Where can you see a dolphin near Portsmouth?
Well, I suppose “looking out to sea” is a possibility, but Fort Nelson on Portsdown Hill is more likely. The handles on a cannon barrel are also called dolphins – because of their resemblance to swimming dolphins arching out of the water.
There are lots of cannon and other big guns to see at Fort Nelson which, as well as being as being a former defence against a feared Napoleonic invasion, is also the home of the Royal Armouries artillery collection. It’s well worth a visit.
But this isn’t all. Much of the Victorian fort is intact and you can walk around the 19 acre site to see the gun emplacements, through the tunnels and ammunition stores, and across the parade ground. Interestingly, the guns point inland, which at first seems to be a perverse way to defend the naval port at Portsmouth. The explanation is that the entrance to the harbour was so narrow and well defended it was believed that any invasion would land further along the coast and attack from behind, hence the gun direction.
In the caponier, cannon that were originally positioned to scupper attempts to cross the moat now look over picturesque green lawns.
I’m sure it’s only coincidence that they are now aimed at the rabbits.
The fort is a magnificent structure, built with 12 million bricks – and probably several hundred tons of concrete too.
Inside the galleries there are displays of guns from many countries and era; an insight to the domestic life of the barracks, and an idea of what it might have been like to be a Victorian soldier. For younger visitors there are dressing-up opportunities and for not-so-young visitors an interactive display of how the fort was constructed. I particularly liked the enlarged picture of the construction site, complete with large magnifying glass to see minute detail.
The video of a modern-day reconstruction of a cannon is worth watching – the slow-motion replay of its firing shows just how much smoke, heat and fire is ejected from the barrel along with the cannonball.
It may be a bit of a cliche to say that there is something there for everyone, but at Fort Nelson there really is. I’ve proved this in recent weeks by taking both elderly and teenagers on a visit. Both ages had a great time.
The museum is open daily, 10.00am to 5.00pm . Admission is free, but there is a £3 charge for parking.