113. The Needles Batteries – 2/6/2017

When considering the two ends of the Needles Headland on the Isle of Wight, the expression ‘chalk and cheese’ has never seemed more appropriate. The chalk is there in literal abundance, with bright white cliff faces and the famous sea stacks of The Needles themselves, but I really meant that the phrase summarises the difference between the landward end with the bustling Alum Bay family attractions (which some might call cheesy – I couldn’t really comment as I didn’t go in) and the seaward end where my Trust Challenge took me this weekend.

Visitors by car to the NT batteries and landscape have to park at Alum Bay and walk along the headland or hop on the seasonal Needles Breezer bus (which is not run by the Trust and costs an arm and most of a leg for the very short trip). I would recommend the walk if you’re at all able – it’s less than a mile and as you walk up the hill from the Alum Bay car park and around the corner, you are immediately transported into a peaceful haven with only the occasional bird cry to break the silence (I would add the proviso that we were there on a sunny and calm day – I’m not sure it would be quite as peaceful with a sea gale blowing!)

At the end of the headland the Old and New Batteries, which overlook the famous sea stacks and lighthouse, are separated by a short walk and several decades. The Old Battery was first built in 1863 as a defence against a French invasion that never came. When larger guns were introduced it was found to be too small and the New Battery was constructed higher up the hill in 1895 (meaning that it’s not particularly new after all!). The Old Battery then became a Fire Command Post with position finding equipment established there to inform the gunners of potential targets. The Port War Signal Station was added in 1940 to monitor all shipping movements in the Solent during WWII and was later used as a coastguard station before a new one was built at a better vantage point in the early 1990s. Today the Signal Station houses a rather compact and bijou tearoom.

There is plenty of information at the Old Battery about its military past, including child-friendly displays about the soldiers’ lives. I thought the information about the production and handling of shells and cartridges was particularly interesting, including the rather basic safety measures introduced, e.g. lamps hidden in recesses behind glass to avoid any flame coming close to the gunpowder, clothing specific to the room so gunpowder was not transferred outside on uniforms, and windows that are hinged to blow upwards and outwards in the event of a big bang. There are also some very big guns on display for those with destructive interests and a 3D model of the site, which shows the gun emplacements lower down the cliff. You can also descend a narrow (and I mean narrow) spiral staircase and follow a tunnel to the very end of the headland where a searchlight emplacement was added at the turn of the century. For today’s visitors, it has a good view of the Needles and information about the lighthouse.

Around the edges of the Old Battery, you will also find display boards about local shipwrecks, which I found really fascinating. I particularly liked the story about the tangerines that escaped a stricken ship in 1947 and found their way into local homes, introducing some children to the fruit for the first time as rationing had made them extremely rare.

Moving on to the New Battery, you leave the potential French and actual World Wars behind and find yourself immersed in the Cold War instead. Although the New Battery was originally planned for guns, its role changed significantly in the 1950s when it became a testing station for Britain’s space rockets. Between 1954 and 1972, the Battery was known as Highdown and was swathed in secrecy. Its location made it ideal for the tests as it was a long way from the nearest inhabitants of the island and tucked behind a hill so the sounds of the rocket testing deflected out to sea. Today, the Battery houses displays about the Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets, which were tested at Highdown before being launched from a site in Australia. Black Knight was successful in launching Prospero, the one and only British satellite to reach orbit via a British rocket. And it’s still there now, passing overhead twice a day.

Another interesting fact about the batteries is that, although there were soldiers stationed at The Needles for over 80 years between the 1860s and the 1940s, the only times they ever engaged with an enemy were during WWII when they fired on torpedo boats and aircraft. All in all, as batteries go, this has always been a fairly peaceful one, which seems to suit its beautiful location.

Finally, the Needles Batteries were nearly given a black mark when I arrived as I was told that the guidebooks had sold out with a new version waiting to be printed, leaving me with the prospect of questioning and recording the answers of every member of staff I met or photographing every display board so I could be confident in writing up my visit. Fortunately, our trip to the tearoom coincided with that of a group of NT staff members and they were extremely friendly and helpful, supplying me with a copy of an old guidebook free of charge, and showing great interest in the blog and its progress. So if they ever read this, big thanks from a grateful blogger… they’re just the latest of many great people I have come across in my NT travels to date.

Highlights: Multipurpose stories; the views of the Needles; shipwrecks

Refreshments: Tea and a flapjack

Purchase(s): None

Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets

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