Fort Nelson is one of several forts on Portsdown Hill, built in the 1860s to protect Portsmouth against the threat of an enemy attack from the French. While they were never needed for this (the French threat disappeared after their defeat in their war against Prussia in 1870), they were later adapted and used during World Wars I and II. These days, Fort Nelson is a museum and home to the Royal Armouries artillery collection.
It’s another place that I’ve never visited before, despite having grown up near Portsmouth, but having discovered it was (a) open between Christmas and New Year, (b) free and (c) had ‘treasure box’ activities aimed at preschool children, we decided to visit.
Fort Nelson is home to the original Nelson’s column – the first monument built to commemorate his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar. The column also formed part of the “Walk the Fort” treasure trail which was running at the time of our visit. We’re big fans of treasure trails – they’re a wonderful way of encouraging the children to go for a walk and looking out for clues makes it much more interesting.
Most of the walk was around the ditch surrounding the fort with the clues displayed on noticeboards along the way. The girls were mostly interested in the daisies, buttercups, sticks and stones which they found along the way although Jessica was also very quick to voice her objections over some of the noticeboards being a bit wonky!
We quite enjoyed our walk around the fort, being out in the fresh air, and filling in the answers to the clues although it was quite annoying to reach the end of the trail and find we had to turn around and retrace our steps in order to get back to the museum entrance!
As a result of finishing the trail, we were entered into a prize draw and also received a 20% discount in the café which was very handy as it was now lunchtime and the girls were very hungry after their walk!
After being fed and watered, it was time to explore the inside of the fort. There were two treasure boxes available for preschool children to use – in order to access them, we just had to ask at the information desk. We chose the box in Sergeant Dobson’s kitchen which was aimed at 2-4 year olds and were then escorted to that room by a member of staff who unlocked the box for us.
The box was filled with play food, toy cups and plates, crockery and cutlery and books about food. There were some sheets of suggested activities to help link what was in the box to the items in Sergeant Dobson’s kitchen but the girls were more interested in playing freely with the contents of the box rather than being guided. Hubby and I quite enjoyed sitting on the mats on the floor while Jessica and Sophie prepared a little picnic/tea party for us!
We’d rushed through some of the other galleries on the way to the kitchen, so once the girls had finished playing, we packed up the box and retraced our steps. The areas that we had missed focused on life inside the fort, on recruitment and on medical care (an area which I found especially interesting). I was pleasantly surprised by how much there was for Jessica and Sophie to do – there were activities for children in most of the galleries and whilst the girls were a little young for some of them; others, such as the dressing up area, kept them amused for ages!
The rest of the museum mostly featured the artillery collection, which hubby found a lot more interesting than I did. I have to confess I had lost interest in all the different guns long before we reached the end! There is usually a daily gun firing which is at 1pm each day, but a technical error at meant it didn’t happen on the day of our visit. I wasn’t too sorry about this – Jessica gets quite scared by loud noises and I know she wouldn’t have liked it.
Heading through the tunnels and out on the ramparts was quite interesting – Sophie wasn’t too keen on the darkness of the tunnels though – “Oh no, der dark! Der dark is scary!” – and the spiral staircase to reach the rampart was a little tricky for little ones. Thankfully we managed to find a route back to the museum entrance that didn’t involve having to go back down the spiral staircase and through the tunnels again!
By the time we were ready to go home, it was late afternoon. I’d thought initially that we’d spend a couple of hours at most at Fort Nelson – I was quite impressed at just how much there was to see and do. We all enjoyed the day out, had a nice walk in the fresh air and the girls didn’t get bored at any point which is always a good sign! Whilst it’s probably not somewhere I would choose to visit again (artillery collections really don’t interest me!) I’m glad we visited it once.
Fort Nelson is open daily from 10.30am – 4pm (Nov-Mar) and 10am-5pm (Apr-Oct). Entry is free.