Surface Sites

Portsdown Main

 Created 17-10-2004   Last update 15-09-2022

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Here are some extracts from emails received about Portsdown Main. The italicised comments in [] brackets are mine.

UPDATE - 15-09-2022

First of all, let me say thank you for the amazing website you have created- it really is superb. I first came across it a few years ago and often dip into it, when I want to re-kindle the wonderful memories I have of my time at ASWE. The place where I started what was to be a 30 year career in the Ministry Of Defence.
  If it wasn’t for my Father sitting me down in July 1979, and making me fill in an application for Clerical Assistants at ASWE, I most probably would have never ended up there. But I did fill in the application and in August 1979, joined the Local Purchase Section in what was the Stores And Transport Department- located east of the canteen. That started a life-long passion for Contracts, which from 1987 was what I did for the rest of my career. I reached the rank of SEO, so was pleased with that.
However, it was ASWE which had such a massive impact on me. What a beautiful building that was. Everything about it was just entrancing- the foyer in the main entrance, the grand staircase that ran up through the 3 floors.

The Director at the time, the late Ken Slater, used to sprint up the staircase to his office on the second floor. All the corridors with the offices of the various departments; the plush meeting rooms. The canteen, which was set apart from the main building, was an incredible building- amongst other things it was also used to host the twice a year blood donations.
   As I had started on the bottom rung of the ladder, I was both fascinated and in awe of the management corridor, on the second floor. This housed the offices of the Directors and the heads of department (4 if I recall correctly). I can even remember their names and their job tally!!! I used to love being sent there to collect something, in the hope that I would get a glimpse ( or sometimes even be invited in!), to the Directors office. It was so luxurious; deep, thick pile carpet, an amazing view over the harbour and so big!! It had a unique smell all of its own as well. Actually, in terms of the view, I was fortunate enough that all the offices I worked in, had great views over the harbour.John Pound’s scrapyard, with old submarines laying in their final resting place,used to glisten in the sunshine.
    Another, very unique, feature of ASWE, was that it had its own cinema!!! Every week, over two days during lunchtime, they would show films for a very reasonable entrance fee. It had to be over 2 days as the projector could only show half the film at one time!!! What a wonderful way to spend a lunchtime. I certainly remember seeing “The Car”, a horror film about a possessed car that goes on a rampage!!!!
    Every summer would be the ASWE Fayre. This was the only time of the year when the public were allowed onto the site. I think the fact that it was out of bounds to the public apart from the fayre, just added to the almost “James Bond” aura that it had about it. One year there was a tug-o-war contest between the Navy and Civilians!!! I was press ganged into taking part - and I’m not a very big person!!! Needless to say, the Navy won!!

Rumours always abounded of a secret world, which existed underneath ASWE- very James Bond esq indeed!! Someone once told me that they were driving at night, across the top of the hill, and saw the ground open up inside the fence perimeter and cars disappearing down it!!!!! I think he had probably had one too many!!!!
   I was so gutted when this amazing building was finally demolished- besides everything else, it leaves such a huge hole in the landscape.
I hope you enjoy this recollection of some of my memories of ASWE as much as I do visiting your site. Keep up the good work.

Mark Taylor - September 2022


UPDATE - 15-02-2014

My attention has been brought to your website by my son Tim who has been a fan of yours for a long time.

I worked at ASWE or it's extensions for the whole of my working life. I started as a Laboratory Assistant at ASE Nutbourne in 1942, was transferred to Eastney Fort East then two years later to ASRE Portsdown where I stayed until I retired in 1957 as a Senior Scientific Officer.
I can add to your information on ASWE Portsdown either through my own experience or by reference to an excellent history written in 1969 by Norman Vidler an ex employee.

A committee was set up by the Admiralty in 1944 to plan the future Admiralty Weapons Establishment (AWE) and the concept was published in October of that year. When and where would have to be decided before the plan was put into practice at the end of the war.

Virtually the whole of Portsdown hill was War Department property and it was an obvious advantage for testing radar systems. Electricity and water was already available at Fort Southwick having been laid on from Wymering but these utilities would have to be upgraded to meet the expected demand.

It must be remembered that ASWE did not just consist of the Main building dominating the skyline but that there were workshops, canteen, several laboratory blocks and other buildings. These required a large flat area which the crest of the hill did not have. Consequently the first priority was to push the earth north and south. But because this would cover the existing hill road a new road would have to be built further south.

This groundwork was completed in 1946 ready for the first building to be erected. The footings for the Workshops Block were dug by hand by German prisoners of war awaiting repatriation who were rewarded with a small amount of pocket money for their efforts

Over the next two years buildings were slowly built, speed of progress restricted by the availability of materials and fuel shortages following the recent war.

In the summer of 1948, ASE appointed an Officer-in-Charge at Portsdown to oversee the site and he took up residence in an old road/rail container in the middle of a group of contractor's huts.

The date of completion (except for the Main Block) and, therefore, occupation by staff was fixed for Friday, 3rd of September, 1948 and so the establishment was officially opened by the Controller of the Navy, vice Admiral DG Daniel, RN.

During excavations on the north east side of the establishment a human skull was unearthed which, as was required, reported to the local authority. The Portsmouth Museum curator inspected the site and concluded that the burial was an isolated case and work was resumed. The skull was nicknamed Percy by the contractors and kept on a shelf in their site hut.

The Main building, or Admin block as I knew it, was yet to be built and this started in February 1953 when the then Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, Admiral Sir John Edelston RN cut the first sod. It took over two years to construct and was ready for occupation in April 1955.

Not recorded elsewhere is the history of ASWE Portsdown West which existed a mile to the west of the main establishment and I could tell that story at a later date.

Bryan Cox, Bedhampton - February 2014


UPDATE - 01-01-2014

Well what can I say I came across your site on Facebook and spent most of Sunday morning reading and searching your site. I joined ASWE in September 1968 as a craft apprentice and worked there until 1978 when I joined Hampshire Fire Brigade after the national strike. I thought I could offer some insight to some of the comments and add some more.

As an apprentice we were issued a toolbox known as a pussers [naval] tool box which was equipped with various tools from a 1 inch micrometer to hammers etc and 10 tool checks which were exchanged for special tools from the tool store. As a 16 year old it was amusing to us apprentices to have tools electro engraved with ARSE on them which as another has said didn't last long.

Our first year we were under the instruction of Don Foot and our workshop was down the pit which was on the North side of the main workshop car park, above us was a plating shop paint shop and sandblasting shop and the sheetmetal shop which later became the apprentice training school when the new sheet metal shop was built behind the main workshop.

ASWE also inherited the name HMS Mercury II and I can remember it being used only by a few of the old tiffies [naval artificer]. In our first year it all being new to us we found that there was an underground shooting range and if memory serves me well it was in the stores and test building east of the main block and spent many times there during the lunch hour (3/4 hour actually).

As young lads we soon explored the site and found all these young ladies our age in the typing pool which was on the ground floor east side of the main building and made a nuisance of ourselves more than once around Christmas etc. You might say this was all during the cold war and as such we were subject to lectures etc about reds under the bed and to watch out for loose women This was all in what was the lecture room come cinema in the N.E. ground floor corner of the main building.

In our 2nd year we spent three months in the electrical section with our instructor Phil Hammond and 3 months in the drawing office when we lost 2 of our intake one with double pneumonia Mac and Paul who for reasons known to us left for pastures new. Working in the apprentice drawing office meant our work-times changed and we as apprentices spent our lunch times chatting up the typists and the tracers. After those stints we ended up behind what was known as the Iron curtain. In our first 2 years we were all together and schooled everyday by our instructors.

Come our 3rd and 4th year we ended up working with individual instructors in the main workshop in what was known as modular training and we would be under their tuition and guidance and one of the best instructors I ever had was a guy called Maury Leather. At one time in his life he had been goal keeper for Pompey and Yeovil Town and as such and as we were now older we used to play footie lunch times out the back on the north side of the apprentice school. Maury sure could kick a ball and if he went in to tackle you he always came out on top.

During those 3rd and 4th years we as apprentices decided that we needed to let of steam after work and we ran discos. Les Wallin was our DJ at the 'Blue Lagoon', Hilsea every 6 weeks and I can still remember The Moody Blues Knights In White Satin blaring away from the bus-stops opposite the Southdown Bus Depot. The money we made we spent on a Christmas party in he canteen for all the children who were in children's homes from Havant, Hayling Island, Gosport and of course Portsmouth. We used busses to get them there and entertained them, feed them and sent them back home with a Christmas present from Father Christmas.

After our 4th year we passed-out and those of us that made the grade were offered a job as a Lab mechanic and I served their till 1978 when I left and joined Hampshire Fire Brigade, this came about that during the Fire Service national strike. I and other staff members from the workshop became volunteer fireman under the guidance of a writer Bill Fells who was an ex-Portsmouth fireman. I had caught the bug and applied for a job with them after the strike and joined in the September. I went back a few times as a fireman and to receive an award for work we had done which had been patented by the Admiralty. Then in 1989 I was retired from HFB because of injuries on the job and being out of work found myself moving to the USA where I now run my own company all with the knowledge that I learnt as an ASWE apprentice


P.S. On the Paulsgrove page there is a letter, page 2, 3rd letter from a Pamela Clark who lived in Deerhurst Crescent where I grew up and her brother taught me to ride a 2 wheel bike.

Jim Barron (1968 apprentice) Rigby, Idaho, USA

 - January 2014


 NEW - 15-04-2012

I was an electrical fitter and turner apprentice there at ASWE from 1978 to 1982 and have a few photos on my Facebook site, medical first aid course on the main stairs, Prince Charles who came to thank us for our efforts during the Falklands crisis, and one of my mentor: Professor Herbert French from Funtington. Lovely time that was...

I am now an Engineering Manager and electronic design engineer for a fire and security company, have worked with ROV's ,satellite, medical equipment and radio, all made possible by my knowledge from my time there.

I also have photos from the Havant museum, which recently did a memorial display to the 700 apprentices who trained there, guided by Phil Hammond ,ex trainer, now at Staunton community school in West Leigh.

Bill Butterfield, Ken Hedger - trainers in machining, Rick Sharp, Peter Goddard, Bob Button - electronic trainers.... Oh there are some memories all right....


Andy Little - April 2012


ASWE first aid team 1980

Passing out photo 1980 first aid team. Dr Woolas centre front row, me left hand side second row at the top of photo. Taken at ASWE front staircase main building.

Source: Andy Little - April 2012


NEW - 30-10-2011

At the age of ten I watched ASWE being built. I lived in Boston Road Wymering and Portsdown Hill was my playground. In 1946 German POWs from the prison camp situated in Creech Walk on the road between Southwick and Denmead were brought daily to the ASWE site, and they provided a lot of the labour for the initial ground works. My friends and I spent many an hour wandering the site (no real security then) conversing with them and sharing some of their meals (tinned sardines and bread for example) much to the consternation of my mother who thought they would poison us (totally unfounded of course). Many of them expressed to us the desire to remain in England. I believe in fact that many of them did.

I think that ASWE opened well before 1952 as mentioned in your summary introduction, probably in the late 1940s when the wartime naval signal establishment was moved from Haslemere .

Initially the establishment was known as the Admiralty Radar and Signals Establishment (A.R.S.E) and this logo appeared on the local buses destination boards. It was however rapidly renamed as the Admiralty Signals and Radar Establishment (A.S.R.E ) for obvious reasons. In the days before universal car ownership there were always long convoys of buses waiting outside the main gate to take people home. If I remember correctly, the green buses (Southdown) had the routes to Fareham and over the back of Portsdown Hill, while the red buses (Portsmouth Corporation) had the routes into the city.

Moving on to 1966. On leaving the Royal Navy I joined the then re-named ASWE as a Technical Author and wrote and managed the production of a number of Technical manuals in support of ships' weapons systems. During this time I met many interesting people and worked at the forefront of developing technology. I must have walked through that impressive front entrance and ascended the imposing stairway many thousands of times. I left ASWE in 1987 to continue in a similar capacity in HMS DRYAD and then HMS COLLINGWOOD. Finally retiring from MOD service in 1996.

Moving on again to 2011. I drove past the ASWE site in October and I see that all that now remains of the Main Building is a large heap of rubble. So in my lifetime I have witnessed the construction and now the final destruction of that once impressive building.

A Holmes - October 2011

NEW - 30-10-2011

I pop in to your site quite often and never felt like commenting until now. Looking up the hill from my bedroom window it saddens to see the Portsdown Main building West Wing GONE, The centre block is a shell, This just leaves the Right Wing to disappear for good.

We are so lucky to have your site to remember what will be missing from our skyline. Keep the photos coming as this is all we will have left of my childhood play area (On the hill, over the hill and in and around the tunnels which are blocked now) great times for us kids. Great site Bob keep it up.

Alan Winter - September 2011

A friend and I are both 'urban explorers' and even though we weren't dressed for occasion we happened past ASWE this afternoon and wondered what it looked like inside. We walked through the gate just three hours ago, politely told the men on the desk what our intentions were (of course innocent, as an exploratory interest only) and they allowed us in. I was blown away.

My father, Colin Pykett, was Chief Scientist at ASWE for several years, prior to that he worked at Portland. I phoned him up when we were inside and he guided me to where his office is/was. It was all very surreal as the place has been gutted, and there was a fire in the theatre last week. There are still old Christmas decorations hanging up in one of the restaurants.

Simon E Pykett - August 2010

I wondered if anyone knew my father who worked at ASWE, probably between 1960-1970. His name was Raymond Henry Cook. He died in 1971 on holiday in Cornwall. He was born in 1919. As a young child I can remember clearly going to a Christmas party in the art deco building.
As my parents were divorced, I never knew my father's true occupation, except that he had been a CPO in the Navy during the WW2 and was very clever.

If anyone has any information or access to staff information it would be gratefully received. Many thanks.

Diane Townsend - January 2010 (reply here)

Hi, my father Charles Holbourn used to work at ASWE in the 1960s, something to do with guided weapons. He was there for quite a few years and before that he was at Portland, Dorset. I just wandered if any one might have worked with him?


 Paula Ellinor - February 2009


I came across your site when I Googled ASWE, as I was an apprentice there from 1976 to 1980. It is so sad to see this site with its buildings all going to rack and ruin. A few years ago I went to a machinery auction there. I was so looking forward to going to see where I once trained, but I was in for one hell of a shock. To see what was once a thriving 'community' was obviously now in terminal decline. I know its a rapidly changing world, and maybe the site really is no longer required by the MoD, but it still seems so sad if not criminal to let it all go to rack and ruin.

I have lived in this area since 1964. From 1964 to 1978 I lived in Beverley Grove, just east of Farlington Redoubt.

I also became fascinated with tunnels. This fascination started when the admiralty moved out of Fort Purbrook and the whole place was left open for anyone to explore! I was also very interested in the rumours that there might be tunnels that either extend out from the forts or possibly even link the forts together. I distinctly remember the two large underground rooms at the bottom of the main spiral staircase, and the narrow walkway that extended around these two rooms. I also distinctly remember searching for hidden tunnel entrances, that may lead away from the fort, but other than a narrow passage into the chalk, which extended approx only a few yards and then narrowed to a dead end, nothing was ever found.
At the time I put my best hope in there being a water tunnel, as somewhere in the middle of the fort was a (highly dangerous) open manhole that led to an underground room containing water. If my memory serves me well, this underground room had tunnels leading off it , but I would have needed a canoe to explore them further as they too were containing water.You mention the strange chimney to the east of the fort. This was an eerie chimney as in foggy conditions the chimney could mysteriously appear ( when there was fog or mist between it and the fort) and disappear in clear conditions when it visually blended into the fort. I too was suspicious of this chimney- It HAD to lead to something. One day I noticed that it had been knocked to the ground, and went to see what could be found. Unfortunately quite a considerable amount of rubble was blocking the underground access, far too much even for an inquisitive young lad to shift unaided!

I also wonder if any evidence of tunnels were discovered when the cutting was dug/ surely the road level is plenty deep enough for a tunnel in the Redoubt direction?

Mike O'Hagan - February 2009


I was fascinated by your website and will try to add my bit as I am revisiting my childhood more than 50 years later by staying in Pompey , with my wife Ingrid.

I was born in 1942 in Birmingham but turned up in Pompey in 1943 with Mum & Dad living at 11, Rosebery Avenue, Cosham . Dad was Herbert David Gilroy - he had joined the newly formed MOD Police Service. By 1952 I had 2 more brothers and we all moved to the two Police Residences up on the Hill when Dad was promoted to Inspector. I have photos of us outside our home. The site was then called ASRE -Admiralty Signal and Radar Establishment.

Dad, as Senior Police Officer, was always meeting the top people there - the Chief Scientist - when transistors were in their infancy. It was a "technical place ".

Dad was "security " so not much I will reveal in this email - but I do remember him, firearms and all, going out in the night on an "inspection".

David Gilroy - May 2008


I had my first job after graduation at ASWE, from October 1975 to October 1977. I actually worked for Ferranti, an on-site contractor (we had two portakabins!), MoD code XBC3F.

I had a happy two years at ASWE. We used to walk to the canteen at lunchtimes, getting stunning views of the Solent, for free. MoD police on site, with dogs. We were often stopped if we'd forgotten to put our ID badges on. A lay-by thoughtfully provided outside where Russian spies could park and take photographs of people going into work and their car registration numbers!

I remember the day I started; the USS Nimitz was anchored out in the Solent, too big to come into Portsmouth harbour. 91500 tons, a monster of a ship. Then the Royal Review of the Fleet in 1976. Scores of visiting warships anchored in the Solent. I went up into the 'radar building' (which had a radar the size of a single-decker bus permanently rotating above it). We'd never seen so many 'blips' on the screen. I also remember the drought of 1976, which spectacularly ended in a thunderstorm at Portsmouth naval base, when I was there on 'Navy Day'.

I used to work on systems for Type 42 frigates, in particular HMS Sheffield, later to be destroyed in the Falklands conflict. HMS Bristol too I think, but she was a 'one off', the MoD switched to the cheaper Type 42s. The same system was to go onto the 'ARA 42s', which were working up in Portsmouth at the time. 'ARA' was the Armada Republica Argentina, the ships were later named Hercules and Trinidad Santisima. I think they came out of port in the Falklands conflict, only to beat a hasty retreat when the saw the Royal Navy on the horizon! They stayed in port for the rest of the conflict.

The 'big' radar was the Type 965, two smaller ones fore and aft (under hemispherical cowlings) were Type 909s. Considered 'old technology' even back in the 1970s.

I often wondered what happened to ASWE, I guessed it was probably sold to Qinetic or became part of the DRA, looks like I wasn't far off. Maybe it'll be sold off for 'executive housing', but I hope not. I did get in touch with one of my colleagues via Friends Reunited, but I've forgotten the names of most of the others, it all seems a long time ago now.

Anonymity requested - March 2007



What a joy! Browsing your website brought back many happy memories of my time at ASWE, and answered many questions I'd pondered since first setting foot on the Hill, although I found the pictures of empty rooms rather sad.

I was "posted" to ASWE Portsdown in 1973 and worked there for about 9 months. I'll never forget the scene that presented itself on day one as the "ferry" came over the crest onto Portsdown Hill. The hilltop positively bristled with radar dishes and antennae. That image is permanently burned into my memory! The "ferry"" was a black saloon car or navy blue Bedford van, running from ASWE Portsdown to Havant station.

After a while I started to notice all those peculiar features in the landscape so well documented in your website. I remember saying to colleagues "What a fascinating place this is". Since then I've spent many happy hours immersed in books on defensive structures, Napoleonic forts, bunkers and tunnels, so the Hill obviously had an effect on me! By the way, the deputy director of ASWE (in 1980) Dr John Wood, wrote a fine book called "Sun, Moon and Standing Stones" on the subject of megalithic circles.

My digs were on Hayling Island, for which I have vague memories of shark sandwiches and strong beer. 

Andrew Taylor - May 2006



I was an apprentice at ASWE in the 70s. One of your photos shows a tiny bit of the old apprentice training shop. The place doesn't look too bad other than the overgrowth. On the south side of the workshops used to be the sheetmetal shop a newer structure where I spent most of my time 1973-1978. Although the W in ASWE stood for weapons the work concentrated mostly on RADAR R&D. The massive main shop contained some really long lathes used for radar masts. The coppersmiths I worked with would spend hours bending and polishing waveguides (rectangular metal pipe) which the radar signal would travel thru. 

On one expedition to the dockyard I got to help fit a shield on HMS Sheffield to prevent exhaust from her stack interfering with the radar installation behind it. Several years later after I had moved to the USA and the Falklands war was on, I thought about that piece of my handywork, now forever under the southern Atlantic. Keep up the good work

Paul Emery - October 2004



I lived in Portsmouth for a while - once in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. I used  to work for the MoD and was based at Portsdown Main.

The site changed quite a bit between the two times I was there. Originally the Engineering buildings had a full metal workshop and I believe a composite materials workshop which supported the research work that ARE did. In the 90s the engineering shops were vacated as the site stopped its Research work and essentially became offices for mainly MoD Civilians supporting Defence Procurement more than anything else.

I do remember Security was pretty lax in the 80s. It got better in the 90s. Friends and I had competitions to see what we could replace the passes with that you had to show gate security to get into the site. As I recall a slice of toast and lettuce leaf both worked!

I did come upon a secure area once. I was passing a door in one of the many other buildings on the site that was very similar to the "strong Room" picture you have and it was opened so I had a look. Inside was a fairly large office area which was being refurbished. It looked like it was
soundproofed and probably screened against radio. This sort of area would have been used for work on Top Secret Projects - Secret and below was pretty routine and just about everyone is cleared to Secret as a matter of course. It was interesting in as much as any area one doesn't know about is interesting, but not really mysterious in any way. Unfortunately I opened another door whilst inside which led outside the building. It was early evening so few people were around. The door could only be shut by locking it with a key, and there wasn't one, so I had to go find security and confess my sins so they could lock the door again.

Mark Nicholson - October 2004


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