In this intriguing work of psychogeography, Christine Lawrence explores both the historical significance of Portsdown Hill and its personal meaning to her life.
One of my favourite places in Portsmouth is not actually in the city at all – it’s at the top of Portsdown Hill. Whichever way you go up it you’ll enjoy stunning, mind-stopping views. And when you reach the top of the hill, there spread before you like a cluttered collage, is the city itself.
In the distance, St. Mary’s Church spire, the Guildhall, the Spinnaker Tower and the “Lipstick” Building, ships in the Royal Naval dockyard as well as the boats at the ferry port heading out to France and Spain. Nearer, you can see the “Sails of Portsmouth” on the motorway and closer still, the chimney of the Queen Alexandria hospital chunters out non-health giving fumes. At night, you see laid out before you a glittering array of jewels and Portsmouth becomes a pirate’s treasure trove of moving, twinkling lights with accompanying sounds of sirens, traffic, and sometimes fog-horns belching through misty waters.
Coming away from Portsmouth, on reaching the brow of the hill, you wait with bated breath as you prepare to fly down through the countryside on the other side. There before you are the calm shades of greens and browns, trees and fields to soothe the most shattered of city nerves.
Today, I stop and park in one of the viewing places. Gazing down on the city I wonder how unique this is. How many other places are there in the country, or indeed in the world, where you can sit in a car at a natural viewing point and see the whole of a city?
This hill has been here for 20 million years, is 120 metres high at its highest point and is seven miles long. It was farmed from 8000 years ago, used mainly for arable agriculture but was also grazing land for cattle and sheep. It twice looked down on Portsmouth’s own race-course – the first in Farlington from 1891 to 1914 – the second in Paulsgrove from 1929 to just after World War II.
Portsdown Hill has often been Portsmouth’s protector. Forts were built in the 1860s in case of attack from Napoleon III but the threat of war ended not long after they were finished. They are now know as Palmerston’s Follies after Lord Palmerston, their main advocate. During World War II tunnels were built under the hill to be used as a headquarters for the D-Day landings; 700 staff were down there on 6th June 1944. These tunnels were re-used as a relay station for the Defence Teleprinter Network of the NATO Communications Organisation during the Cold War in the 1960s.
Today the forts have more peaceful uses: Fort Nelson is a military museum, Fort Widley an activity and equine centre, Fort Southwick is now owned by a company who want to turn it into luxury flats, Fort Purbrook is an activity centre (complete with climbing wall) and a venue for craft fairs and other events.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been driving along this hill, stopping here for a look from time to time. Memories leap to my mind of bringing children here for an ice-cream, queuing at the van whilst they run and tumble on the grassy slopes, then pointing out places of past happenings, the city reaching back into my younger years. Years of playing on shingle beaches, riding the fair, there my graduation, there the births of my two children, there where I passed my driving test, there, the nightclub where I met the father of my son, there the streets and high-rise flats where I worked as a nurse in the 1980s, there where I got married, there the hospital where I last saw my dad, laying lifeless after his final heart attack.
But these recollections come from just one lifetime. This place where I sit, high above Portsmouth, has been here for longer than the city itself. I try to imagine the view from here 150 years ago. Portsmouth was a bustling sea town on the south-western tip of Portsea Island, the centre of the Royal Navy. Dotted across this rural isle were villages – Milton, Copnor, Southsea. North End was a small urban farming hamlet until as late as 1918.
Now the green spaces in Portsmouth are squeezed in between the rows of houses which spread from the distant coast all the way to the bottom of the hill. As the clouds lift a little I can see the northern edge of the island. From here it looks like a row of trees, a small copse which separates Cosham from Portsea Island itself. Driving into town, you hardly notice that you’re crossing onto an island and from here, unless you’re in the know, there would be no way to tell at all.
As I sit, I think about what the view must have been like during the Second World War. Recently I was privileged to meet a gentleman who was evacuated from his bombed-out home in Charles Street. He told me how he, his mother and father were saved by spending the night in the air raid shelter in their garden. He remembers his father going into their burning home, dragging possessions out, his mother begging him not to. By the morning the house was gone.
They then moved out of Portsmouth for the duration of the war to Southwick, but as their ration books were registered at the local grocers, each Saturday they had to return on the bus into town to buy provisions and to check on Grandma’s house which was still standing. I send a silent thought to those who were killed in Portsmouth during the Blitz and wonder at how different the buildings would have been now if the war had never happened.
Large traditional Easter fairs – first a trading fair, latterly a fun fair – were held on this hill until the early twentieth century. There are no more fairs, alas, but in their place is Mick’s Monster Burgers “open 24/7”, selling tea, coffee, cold drinks, burgers, chips and hot dogs, making this a meeting place for all who stop here at any time of day or night.
There’s a lack of visitors today on this wet and windy Sunday morning. Not the best of times to come here for writing inspiration. Normally by now there would be rows of motorbikes parked and queues of bikers at the burger stand, as well as other people of all ages arriving in cars – plenty of material to write about if you enjoy people-watching. But today there is only a spattering of cars parked, the occasional driver dashing from the shelter of their vehicle to hunker close to Mick’s counter whilst they wait for their coffee before hurrying back to sit in the safety of their car, peering out at the view.
Weather-hardened gulls of all shapes and sizes stand firmly on the grass, their backs to the wind, hoping for the crowds to come and feed them unwanted chips and burger buns. The only person walking the slopes today is the litter-picker, his plastic bag almost lifting him from his feet like a hang-glider.
I get back in my car and the windscreen wipers don’t work. I must have left my lights on for three quarters of an hour. I wait for the AA man to come as the wind is buffets the car and the rain lashes against the window. Portsmouth has disappeared, along with Gosport and the Isle-of-Wight. Although it’s the first day of British Summer Time, I realise I can’t feel my feet as the cold seeps through the floor of the car.
A few hardy people have arrived and are walking a dog, keeping it on the lead to stop it blowing away. Mick has moved his truck and parked it in front of the burger stand to give some shelter from the storm to the stoical few who wait for their burgers.
The AA man arrives at last and I look back and try to see Portsmouth one more time before driving away.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.