Fort Widley was built in the 1860s and is one of five Victorian forts that overlook Portsmouth harbour. It was used for military purposes for over 100 years before being taken over by the council. Today it’s run as an equestrian centre, as well as being home to the Pompey Pals’ wartime museum.
Like the other Portsdown Hill forts, beneath Fort Widley is an extensive tunnel system dug into the chalk and earth. The Fort Widley tunnels are rarely open to the public.
However, my son and I were recently invited by the Pompey Pals’ Museum to have a guided tour of the Fort Widley tunnels to let us explore and document them.
About Fort Widley
Fort Widley was constructed between the years 1860 and 1868 and is identical in structure and layout to Fort Southwick. Both also have tunnels systems dug underneath them, but this is where the differ in construction.
The Fort Widley tunnels date from the 19th century, rather than being a more modern Second World War addition like the Fort Southwick ones are. But that doesn’t mean Fort Widley wasn’t used during WW2.
In First World War it was used as a transit depot. During the Second World War it was modified to provide more accommodation. It was then used by a number of units before housing members of the Royal Corps of Signals and Auxiliary Territorial Service supporting the navy command at Fort Southwick.Fort Widley’s entry on Wikipedia
The Fort Widley Tunnels & Bunker
Our journey into the Fort Widley tunnels began in the Pompey Pals’ Museum where the curators gave us a fantastic talk on Portsmouth’s First and Second World War history. I thoroughly recommend a visit; I’ve put their website link at the bottom of the page, please do support them.
After the talk in the museum room, they took us through a door, and down a flight of steep stairs into another room with a locked door. This was the entrance to the Fort Widley tunnels.
This is the sight that greeted us as the door was opened.
Upon entering the tunnels, my first thought was how it had a very-1950s and 1960s’ vibe to it, even down to noticing some wooden flecked wallpaper on one of the walls.
It soon became clear why this was.
Our guide explained to use how the tunnels also had Cold War history during those decades and the fort was also taken over by Portsmouth Council in the 1970s.
The Fort Widley bunker
As we entered into the first corridor, there were a several doors to the left and right of us. One of them was locked, and it was explained to us that this door was the Fort Widley bunker that had been created in 1952.
In 1952 the fort became home to a bomb disposal squadron and a year later an emergency civil control centre for Portsmouth was constructed in the fort’s magazine. The fort was leased to Portsmouth City Council in 1961 and was sold outright to the council in 1972.Fort Widley’s entry on Wikipedia
The secret Fort Widley bunker room that sits behind this locked door was Portsmouth’s Civil Defence Control. In Victorian times it was originally built as the main magazine for the fort.
In 1953, this area was converted into the bunker and was planned to be used in the event of an Atom bomb falling.. Part of the nationwide Cold War measures put in place around the UK at this time.
Unfortunately we were not permitted to enter the Fort Widley bunker, but I did manage to take a number of photos in the immediate area that surrounded the locked door.
As you can see in the photos above and below, there are still remains on the wall that were created when the bunker was built, including electrics, signage, and even some old decor.
We also saw another locked door behind which we were told Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service have conducted training in the past. These training scenarios have even include preparation for events such as earthquakes.
Walking through Fort Widley tunnels
We were then invited to continue walking into the tunnels. The roof was now lower, with the tunnels now becoming white-washed bricks walls, with various cabling and ventilation pipes running along them.
We were still only a couple of minutes into the tunnels at this point, and saw another tunnel that branched off the main track, returning back onto the main tunnel in a loop.
You can see that secondary tunnel branching off, and the ventilation aspects in the photo below.
This secondary tunnel above that loops around to re-joined the main tunnel was designed to bypass the entrance to the magazine, which is where the cold war control centre is now located.
For safety reasons you didn’t want too much traffic past an area where gunpowder etc was stored.
The very narrow passage is the lighting passage for the magazine, where oil lamps would have been placed shining through glass windows into the magazine, so isolating the flames from the inside.
Talks of ghosts in the Fort Widley tunnels
As we descended further into the tunnels we started to feel the temperature drop and get colder.
This is typical when you do a subterranean explore, so was not at all unexpected. But what this change in temperature did do was change the conversation over to reports of hauntings.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but there have been reported sightings of ghosts and spooky goings on here. There are also ghost tour events held in the Fort Widley tunnels.
It is these underground chambers that most of the paranormal activity is said to have been experienced. Ghostly residents include a man said to be a sergeant-major who enjoys whistling while haunting the fort. The old sergeants’ mess is reported to be a very intimidating area to visit now.BBC Hampshire news article from 2009
The tunnels beneath Fort Widley do have an atmosphere to them.
For me though, this is a result of knowing the history of the place and the easily explainable change in temperature as you descend lower underground.
The spiral staircase room
We shortly came out of the first tunnel to an open area. The dominant feature of this open space was a huge spiral staircase. Looking vertically up the stair case, you could see daylight coming in.
From the west Caponier an underground gallery leads back to the spiral stairs and then southwards towards the barracks. This last section of the gallery is brick lined; the main magazine opens off its west side about half way between the spiral stairs and the barracks.portsdown-tunnels.org.uk
Whilst it was tempting to do so, we didn’t climb the spiral staircase. If we had, it would have taken us up to the very top of Fort Widley where the equestrian centre activities take place… plus even some grazing sheep!
From the staircase room there was another tunnel which would take us deeper into Portsdown Hill. The first glimpse I got was by looking through a hole in the wall.
The chalk-lined tunnel
We now walked into a different tunnel. Rather than white-washed brick walls, the tunnel was now bare chalk. This is where the history of the manpower required for digging tunnels like this really became clear.
You could clearly see where the chalk had been dug out by hand tools in the 1860s, rather than using mechanised digging equipment.
The walls were damp and cold to the touch. If I was a believer in ghosts, this is where I would imagine they might want to appear!
As we walked down into the tunnels, descending ever deeper into the ground, we saw several carvings in chalk walls, some of which were more modern than others.
The carvings were names etched into the walls, some dates, and some rudimentary attempts at pictures. There was one very poignant carving though, and you can see that below.
The memorial carving in chalk
Our guide from the Pompey Pals’ Museum explained how this crucifix symbol and lettering and date (not shown) was carved by workers who dug the tunnels in 1860.
The cross was carved as a memorial to one of their colleagues who was killed during a roof collapse. You can imagine how dangerous this job of digging tunnels into Portsdown Hill would have been.
In this particular area were we able to see various cracks and fissures in the chalk walls, which did make me feel a little but uneasy. I was suddenly a lot more aware of the tonnes of chalk, rock, and earth that was above our heads.
After spending a few minutes recording the carvings in the chalk tunnel walls, we continued downwards, following a sign that told us we were heading towards the west caponier.
Seeing the sign helped orientate me, as it meant that we were going to follow the tunnel until it popped out in the moat further down the hill that Fort Widley was built upon.
The west caponniere
As we reached the west caponier, the tunnel opened up into a larger room with a high ceiling. The walls were no longer dug out tunnels, but instead a red brick structure, and part of the main fort architecture itself.
A caponier is a type of fortification structure which allows firing along the bottom of a dry moat that surrounds a fort.
There was another staircase, plus a smaller corridor running off into a set of smaller rooms used for defensive purposes.
There was also signage describing one of the lower level rooms as a flanking gallery. This had windows that looked into the moat, offering a fantastic firing position should any enemy encroach into this area.
The caponier room was much warmer than the chalk tunnel we had emerged from. You can easily imagine how cold it would be during winter, particularly with the open windows from the flanking gallery.
The Victorian era troops would have needed a source of warmth. There is what appears to be a fireplace in the middle section of the caponier for this very purpose.
Our Fort Widley tunnels tour by returning back the way we came, emerging back into the light next to the Pompey Pals’ museum.
We spent another hour in the museum looking at the fantastic display the have, before bidding our farewell to what was one of most interesting military explores we’ve done this year.
Credits and references
I would like to give a big thank you to Nick and Chris at the Pompey Pals’ charity who kindly invited us down for the morning in November, 2021. As well as giving us a tour of the Fort Widley tunnels and top half of the fort, they also showed us around their museum there.
If you haven’t visited them, please drop them a line on pompeypals.org.uk. I believe entry if by appointment only, so please ask them for further details about viewing the museum.
I also used the excellent website portsdown-tunnels.org.uk for certain reference points in this guide.