I stumbled across your site purely by accident when looking for information about Vosper's [VT, now closed] at Portchester. I was thrilled to be able to read some of others' memories of Paulsgrove during the 1950s and early 1960s. Although I lived down on the Southampton Road (formerly divided into Warden Terrace and Wymering Park Terrace) I went to school in Paulsgrove and the majority of my friends lived on the estate. I used to cross the lane and bridge over the railway twice a day and then cross the fields to either the Hillside Infant school and then the Junior Girls School or, latterly, up the side of the Co-op dairy to catch my bus to Paulsgrove Secondary Modern.

My best friend and her family lived in Winchcombe Road. I had another good friend who lived in the Artillery Close houses (which if my memory serves me right was almost opposite the shops). I am a bit hard pressed to remember the names of all the shops but I do remember Tremlett's Chemist and, of course, the Co-op where you got everything under the one roof. I still remember my Mum's dividend share number. I too remember the library when it was in the Nissan hut.

For anybody who used to make the trip down over the railway bridge to the Southampton Road do you recall Boxall's Stores? My mother worked in the C&A factory (Canda) [this was C&A, also gone] and when he came out of the Navy Dad worked in Johnson & Johnson [guess what - gone]. Then, of course, there was the Harbour Lights, which was almost up at the Western Road, with it's great beer garden [still there!]. Many a fun Sunday evening spent there in the summer months.

I was married to my husband in March 1966 at Paulsgrove Baptist Church (The Rev. Lloyd-Roberts).

Sally Black (nee Collinson) - February 2010


  NEW 14-02-2010  

I just by chance came across your article on Portsdown and Paulsgrove. My family moved there from North End in 1955. There were no houses to buy in Portsmouth, so many had been destroyed in the war and we had been living with my grandparents. Imagine our joy when we were allocated a brand new council house with a garden, back and front. Shelley Avenue was a wonderful place to live when you were only 11 - roads to roller skate on and plenty of friends to play with - I remember the Lake family that lived next door but one, and they were one of the first to have a colour television.

We could go and play, quite safely on Portsdown Hill and when I was about 15 we would venture over the hill to the 'trout stream' where there were always a few Teddy Boys in their drainpipes and black suede sneakers, or go to Portchester Castle and paddle in the sea, hunt for crabs or fish in the pools when the tide went out.

I am nearly 66 now and I realise what my children and grandchildren missed! A peaceful, tranquil life and freedom- no Game Boys, computers, television etc. I was Angela Griffiths in those days with my brother Philip - we were very involved in Scouting with my father Ken Griffiths who was the skip at the 2nd Portchester's and my mother worked at the Primary school in Allaway Avenue - Oh where have those years gone. Thank you for letting me recall a few of my happy days. I would love to hear from anyone who knew me in those days!

Angela Sadler (nee Griffiths) - January 2010


  NEW 14-02-2010  

I was delighted to discover the Portsdown Tunnels site, it brought back memories of the1950s when my family lived near Havant. My Grandparents Bill & Alice Fry lived at 3 Belmont Hill Cottages (now demolished) adjacent to the entrance to the Bedhampton chalk pit, and I can recall playing in the chalk pit, despite several warnings from my parents.

I can also recall entering a brick ventilation shaft which was on the eastern side of either Fort Purbrook or Fort Widley [It was Fort Purbrook], we descended down about 20 feet, then proceeded along a tunnel for 150 yards, which was then blocked by chalk fill. I can only assume this was a ventilation tunnel for the extensive tunnel system beneath the Fort. [This was the old drain ventilation tower]

Mel Fry (Mr), Melbourne, Australia - October 2009


  NEW - 02-01-2010  

Being one who was, at least according to one of my wives, "dragged up" in Paulsgrove your site brings back some great early memories. I lived there from around 1956 (age 3) until the family moved in 1971. Paulsgrove I always thought was not a bad place to have been brought up especially as the whole of Portsdown Hill was my playground.

The smell of oil was always present around the tunnel entrances and in those days you could get right up to the escape tunnel from Fort Southwick and stand there listening to the noises from within and wonder what was going on. I haven't walked the area for many years but the part demolished building [Guard House] on the access road stood mostly full height.

Having spent a little more time looking at your site I hadn't appreciated just how big the shelters were. If safe they would make an interesting museum as part of a Portsdown Trail.

As a kid we used to play around "Fort Apache" which was probably the original sewer outfall from Fort Southwick [yes is was]. This was located below the forts spoil fan and behind the flats. The mortar mount I remember.

Great site. Pity I no longer live in Portsmouth because you have an interesting historical project going on there.

Alan Muncaster (ex 4 Macaulay Avenue) - January 2010


  NEW - 02-01-2010  

I have just been browsing 'The Tunnels' site to see if there have been any new reminisces, hopefully from some one I know.

Anyway I am particularly interested in the photo of Cliffdene Cottage and wonder if there are anymore photos that were taken nearer to the property and if anyone knows its history?

I live at the end of Dellquest Path (that also incorporates The Wayfarer's Walk) and have noticed that just across Portsdown Hill Road someone has cleared the wooded area and revealed what I think is the pathway that led to the cottage. There are the remains of a fence and gate posts, a pole for carrying electricity and a small amount of brick and flint wall. In fact someone has been and cleared a lot of the areas where the caves are just as you come up to the George Inn

Pam Gran - January 2010  [replies here]


  NEW - 02-01-2010  

What a wonderful web-site. I lived in Portsmouth from 1937 to 1980, when I landed up in Florida. I loved Portsdown Hill, went there all the time. My mother in law, used to walk her two children up from Lake Road in Portsmouth to the hill when there was an air raid [to the tunnel shelters], she often talked about it.

I was there in 2005 and went up there to look over Portsmouth. It has been wonderful reading all the stories, but things change a lot, which is sad.

Jackie Smith (nee Parker) - Florida - January 2010


  NEW - 02-01-2010  

I was a naval rating and in between April and December 1947 I was stationed at HMS Dryad at Southwick. My self and two other POs [Petty Officers]  were taken each day to the fort where civilian contractors were establishing a radar school, erecting radar masts and all the ancillary equipment. I had it in my head the other day to find the site on Google Earth but now I am not sure whether it was Fort Southwick or Fort Purbrook. I remember that the navy got fed up with transporting us each day and we ended up taking residence in the fort and fending for ourselves with a couple of others.

I would be most grateful if you can tell me, if you know, which fort had the radar. My guess is the it was Fort Purbrook. [It was Fort Purbrook. The RADAR mast plinth can still be seen just inside the main gate].

All the aerial shots show a very different layout to the roads etc. than the one I remember

Dennis Nicholls - January 2010


  NEW - 23-10-2009  

I have to tell you I have been lost in your excellent website (which I found through Google) for a couple of hours now. What memories it has brought back.
I was born in 1948 and from the ages of 4 through 16 I lived at the bottom of Portsdown in the Ashurst Road flats. I spent many a wonderful childhood day up on the "Hill"

One of my fondest memories was walking up to The George and then along the top of the hill with my parents. My dad would drop coins on the chalk path and I would find them and think I had found treasure...well to a 6 year old a halfpenny was a treasure! I used to look forward to stopping at the ice cream van (Vericcias?) and if I was good having a 99. What a treat!

I can remember distinctly that a lot of times the rain would come over the hill and stop at the back of the flats and it would be perfectly dry at the front. I wonder if the flats are still there?

I now live in Houston Texas and try to get back to Portsmouth every few years but I've never had the chance to walk over Portsdown. I'll have to do that next time I'm back. Thank you for the walk down memory lane.

Linda Patrick - Houston Texas - October 2009


  NEW - 23-10-2009  

I just wanted to send a quick note to say what a fascinating website of yours, that I stumbled on about 5 weeks ago.

It was just a a quiet Sunday morning and I was browsing, specifically looking for info on the forts having taken my 6 year old to [Fort] Nelson the Tuesday before during her summer holidays. I was mainly curious and frustrated that so much of the fort was closed off. As a child I can remember being able to go down more than the one central tunnel that leads to the north Caponier. Anyway, what I then found on your website has hooked me. Deep shelters? Secret underground bunkers? Wow! 

My granddad lived in Portchester (Orchard Grove) and a trip to the rec at the end of Cranleigh Road was a regular feature of our childhood in late 1970s, early 1980s. I recall being told and shown a large service hatch/grill in a field on the corner of Cranleigh, as it makes its first 90 degree left hand turn. A quick scramble over the barbed wire fence into the field revealed this. My old granddad would tell me that there was a huge pipe that ran all the way up to the hill. I don't recall what for, but remember him saying that if you lifted the cover, you could walk all the way up the line - maybe not granddad !! [This would be the Fuel Pipeline inspection hatch].

A second story - my Dad used to work for the Post Office on the phones. He told me a story of having to go into some area under the hill to work on some equipment. He is not overly sure where, but thinks Southwick although I have pointed out the BT installation, the old repeater station that you list as a BT assessment centre now. [It probably was the Fort Southwick COMMCEN]

Back to your site - I am hooked on the tunnels and the fuel portals. I have seen the portals by the M27 for years but never questioned them. A few weeks back we went on one of the walks and saw the north portal, the valve compound and the escape tunnels. We then walked into the chalk pit and went into the Cooper shelter and the old radio station. I was relieved to find it not closed off.

I have to say, you are very lucky to have been inside the fuel bunker and the deep shelters. I think, particularly with the latter, it is a shame they have been closed forever but can understand the H&S issues.

Andy Hamman - September 2009


NEW - 13-08-2009

I initially moved from Copnor in 1954 with my parents and small brother to the flats in Almonsbury Road. I was 5 years old and remember the long walk up The Hill from the shops in Allaway Avenue and where the buses stopped. We had a co-op van delivering our shopping sometimes. The library for many years was a wooden hut with a particular smell to it. I had to walk from Almonsbury Road to Jubilee Avenue four times a day as that was where the West Infant school was.

I moved with the family in 1955 to Allaway Avenue; Mum had another baby on the way. Unfortunately my father died in February 1956. Mum married her brother-in-law in 1959.

I attended Paulsgrove Secondary Modern from 1960 until 1964 the first head was Miss Chambers then Miss Fields. I remember playing with a girl before the summer holidays of 1960 and going back in September was told this girl had been killed on the Eastern Road.


Val Petrie - August 2009


  NEW - 01-02-2009  

Hi again Bob, I am still travelling down memory lane with your great site, as it seems do half the world.

Whilst I was browsing today I saw a letter from a Trudy Richens [see below] (nee Ball) who indeed was my old neighbour of 50 years ago I had no idea that she lived in a state just over the border from me for all these years. Is there any way you could forward my email address to her from your box of tricks? [yes, I've done that] It just shows how one can never take the Pom out of a Pommie! Not only has your site now travelled the globe but you may be about to be the initiator of a reunion in Australia of two close neighbours. Thank you again and every success to you for the future.

Patricia Heslam - Australia - February 2009


  NEW - 02-01-2009  

I was born in Portsmouth right next door to the driveway leading into the Paulsgrove Chalk Pit. The trucks went in and out all day long. We moved away from Deerhurst Crescent when I was about 7 years old and ended up in Truro Road. I can still remember as kids my sister and I would sit in our bedroom and look out at Portsdown Hill. My sister used to tether her horse up on the hill. Us kids would go walking up over the hill to watch the dirt bike racing we had some great times.

I now live in New South Wales, Australia and I can tell you your site has certainly brought back some fond memories for me. I'm not sure but one of your emails came from Beachmere Australia and I think Patricia Heslam [nee Jenkins] could be my old next door neighbour; I lived at No 5 Truro Road.
My husband and I visited England in 1994, and I took him to see the house in Deerhurst Crescent. I was mortified at what they have done to the chalk pit by building houses right up to the chalk face. I also couldn't believe the road right through the middle of our great hill. Is progress such a good thing?


Trudy Richens (nee Ball) - NSW Australia - January 2009


  NEW - 07-12-2008  

Our family moved to Cheltenham Road, Paulsgrove in 1939. It was one road with the Closes off of Cheltenham Road. We had lots of fun as kids playing in chalk pits also at Portchester Castle. I really like this site as it brings many back good memories. We moved to USA in 1961 and enjoy it here, but it is great to be able to go back in time to see and remember the fun we had as kids. We do visit UK but it has changed very much, but we always make a point of going to Portsdown Hill. We have travelled a lot in our years but have found nothing to compare with the view from the hill looking south and north.

This is a fantastic site and great to know that you started it so that many people can bring back the memories from days' gone bye.


Len Searley - USA - December 2008


  NEW - 12-11-2008  

Having recently taken semi-retirement, I have been working on my memoirs, and Portsdown Hill has a section to itself, as it featured quite prominently in my childhood memories. I lived at Paulsgrove (at 38a Allaway Avenue) from around 1952/3 until I married in 1969 & moved to a mobile home site near the crematorium in Upper Cornaway Lane, Portchester (Still on Portsdown Hill - just). Then, after a 14 year stint in Wales, my wife and I bought a house in Blakemere Crescent, Paulsgrove in 1985, where we lived until moving to Cambridgeshire in 2004. I'm attaching an extract from the journal which you may like to use, and may edit as necessary. Thank you for all the work you have put into the site. It will have made a lot of people very happy.



Unlike many modern, closely-guarded youngsters, I and my contemporaries had a great deal of freedom, and could roam and play more or less where we liked as long as our Mums knew roughly where we were and so long as we were home in time for our tea! Games of cowboys and Indians would take place round the corner in Credenhill Road on the “Humps and Bumps.” As the name suggests, this was an area of undeveloped rough, bumpy grassland where people would dump all sorts of unwanted rubbish, and it was a magnet for local kids.

However, as we got a little older, the real playground was Portsdown Hill, essentially a part of the extensive South Downs, and which overlooked our estate and the city itself. The hill is a high, prominent ridge, standing maybe 300 feet above sea level, and comprises chalky grassland, dotted with shrubbery on its lower reaches, and scarred by two former chalk quarries known respectively as Paulsgrove Chalk Pit and Wymering Chalk Pit.

The latter had been worked out some years earlier, but Paulsgrove Chalk Pit was still a working quarry, quarrying chalk to make lime for the building trade. Despite closing around the 1960s, It would later re-open and supply much of the chalk base on which the M275 into the city would be built.

Both chalk pits, with their steep cliffs and huge chalk boulders were a real draw for small boys, but there were fairly regular newspaper stories about kids who had ventured too close to the edge at the top, where the fencing was inadequate, then fallen over. Sometimes there were fatalities, or there would have to be cliff rescues, with kids clinging fearfully to the sheer chalk face, having climbed so far and being unable to move up or down.

There were caves cut into the cliff face at Paulsgrove Chalk Pit, and although originally at ground level, these caves had gradually moved up the cliff face as chalk had been quarried out to create a new “ground level.” Naturally all the kids wanted to explore these caves, some of which were more accessible than others. One local kid became everyone’s hero when he accessed one of the higher caves and discovered a cache of World War 2 ammunition, and got his name in the local paper. The event was followed by swarms of kids combing the hill for further secret stashes of arms or treasure!

There were always rumours that the Ministry of Defence, which had a prominent presence in and around the old Palmerston forts which lined the top of the hill, still had secret tunnels and arms dumps under the hill. Later information would prove that at least some of this was true.

There had been a “cave” at Wymering Chalk Pit where, despite the entrance having been boarded up, kids would still manage to get in to explore. This was actually the entrance to an extensive tunnel system under the hill, which had been used as an air-raid shelter and makeshift hospital during World War 2. It had a capacity of over 2,500 people. After a while, concerned about possible injuries, the local authority – or perhaps the Ministry of Defence, plugged the entrance with a lorry-load of concrete, effectively sealing it off. The site became overgrown and covered in shrubbery, and most people forgot about it – until the early 1990s that is.

During the late 1980s, I had been undertaking professional studies which would see me qualify as an Incorporated Valuer with the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, which in turn would later merge with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, making me a professionally qualified Chartered Surveyor.

One of my fellow students worked for Portsmouth City Council, and one day mentioned that there were plans to clear the old Wymering Chalk Pit and erect houses there. They planned to stabilise the chalk face of the quarry before starting work. My friend had not lived in the area as long as I had, and I recounted some of my childhood experiences to him. It became evident that the council was unaware that there was a former air-raid shelter at the quarry. The tunnels would need to be re-opened and investigated before being permanently sealed before building work could begin. There was just one problem: nobody knew exactly where the air-raid shelter was!

The tunnel entrances had been sealed with concrete many years before, and falls of loose chalk had further obscured the entrance, after which blackberry bushes and other scrub had grown up along the base of the quarry. There was no sign of the main entrance. Furthermore, nobody at the council knew anything about the tunnels, and the MOD was unable – or unwilling – to provide detailed plans which might help. After discussing with colleagues, my friend approached me and asked whether I could help them find the tunnels.

I knew that the main entrance to the air-raid shelter had been towards the eastern end of the chalk pit, maybe two-thirds of the way along, and I had a photograph in a book which actually showed the air-raid shelter in use during the war, confirming the approximate position.

Heavy machinery was moved to the site, and work began to uncover the entrance. In recognition of my contribution, I was invited to the official opening of the tunnels, and after an official with test equipment had entered and confirmed that the air was safe to breathe, several of us went in with torches to investigate. We were the first to go into this subterranean maze of tunnels for several decades, and we were unsure what we might find. Would there be concealed bodies, or secret arms caches?

One of the first things we saw was a well-preserved poster, setting out the rules of the air-raid shelter/underground hospital. The tunnel roof was lined with curved section corrugated iron, and it was interesting to note that there was very little rust on this, despite it having been in place for around half a century. There were broken saucepans and parts of old prams on the floor of the tunnels, but structurally everything was sound. We explored several tunnels, each with occasional air vents disappearing into the roof. No doubt the tops of these would be concealed beneath the undergrowth on the hill.

Somewhat disappointingly there were no bodies and no secret arms caches. The kids who had played in these tunnels during the fifties had no doubt spirited away anything useful. Nevertheless, this was a fascinating experience, and one which brought back childhood memories. Within a short time the tunnel entrance was re-sealed and the chalk face stabilised. A year or so later a small housing estate stood inside the chalk pit, and no doubt the air-raid shelter would be forgotten for another forty or fifty years, perhaps for ever.

Portsdown Hill was a great resource for youngsters. There were (and still are) bomb craters and ridges which made great hidey holes when playing war games, and the concrete bases where stood the anti-aircraft guns which helped defend Portsmouth during the war are still there. The chalk pits, with their inadequate fences, added that element of danger which heightens the senses, but which is often missing from the lives of our carefully cosseted children nowadays.

In winter, those of us without sledges would slide down the hill on chunks of cardboard or plywood – there was always plenty of rubbish dumped on the hill, but we never saw it as an eyesore, merely as a resource. The hill is very steep, so we’d often go out of control and end up covered in scratches and bruises after crashing into the bushes at the foot of the hill.

Old cars used to get dumped in the chalk pits and on other accessible parts of the hill, and would make great playthings for inquisitive kids. When I returned to Portsmouth in the 1980s after a long absence, there were fewer dumped cars on the lower reaches of Portsdown Hill, but so-called “Joyriders” would steal cars from various parts of the city, then roll them off the top of the hill, sometimes torching them.

I would often walk on the hill, and would frequently find cars which had been stolen. These were not always easy to spot, because by the eighties the hill had become quite overgrown, and the chalky grassland had given way to heavy scrub in many areas. I’d find cars buried in undergrowth, often fully intact apart from a few scratches. I once followed a track of bruised saplings down the hill into a thick clump of brush and brambles. There I found a pristine MGB sports car, with only a few scratches on the paintwork. I was able help police restore the vehicle to its worried owner, as I did with quite a few cars and motorcycles.

Les Herridge - November 2008


Then & Now Photos


About Portsdown

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