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Steampunk Days Out-Fort Nelson

By popular request I will now describe another excellent museum in the United Kingdom.

Fort Nelson (http://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/fort-nelson) is located near Portsmouth and is part of the landward defenses of that Naval Base. The ring of fortresses, built in the 1860s under the direction of the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston consisted of a number of large permanent works. Fort Nelson has been preserved and converted into an artillery museum. It contains the Royal Armourie’s artillery collection. Both naval and military weapons are on display here. The weapons represent ancient pre gun powder engines to weapons of the 21st century. The museum and its car park are both free of charge, although certain special events or exhibits require the purchase of a ticket.

The fort can be a little tough to get to. It is located a good drive from Portsmouth itself, but can be reached by bus. There is little in the way of hotels or eaters nearby. When we are in Portsmouth we generally stay at the Holiday Inn on Gunwarf Quay. This is a modern soulless edifice without any character or charm. The continental breakfast is not terribly exciting. Rooms are adequate. The sole two redeeming features of the hotel are it huge car park and it location within walking distance of many of the great things in Portsmouth. I’ll talk more about the other Steampunk joys of Portsmouth and Gosport later.

We drove from the Holiday Inn to Fort Nelson. We’ve been to the fort twice. Both times we got there either before the museum opened or just as they opened. The car park is located across a B road from the museum entrance. Be careful crossing but the car park itself has an excellent view of Portsmouth Habour. The ring of forts were on the ridge of high ground around the port, facing outwards, defending the Royal Navy’s most important facilities from land attack by an Army. When built the threat was France or Russia. The forts were, of course, never tested by combat and have been called Palmerston’s Follies. They were built to protect several naval bases, Chatham, Plymouth and most specifically Portsmouth and Gosport. Several of the forts have become museums, Nelson at Portsmouth Brockhurst at Gosport and Crownhill at Plymouth are open for visitors.

Fort Nelson is not only a showplace of the period military architecture but also has a huge number of exhibits in the art of the artillerist and gun founder.

Outside the entrance to the fort are two large pieces of ordnance. One is a 20th century 14 inch gun, as used aboard battleships of the King George V class and as counter-bombardment weapons at Dover (guns Winnie and Pooh). Of much more interest to the Victorian historian is one of two of Mallet’s great mortars. These 36 inch weapons were built to reduce the Russian fortress of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. They were not completed in time for action and somehow both have managed to survive into the 21st century (the other is at Woolwich). The amazing size of the ball fired by these is driven home by the pyramid of shot sitting next to the weapon. In the alternate history of Hive, Queen and Country these weapons were used during the Chritsmas Day Assault on the Devon Hive and their massive shells collapsed many of the galleries in the alien nest.

The fort is entered through the original gate and visitors are directed into a gift shop. The Palmerston Forts Society (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/) produces a number of interpretive documents including a series call “The Solent Papers” (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/publications.php) that detail forts in the Portsmouth/Gosport area. In addition some of their other small booklets are on ordnance (including very useful ones on Brennan Torpedoes and Mallet Mortars. I’ve picked up most of the society’s publications and have not been unhappy with any of them. In terms of British Victorian era fortifications and ordnance these are well worth adding to your personal library.

The artillery collection includes a large number of really interesting guns. They date from the beginning of gunpowder artillery to the Gulf War. There are a number of weapons of particular interest to VSF fans. These include a number of decorative guns cast in the shape of dragons or other animals. These are from nations that fought against the British Empire in the 19th century. Also from such a country is the Bira machine gun from Nepal. This is a local version of the Gardner Gun.

Also used in the Victorian are several period field guns displayed in the main gun hall. A Hotchkiss Rotating cannon on a field carriage is there (see picture above)They also have a few sections of something much more modern but still with a Victorian bent. Verne would have understood the Iraqi Super Gun. A far lesser weapon served to inspire his novel about shooting men to the moon.

The fort itself has a number of weapons from the era, including a 110 pdr Armstrong Breech Loading Rifle. This weapon was one of the first generation of breech-loading weapons developed in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The Armstrong breech system was a failure. It was complex and fragile. The 110 pdr at Fort Nelson is on a garrison carriage in a Haxo Casemate. The carriage is an excellent reproduction. The knowledgeable staff was able to fully explain this interesting weapon and the casemate designed to protect it. The Portsdown Artillery Volunteers provide a cadre of talented re-enactors to the forts (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/arming.htm).

There are a number of 64 pdr Rifled Muzzle Loaders which were converted from smoothbore 32 pdrs. These tend to be mounted on open barbettes. All these weapons are designed to fire across the outside surfaces of the fortified areas and sweep the cleared slopes.

Another type of defensive structure called a caponier contains a number of 32 pdr smoothbores that have been drilled out to make them into breechloaders. These are mounted to cover the ditch with rapid close range fire using large canister rounds.
The museum, like so many in the UK has a serviceable tea shop.
Fort Nelson is good for at least half a day. If there are special events in progress it may require far longer. Enjoy the views of Portsmouth, enjoy the history of the fort but mostly revel in the ancient traditions of the artillerist and the art of the gun founders.