60: Portsdown Hill, Portsmouth City

Portchester Castle
Portchester Castle, on the shore of Portsmouth Harbour.

Date: 22nd October 2022.

Weather conditions: Sunny and quite warm in the morning. It clouded over a little after noon, but there are no grounds for complaint. A very good day for walking.

County Top bagged: Portsdown Hill, which is the highest point in the local authority of Portsmouth City. Although it clearly is the highest point for some distance around, the specific location and altitude of the summit is a matter for conjecture. The Times Atlas of Britain, and Strava, suggest the highest point lies at an altitude of 430 feet/131m above sea level, within the walls of Fort Southwick, but there is no 130m contour evident on the map anywhere in this area. At most, the OS map suggests a 125m spot height at about SU628069. It is possible the walls of the Fort get up above this but if I was measuring CTs by including the height of buildings rather than the land they stand on, I would have already had to assign different Tops to cities like Liverpool, Manchester, London etc.

Fort Southwick
The view from the furthest inside Fort Southwick that I was permitted to get. The top of the grassy bank is probably the summit, or near enough.

None of this matters in a practical sense because even if there is a 131m altitude to be attained, this can’t be done at the moment because the interior of Fort Southwick is inaccessible to the general public (see the route notes below). Not only that, but the line of the local authority boundary, as drawn on the map, suggests that much of the interior of the Fort does not actually lie within Portsmouth City, but in Hampshire to the north. I will stick with the height as given in the Atlas, for convenience, but with significant reservations. Allowing for these points, this ranks 139th of the modern Tops by altitude, and 163rd of the full list.

Also, note that whereas the OS map labels it Ports Down, all the information boards on the top agree with Wikipedia that it’s Portsdown Hill.

Tree by the sea
Tree by the sea: or by the Harbour, anyway.

This is the most southerly CT I have bagged so far, though I reckon there are still ten (thus, about 1:20 of the total) further south than here.

[ << Garrel Hill, North Lanarkshire and Darrach Hill, Falkirk (58/59) | (61) The Ashes, Lincolnshire – Parts of Kesteven >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Started at Portchester rail station, which can be reached by half-hourly services from Southampton Central and Portsmouth and Southsea, and some services from London Waterloo.

I could have finished there too, but had got a little tired of tramping suburban streets by the time I passed the bus stop near the M27, at about SU632059, so I called it a day there, and instead caught a number 3 bus service which went back to the station: although in fact I stayed on it until it dropped me at the pub (see next paragraph).

Nelson's monument
Nelson’s Column: the original.

The walk took me about three hours. There is plenty of scope to lengthen your day by also exploring Fort Nelson (which is free to enter) and Portchester Castle (which is not).

Pub at end: If it had been open when I’d passed it I’d have gone to the Cross Keys in Paulsgrove, but it was shut; Google Maps suggested it might have been open at 2pm on a Saturday, but that would have been a ¾ hour wait. Via the aforementioned bus, I therefore ended up at the Wicor Mill in Portchester, which I had walked past earlier on. This was a decent pub, with decent beer and a decent beer garden; maybe not over-exciting, but, y’know, decent.

Distance walked: 7.25 miles/11.66km approximately.

Total ascent: 450 feet/140m approx. The first three miles of the route are basically at sea level, and very little height is lost on the ascent at any point.

On the Harbour
On the water. The cliffs in the background are seen again below.

Difficulty: ★★. On the whole this is an easy walk, although the descent off the hill is steep, and I would recommend proper footwear.

Ease of access: ★★★★. This is not a hard walk to reach. Portchester station is not an urban transport hub but it sees plenty of trains, whether from Southampton, Portsmouth or, on occasion, London.

Scenic qualities: ★★★. This is a curate’s egg of a walk. There are some tedious, suburban sections, but also some spectacular views, both from low down, when you are beside the sea, and from the higher reaches of the hill. Add to this Portchester Castle, and the two forts, and there are plenty of things to see. However, it is frustrating that one cannot reach the actual summit.

The area: A common trivia question about British geography is: which city (and which professional football club) are the only ones to not lie on the mainland of Great Britain? The answer, to both, is Portsmouth, which is built on Portsea Island, separated from the rest of Hampshire by a narrow tidal creek.

View of the Harbour
Portsmouth Harbour, seen from about halfway up the hill.

With about 250,000 people living on it this makes the island the third most-populated one in the whole archipelago, after Great Britain itself, and Ireland, and one of the most crowded islands in the world, with a population density greater than Singapore. Its huge natural harbour, and strategic position on the Channel, means that Portsmouth has always been a naval port, hence the fortifications which crown Portsdown Hill. It is also the second busiest ferry port in the country, after Dover.

However, I stayed on the mainland today and didn’t make it onto Portsea island. Portchester, where I did spend my time, has Roman origins, as its name makes clear. These days it’s just a suburb of the city, but while there are some dull bits to it I had a decent day there, including a visit to AFC Portchester of the Wessex Premier League.

Map: Outdoor Leisure 3: Meon Valley was useful (as maps always are) for planning out the walk, but as most of the navigational issues on the hike involve navigating streets rather than country paths, the GPS on my phone was rather more useful on the day.

Map of walk 60

On this summary map, the station is in the centre, the summit to the north, and I went round the loop clockwise.

Route: This is an easy walk on the whole, though not without frustrations when it comes to the route, particularly on the top. It could be made shorter by at least 2½ miles by omitting the walk out to Portchester Castle at the beginning, and heading straight for Fort Nelson, but I think it should be included: it is nice to get the opening section by the sea, and there are some very good views to be had. But bear in mind it never gets out into open countryside, and should be considered a suburban walk throughout.

Spinnaker Tower
View over the harbour to the Spinnaker Tower.

To get to Portchester Castle from the station, come down the exit ramp and turn right, under the bridge. Keep going across the A27 (there is a subway), through what amounts to Portchester’s town centre, then, opposite the school, turn left down Cow Lane. This turns into a path that takes you to the shore of Portsmouth Harbour. To the left, you can see the chalk cliff that will be encountered closer up in a few hours, but for now, turn to the right, away from it and towards the castle. This path — the “England Coastal Path” — hugs the water’s edge, with good views across the Harbour to Portsmouth and its distinctive Spinnaker Tower, which is over 500 feet high.

Past the castle, which I passed up the chance to explore inside, I intended to keep going all the way along the waterside, except that I was there at high tide. This meant that the path beyond a certain point looked impassable, and signs pointed along a “High Tide Route” that detoured inland. This route took me along the street called Roman Grove for a time (a sign of the town’s origins), but as this was rather boring, I turned back onto the sea front as soon as I got the chance. All the same, time was passing, so once I got to about SU610048 I decided I’d had enough of the harbour so turned right, up Wicor Mill road. If you follow me, turn left at the Co-op and follow this road back to the A27, which cross via another subway.

M27 footbridge
The footbridge over the motorway, looking south.

Go up Dore Avenue, over the railway line then bear left along Upper Cornaway Lane, past the gates of the crematorium, then, as this turns into the private estate, turn right along the path, which heads between tall hedges and starts to climb, though never all that steeply. It crosses the M27 then comes up onto the road beside Fort Nelson.

This is the first of the line of “Palmerston Forts” that occupy the high ridge of Portsdown Hill. These were built in the 1800s to defend Portsmouth, and its naval facilities, against the perceived threat of invasion by the French, but the concern was that this would come by land, rather than sea: hence why the emplacements face north to Hampshire, instead of towards the harbour itself. There is a certain logic to it, I guess, but the arrangement nevertheless still feels a bit silly, hence why these became quickly known as “Palmerston’s Folly”: much like Trident now, expensive to build and maintain, never yet used and never will be.

Fort Nelson
Fort Nelson, from the outside.

Fort Nelson is a branch of the Royal Armouries museum and has a cafe where I had a decent lunch. It’s free to enter, and I did look inside for a short time, but it didn’t seem all that interesting: if you are interested in weapons of destruction it might be more appealing.

After doing this, head for the tall and prominent monument to Lord Nelson and his demise at Trafalgar. Here, the view north opens up. The way to Fort Southwick could then be found along the road, but I don’t imagine this will be a safe or pleasurable experience for pedestrians, so I instead took a back way through the fields, taking the signposted path across the lane from the monument. This heads behind the Lark Hill ‘research establishment’, a name to strike fear into everyone who has read V for Vendetta.

View north
The view north into Hampshire.

Stick to the path that runs just outside and to the north of the fence of this dubious-looking compound, until it comes out onto a road, called Crooked Walk Lane, which follow for a short time before bearing off to the right, a path which leads up the steepest ascent of the day (more old fortifications) to the side of Fort Southwick. The path comes out onto the road where you need to turn left — there’s no alternative to walking beside the road for a short time here, but there is, just about, a pavement that will keep you safely off the tarmac.

It would be nice if one could gain access to the interior of this fort, where resides the highest point of Portsdown Hill at 430 feet a.s.l. But at the present time the place is all fenced off, used as a “park and ride” for NHS staff, apparently. The nearest I could get was the car dealer’s compound, and even to get into that, one should probably ask permission. Strava suggested I was still 25 feet or so below the actual summit at this point, but it’s the best that one can do.

Cliffs as cake
These cliffs sure look like confectionery to me.

There are more Palmerston Forts to the east, but I decided it was time to descend. To do so, continue along the side of the road for a time before bearing right, down a slightly overgrown path, then turn right through a gate, dropping down a track with a great view of the Harbour ahead. Turn left when this comes out into a patch of open land, and drop down steeply, by the side of the chalk cliff that was seen earlier: from here (as pictured above) this looks exactly like a layer cake, or perhaps a white chocolate tiramisu. I suspect this is an old quarry, rather than a natural formation.

At the bottom, keep the football pitch on your left and then go through the gate back into suburbia. Drop down Wofferton Road, past the Cross Keys (which may or may not be open): at the bottom, on Allaway Avenue, there is a bus stop with services back to Portchester station, or perhaps onward to Cosham station and Portsmouth.

Sailing club and castle
The local sailing club get ready for action in front of Portchester Castle.

Here We Go Again Commentary: The road along the top of Portsdown Hill is named for James Callaghan, native of the city of Portsmouth, and Prime Minister of the UK from 1976 to 1979. He was appointed, rather than elected, to this office, taking over after his predecessor Harold Wilson unexpectedly announced his retirement.

Including him, in the 46 years since 1976, the United Kingdom has had nine Prime Ministers: Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Teresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. The number of these that, unequivocally, came to power by actually winning a General Election? Two, Thatcher and Blair. (In 2010, Cameron sort-of won, but as it was a hung parliament there were still negotiations to be done after the vote.)

Under the A27.

I remember 1990, when Thatcher resigned and a few days later, the country was being run by John Major, who seemed an utter non-entity at the time: the general impression among my social group was, “who the hell is this guy?”. That power can transfer from one PM to another without there having been some kind of election seemed bizarre at the time, although at least Major did go on to win an election (in 1992) and stayed in Downing Street for seven years.

From 1979 – 2007, twenty-eight years, there were only three PMs, Thatcher, Major and Blair. Thanks to the staggering ineptitude of Liz Truss and her comedy Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, following close on from the mendacity and incompetence of Bojo the Clown, we are now going to have the same number of PMs in the span of about three months. During the recent Tory party leadership contest, everyone who knew anything about economics said that the platform, the economic policies, on which Truss built her campaign, were stupid, politically suicidal. Those fine, upstanding Party members voted for her anyway: and, sure enough, when she tried to implement the lunacy, everything came crashing down. It would be funny if along the way she hadn’t wrecked not just the public finances that little bit more, but a bunch of private pension plans as well.

Portchester Castle again
Portchester Castle, once more.

And now? It all happens again. No one out there in the country will get a say. Nor is anybody able to point out certain obvious connections between our current economic woes and deliberate, specific policy decisions made by this shower of idiots over the last few years, most of all Brexit, but the panic-stricken, ill-thought-through reaction to Covid was something we’ll all be paying for for the rest of our lives as well. Yet apathy rules. We shrug our shoulders, wait for the next Unelected Chief Idiot to be appointed, hope that we aren’t working in the next economic sector to feel the chill wind of neoliberalist downsizing and ‘efficiency’-oriented spending cuts. That there are serious moves to put Johnson the Clown back in office shows that British politics in 2022 has given up any pretence to sanity.

And the walking? An interesting hike, for sure, with some excellent views that compensated for the duller sections. It’s a bit of a shame I didn’t get to Portsmouth itself, a city that I have only ever been to once, when I was about 16, to do the tourist bits (HMS Victory, etc). But I need to return to pick up the Tops of Southampton, which really is a slab of dull suburbia going on the map, and the Isle of Wight, which needs, but also looks worth, a trip of two or three days. As long as we still have a functioning economy and public transport by then, I’ll be back.


4 thoughts on “60: Portsdown Hill, Portsmouth City

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