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Unlike the other forts built on the West Wight, which were built primarily as coastal defence batteries, Golden Hill Fort was a defensive land work. Also known as the West Wight's Keep, Golden Hill Fort was built with three main objectives in mind (and later acquired a fourth).
- To serve as a barracks and to house the men required at the outlying batteries.
- To form a safe and secure place of retreat to which the men stationed at the outlying batteries could muster should Freshwater Peninsula be successfully invaded.
- To guard and defend the access to the Freshwater Peninsula from the rest of the Island.
- To act as a troop training centre.
The Fort's Original Design
Golden Hill Fort was first proposed by the 1859 Royal Commission to fulfil the objectives listed above. It was envisaged that two companies of gunners would be posted here to garrison the forts of the West Wight in wartime, especially as the batteries constructed later on had not been built with accommodation provisions. The fort was originally intended to be able to hold 400 men with 12 guns covering the access across the Yar, which was then amended to a smaller design to house 250 men. In the end by 1863 the plans were changed again for a fort able to house 8 officers, 128 other ranks and 14 hospital patients in a two-storey hexagonal barracks to be armed with 18 light guns.
The Fort's Strategic Location
The River Yar and Afton Marsh all but completely cut off the Freshwater Peninsula from the rest of the Island, to the extent that the peninsula has sometimes been referred to as 'Freshwater Isle'. The Yar is tidal as far as the Freshwater causeway, south of which it becomes marshland.
At the time that the fort was designed there were three main ways to cross the Yar and gain access to the Freshwater Peninsula. The most common was by boat (and later bridge) across the river's mouth, from Yarmouth to Norton, a route defended by Fort Victoria. To the south, the only firm land access was at Freshwater Gate, close to Freshwater Bay. This area was defended by Freshwater Bay Redoubt. The third and final way to access the Freshwater Peninsula was by the only bridge across the Yar that existed at the time. It was close to this bridge that Golden Hill Fort was constructed, yet also close enough to the mouth of the river Yar to enable it to provide support in case an enemy fleet should attempt to make use of Yarmouth's harbour to land troops. It was also built on the highest land available near to the river crossing.
Golden Hill Fort was designed to withstand an infantry attack rather than an artillery siege, as the fort's main threat was considered to be a lightning attack by a platoon of men landed from an enemy vessel. The fort was constructed on land purchased by the War Department in 1862 that before had been poor grassland and gorse.
By 1888 Freshwater became even more easily accessible when the railway route from Newport to Freshwater opened. This, however, followed the route of the river Yar and again passed close to Golden Hill Fort.
The Fort's Design
Golden Hill Fort is a two-storey symmetrical hexagonal fort protected by a dry ditch. Across the ditch at alternating corners are one-storey caponiers (three in total). These defended the ditch, as from these any enemy infantrymen caught in the ditch could be fired at by the garrison from rifle loopholes. The ditch itself was 31 feet deep. It is believed that clay excavated from the ditch made some of the bricks from which the fort was built.
Other defences include a raised glacis surrounding the fort on all six sides, to help protect the fort from enemy shell bombardment. The only way through the glacis was on the north side, where a brick-lined tunnel through the glacis gave access to the dry ditch and the fort's gateway over a drawbridge and through thick, wooden doors. Inside, through the gate, the defended passage led to the fort's six-sided central parade ground.
The fort was sunk into the surrounding hillside, so that the roof would be parallel with the surrounding countryside. This was so that the fort would not be a visible target for enemy artillery, and allowed the defensive guns to have a full field of fire right up to the fort's edge. In areas carefully planned to prevent interference with the fort's field of fire, gorse and brambles were encouraged to grow. This would act as a natural barrier to attacking infantry, similar the barbed wire used in the later Great War. The thickness of the gorse bushes around Golden Hill Fort does, in spring, give the area a golden appearance when their yellow flowers bloom; however the name Golden Hill does not come from the gorse or yellow laburnum plants as many have claimed. Instead records show that the hill was known as Gauldoune in 1299. Gaul Down in Old English means 'the rented hill'.
Next to the entry passage were the cells and guardroom, and on the north-east corner lay access to one of the caponiers as well as the magazine, small arms and ammunition store, and lamp passage. The northeast side also contained the taproom and canteen, with the cookhouse located in the eastern corner. The south-east and south sides contained barracks rooms with access to the second caponier in the south-east corner. Married quarters occupied the sout-west side, the western corner had access to the third caponier, and the north-west side contained the officer's quarters. On the west of the main gate on the north side was the Mess room.
Access to the first floor was provided by two flights of external stairs that both gave access to a veranda, and six internal flights of stairs. On three sides, the south, south-east and north-east, around the inside of the first floor was a glass-roofed veranda or balcony supported on iron columns. This gave access to the barracks rooms on the first floor, each of which housed 14 men, as well as the hospital on the south side and the sergeant's quarters on the south and south-west sides. The north-west sides contained the officers quarters with the officer's mess on the north, as well as an additional barracks room.
The north-west corner of the fort contained ammunition stores and, as it was directly above the ground floor magazine, also had a hoist and shell laboratory for the powder and ammunition stored directly below. The shells were hoisted to this room to have their fuses attached, and then taken to the roof. By the 1890s the shells were all stored in the first floor to save time.
The roof of the fort had a traverse or parapet that ran all the way round the fort, and could be easily accessed from spiral staircases from the first floor. On each of the six corners was mounted a 40-pounder rifled breech loader, and the defending infantry could fire on an approaching enemy from firing steps along each of the six sides. The front of the roof was protected by an earth and turf bombproof cover designed to protect the guns and infantry behind it as well as prevent any shells landing on the fort from damaging the fort's structure.
Several outbuildings outside the fort were constructed at various times during the fort's use. Many of these were general buildings, such as sheds, workhouses, a number of storehouses and workshops, barrack blocks, and stables. Many of these were built as the fort's garrison increased, and as a result the buildings needed to house the men also increased. Other facilities included an exercise yard, soldier's gardens, an officer's mess, three hospital blocks, a pump house to support the water system due to the increased number of soldiers staying as well, a row of terraced houses for married soldiers and in 1912 a new hospital, toilets, cook house, and ablutions. A Drill Hall and School of Instruction were built as part of the fort's role as a training centre. Three roads connecting these buildings with the fort itself were also constructed. Some of these buildings still survive today.
Construction of the Fort
Work on building the fort began in 1863, with a hexagonal hole dug into the hill top and the excavated clay soil removed to form the glacis. Sadly, due to the fact that the fort was being constructed on the Island's blue slipper clay compounded with poor drainage, three quarters of the excavated clay glacis slipped into the ditch between 1864 and 1868. After a heavy rainstorm in 1868, a large part of the roof parapet slipped into the ditch. As a consequence the plans were revised and, instead of the 18 light guns originally intended for the fort, only six guns were mounted in the corners. The fort was then built with extra attention paid to drainage and the insertion of brushwood into the clay for added stability, although over the years minor subsidence did occasionally occur.
The fort was built with the principals of public health in mind. The rooms were well lit and ventilated. The south-east caponier contained a well, and the fort had its own cistern fed from rainwater built under the ditch near the eastern caponier. A wind-powered pump raised this water to other cisterns on the roof, from which it would flow to where needed. The caponiers were also used as latrines, and each had a small cistern from which they could be flushed.
History of the Fort
In 1868 the fort was completed and the first troops were garrisoned there in 1870. In 1888 the fort became the Western District School of Gunnery, which was established 'for instruction in the defence of a Coast Fortress and Channel'. The Western District School Of Gunnery ran a range of courses for both Regular and Volunteer gunners. In order to accommodate the increased number of soldiers staying in the fort, two of the ground floor barracks rooms were converted into dining rooms and the first significant development of buildings outside the fort in the area of land owned by the War Department took place. The Western District School of Gunnery constructed a drill shed, the School of Instruction, north of the fort, with store rooms and barracks blocks built to the north-east. Many of these buildings were directly related to the training of troops, and the school retained different types of coastal defence guns and field guns for the troops to train on. In the 1890s these included two 9-pounder RMLs and two 24-pounder smooth bores.
In 1897 a new hospital was built to the north of the Drill Hall and new married quarters were built nearby.
To aid with the training provided by Golden Hill Fort, in 1900 the Upper Battery at Freshwater Redoubt was converted into the School of Gunnery's instructional battery. Sadly tragedy struck on 25 June, 1901 when the breech block of Freshwater Redoubt's west 12-pounder blew out from the gun during a practice fire, killing an officer and three gunners and injuring several others.
In 1903 Golden Hill Fort had its 40-pounder guns removed and in 1906 was armed with three Maxim machine guns and two 4.7-inch quick firing guns to defend the Yar river line from attack. In 1912 two of the three hospital buildings built in 1893 were converted into a Mess and quarters for Royal Garrison Artillery officers.
The Great War
During the Great War, Golden Hill Fort continued to be used as a training facility, and was the infantry training depot for the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Over 30,000 men were trained there between 1915 and 1918. Golden Hill Fort continued to be occupied after the Great War, unlike most other Isle of Wight fortifications that were put into care and maintenance. Infantry battalions and gunners were based here, with an extra toilet block constructed in 1920. This toilet block later had a second storey constructed around 1940.
The Second World War
During the Second World War, the fort was again a training depot. In 1940 the fort accommodated both the Royal Jersey Militia and the Hampshire's 50th (Holding) Battalion, as well as Canadian infantry. In 1941 it was the depot for the Royal Army Service Corps, and in 1945 Golden Hill Fort supported the 42 Water Transport Unit, Royal Army Service Corps, stationed at Fort Victoria. The fort was used as extra barrack accommodation for troops.
Post War 1946-1962
After the Water Transport Unit had disbanded, Fort Victoria became the headquarters of the Water Transport Training Unit. The Water Transport Training Unit trained National Servicemen in operating the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) fleet. Nearby Fort Victoria was used as classrooms with the men were billeted in Golden Hill Fort. Golden Hill Fort was also used for the RASC's Junior Non Commissioned Offer's Training School. Two wooden huts were constructed in the courtyard to serve as dining rooms.
Since Military Service
In 1962 the Army left Golden Hill Fort for good. In 1964 the Fort was sold off, but left unoccupied until 1969. The fort was converted into an industrial estate for light industry, with many internal changes to corridors, internal doors and barracks room made to make industrial units.
In 1984, in addition to the light industrial park, some of Golden Hill Fort was restored and converted into a prospective tourist attraction. After 1989 the fort was opened as a place of historic interest, and contained The Colonnade Tea Room, The Lord Palmerston pub and a museum complete with display areas and display signs and a museum. Sadly in 2005 this was forced to close and planning permission was granted for the fort to be converted into luxury apartments, despite being a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade I Listed Building. According to the brochure, the converted Golden Hill Fort will provide 'modern London warehouse style living brought to the tranquillity of the Isle of Wight.' Quite. Still, if you have always wished to live in a London Warehouse on the Isle of Wight, then this is the perfect home for you.
The grounds of Golden Hill Fort, however, are open to the public as the Golden Hill Fort Country Park. This is located in part of the Isle of Wight's Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The fort is also part of the Walk The Forts heritage trail.