None of my friends seem to have heard of Hurst Castle – at least the one here in the UK. So, just to be crystal clear, I am referring to Henry VIII’s English castle rather than Randolph Hearst’s Californian home!
Hurst Castle at the tip of the Solent is a pristine example of Henry VIII’s policy of building and maintaining a chain of strategic forts to protect England’s southern coastline. Accessed either by a long, shingle spit which links the castle to the Hampshire mainland at Milford-on-Sea or via ferry from Keyhaven, Hurst Castle protects the Needles Passage between the mainland and the Isle of Wight thus access to the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth.
The original Tudor fort was much added to during the Napoleonic Wars with great wing bastions appearing, making it one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world.
You can however still clearly delineate the later additions from Henry’s original version. Obviously in the two World Wars, the castle was heavily fortified and manned – and was still part of this island’s defences until 1956.
You can only really appreciate the castle when you are relatively near to it – it’s carefully hidden, hunkered down into the landscape and difficult to visualise when walking towards it. Another thought that strikes you on the long, shingle walk over to it, is just how close the Isle of Wight is to you – just an eighth of a mile away – almost as if you could touch the island. It’s a very curious feeling to be so close yet (looking at those choppy waters) so far from the island.
As you might expect with such a narrow seagoing passage, lighthouses are required to guide mariners through the tricky currents and hidden submerged channels of the Needles Passage.
Due to its exposed nature, conservationists have an uphill battle to maintain and restore this vulnerable location – indeed Milford-on-Sea was sadly a real victim in the February storms of 2014 – the damage of which is still evident when you walk along the seawalls.
So go visit while you can – and help English Heritage preserve this magnificent construction against the worst that nature can offer. There’s a lot to see and it’s a really great day out.
If you want to do the walk to Hurst from Milford-on-Sea, go to the car park nearest the Marine Cafe – it’s right next to the spit. We chose one a lot further away simply because the information about parking on the two websites for Hurst was not really that helpful when you don’t know the area. You feel that extra half a mile on the return!
Or simply park at Keyhaven and take the ferry back and forth like most people visiting when we were there seemed to do. It deposits you right next to the entrance.
What you will miss however, is the marshy beauty of the land in the lee of the spit and the effect of the sudden changes in the rather mercurial weather system here – and the joy of kiddies rock-pooling or skimming rocks over the surface of the water.
Dogs can come and help you explore too – as long as they are on leads. The Hound climbed right up to the keep and enjoyed investigating the castle immensely. Dogs are also welcome on the ferry.
Hurst Castle (SO41 0TP) is operated by English Heritage, is open from 1st April – 30th September and entrance is free to members. Non-members pay a fee of GBP4.50 for adults and GBP2.60 for kiddies aged from 5 – 15. The ferry operates every 20 minutes from Keyhaven and costs GBP5.50 for an adult return and GBP3.00 for a child.
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
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