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  • Secret Portsmouth by Steve Wallis

    I like Portsmouth. I find it a very varied city with lots of character and places to find out about. I admit that I have never lived there, but when I wrote a book on Portsmouth before, I enjoyed the exploring most of all.

    Portsmouth Naval Memorial The Portsmouth Naval Memorial (c.Secret Portsmouth, Amberley Publishing)

    So when Amberley asked if I would like to write a book on ‘Secret Portsmouth’ it seemed a good opportunity to find out more about the city and its history. And indeed that’s how it turned out – let me give you some examples of what caught my attention.

    First of all, something that most people from outside the area find surprising is that Portsmouth is actually an island city. This is only thanks to a narrow channel that separates Portsea Island on which it sits from the mainland – a channel that you can easily travel across without noticing it. But before the modern rail and road bridges, the separation was more obvious. This heightened the way that Portsmouth naturally looked to the sea, and a great deal of its history is bound up with naval and other maritime matters.

    For instance, this was the place from which Admiral Nelson left Britain on the voyage that led to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, while on the Esplanade there is a collection of memorials set up by returning ships’ crews in the 19th century to commemorate their oversea activities and their lost comrades.

    Southsea Castle Southsea Castle (c.Secret Portsmouth, Amberley Publishing)

    As the home port of the British navy, the place is full of fortifications that defended the town and its dockyards. And it wasn’t just attacks from the sea that was a problem – a series of 19th redbrick forts on the hill above the island were often mocked because their guns pointed away from the sea, but there was a real danger that an enemy force might land elsewhere along the coast and then attack the port from inland.

    Different areas of the city have vastly different characters: - there is the historic town that is now called Old Portsmouth, Spice Island that was outside the town’s walls and whose many pubs illustrate the freedom it had from the regulations of the town, the holiday resort of Southsea with lots of open spaces and the villages and hamlets engulfed by the expanding city where you can sometimes get a glimpse of what they were like when set in open countryside.

     

    Portsmouth Point The viewing area at Portsmouth Point (c.Secret Portsmouth, Amberley Publishing)

    Then there are the unusual places dotted around the city. Places like the road out to the Hayling Island ferry, looking like a small and isolated coastal village but down a road lined with concrete blocks left over from the Second World War. Or the little church at Wymering, hidden among the mainland suburbs, where relatives of Jane Austen are buried.

    I was also fascinated by how Portsmouth had expanded across Portsea and onto the mainland. Marshes were drained and made into parks and there was proper planning that made sure the new suburbs had the facilities they needed – pubs, shops, sports pitches and cemeteries. Among the many rows of 19th and early 20th century terraced houses there are lots of interesting features. Birthplaces of famous people, a church with the font in which Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens were both christened and a ‘Station Road’ that never had a railway station to lead to. And always the military connections – those famous people often had a father in the navy!

    And the stories of peoples’ lives really make a place. Like the riot caused when the locals were denied their rights to walk for free along one of the piers and part of the Esplanade that became known as the ‘Battle of Southsea’, or the doctor, one Arthur Conan Doyle, who didn’t have too many patients so used his spare time to write stories, leading to the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

    In fact, I enjoyed writing this book on Portsmouth so much, I think I might write another!

    9781445655161

    Steve Wallis' new book Secret Portsmouth is available for purchase now.

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