Earlier on this year, when we had summer weather in the middle of winter, I visited Hurst Castle. The castle is located on the seaward end of a shingle spit approximately 3/4 of a mile from the Isle of Wight. It is possible to reach the castle by foot, from nearby Milford-on-Sea. Although, the Milford-on-Sea option comes with a stunning walk, it can be hard going across the banks of shingle and is about a three-mile round trip. Alternatively, you can take the Hurst Castle Ferry from nearby Keyhaven. It is possible to mix and match your modes of transport, walking one way and using the ferry for the other part of your journey. I took the ferry both ways and am glad that I did, if only to save all my energy for exploring this hauntingly beautiful location.
There is a charge for each ferry trip and a modest entrance fee to the castle. English Heritage members do not pay the castle entrance fee.
Entry to the castle is through a pair of gates into the west wing. This section of the castle was completed in 1873.
The day-to-day management of the Castle has an unusual but nevertheless successful set-up. It is a partnership between a committed group of volunteers and English Heritage:
The Friends of Hurst Castle was formed in 1986 to act as a support group to a local site belonging to English Heritage. At that time the Castle was managed by English Heritage, but since May 1996 there has been joint management; with English Heritage still in charge of the fabric of the building and general policies and the Local Management, Hurst Castle Services, running the everyday management and services.
Extract from the official Hurst Castle website
Hurst Castle has defended the western entrance to the Solent since the sixteenth century. The Tudor castle was built between 1541 and 1544 for Henry VIII as part of an extensive programme of coastal defences. Following Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, England found itself vulnerable to invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire. The castle entrance on the west side had a portcullis and a drawbridge over a moat. The moat was filled-in in 1861.
On each floor there were fireplaces and a toilet. When the garrison was first operational in 1544, the inhabitants included: a captain; his deputy; a porter; a master gunner; eight soldiers and eleven additional gunners. Brass and iron guns; handguns; bows and arrows were all used to defend the garrison. In the reign of Elizabeth I, threat of invasion from Spain was high. In 1588 the threat was realised. Although, on this occasion mother nature rather than military might defended the garrison from an attack. A fierce storm blew the Armada past the Isle of Wight and away from Hurst Castle thus negating the need for military intervention.
Charles I spent two and a half weeks imprisoned here in December 1648 before proceeding to his trial and execution at Whitehall. During the Napoleonic wars the castle underwent extensive modernisation. In the 1860s and 1870s two huge casemated wings were added and in both World Wars the castle was garrisoned. In the Second World War, 162 men were stationed here, men serving in the 129 Coast Battery Royal Artillery.
Today, you can still see the laundry room and two bathrooms that were installed in WWII for the men.
There is one very special historical gem that must not be missed on any visit to Hurst Castle, The Garrison Theatre. It is believed to be the only surviving ENSA theatre from WWII still in existence in the UK.
The Theatre was built in a former Victorian casement and above the proscenium arch you can still see the insignia of the Royal Artillery.
Shows are occasionally put-on during the summer months. For more information on this fascinating little theatre, including archive footage and interviews with former all-round entertainer, Betty Hockey CLICK HERE. Bournemouth-based Betty, now in her nineties, was once a member of The ‘Non-Stops’ Concert Party that performed for the troupes at The Garrison Theatre. For Betty’s oral history testimony from her time as one of The ‘Non-Stops’, CLICK HERE.
Another good reason for taking the ferry to Hurst Castle is the arrival experience. As you approach the castle jetty, on your left is the magnificent Hurst Point Lighthouseand adjacent keepers’ cottage, the latter now used for holiday lets.
Hurst Point is one of three lighthouses on Hurst Spit. The first lighthouse to have been built on the spit was in 1784-86, the Hurst Tower, to the west of the castle. This early lighthouse is no longer in existence. Construction on Hurst Point Lighthouse began in 1865 and was first lit in 1867 becoming fully automated in 1923. The lighthouse is also known as the high light and stands at twenty-six metres tall. It is still working today, helping ships to navigate The Shingles, a large submerged shingle bank, as well as preventing nighttime tragedy by assisting sailors to pass safely along the Needles Channel. The light emitted is a white light, visible from all angles. In order that sailors can judge their position correctly Hurst Point Lighthouse emits a narrow white light at a lower level from the full beam and a red light to the north of it and a green light to the south. The community at Hurst was once thriving and on approach you would have seen sheds for fishermen’s nets, a herring-drying house, coastguard cottages, inns and soldiers’ married quarters. In 1863, 135 adults and 28 children lived there.
There are two more lighthouses at the castle itself, both low lights. One built on a red, square, metal gantry attached to the wall of the Castle, dating from 1910-11 and another a little further along the same wall, dating from 1865. This latter lighthouse once had a conical roof. The two low lights have now been decommissioned.
There are a number of, permanent, mini-exhibitions at the castle: Association of Lighthouse Keepers Exhibition; Trinity House Lighthouse Exhibition; Friends of Hurst Exhibition Room and The Hurst Spit Exhibition. The Trinity House Exhibition is maintained by an additional group of volunteers. For more information on this extraordinary castle, CLICK HERE.