“ Property overlooking the Needles on the Isle of Wight „
When I was planning my trip to the Isle of Wight, I made sure to schedule in as many heritage trips as possible. I am a member of both the National Trust and English Heritage, so I get in to these places for free. I resolved to visit as many as I could, and one of these was the Needles Old Battery and New Battery.
Owned and run by the National Trust, the batteries are military defences perched on the edge of the Needles headland at the westernmost point of the Isle of Wight. The Old Battery dates from 1862, built to help protect the naval dockyards at Portsmouth at a time when the threat of invasion from the French was very real. The New Battery, built later, was used to test British-made rockets during the Cold War.
*Location and Access*
The Batteries are rather high up on the cliffs near Alum Bay. There is no vehicle access to the site itself, but it is possible to park in the nearby car park for Alum Bay. The Island Breezer bus travels round the island from Ryde to this point in a clockwise direction, once at the beginning of the day before going back the other way in the evening. This was the method I chose to reach the Batteries, and the views from the top of the cliffs were spectacular, although the roads were so narrow and steep I was convinced the coach was about to plummet into the sea! It is also possible, if you don't mind the walk, to get the bus to Alum Bay and walk up to the cliff.
Summer opening times for 2013 are not yet up on the website, but last year the Old Battery was open most days during the week, with the New Battery only being open a couple of days - so plan your visit carefully if you want to see both.
*A Brief Summary*
The Old Battery was never actually needed for defence, but it served other purposes. Soldiers tested gunpowder in a special lab. During World War II it was used as a lookout post, with the underground tunnel coming in particularly handy. The site offers excellent views of the sea to the south, with the potential to provide advance warning of attempted invasion.
The New Battery was used for rocket testing before the UK pulled out of the 'space race'. The Isle of Wight provided an ideal location, being close enough to the UK mainland to be easy to reach, but remote enough to be secret.
Both batteries were closed in 1945.
I visited the Old Battery first. On going through the gate I was confronted with a large open courtyard, with two guns pointing out towards the sea (The guns are original Victorian ones, but their stands aren't). I had a look around, climbing up to the top of the fort and enjoying the view of the Needles and of Alum Bay, which were spectacular. It was a lovely, warm, sunny day, and the atmosphere was very pleasant indeed.
I checked out the room where gunpowder testing used to take place - it had a window at the top where people could peek in and see what was going on! I also ventured down the secret tunnel: this involved going down a very steep spiral staircase and walking through a narrow tunnel, eventually reaching a small room overlooking the Needles. Though there was a lamp in here, it must have been pretty spooky at night.
I had a delicious cream tea in the tea room, which looked out over the Needles. The café is small, but pleasant, and the staff were very friendly.
Afterwards I headed up the hill towards the New Battery. This is laid out as a series of underground rooms and is smaller than the Old Battery, but there is still plenty of interest to see regarding the history of Britain's involvement in rocket testing, of which I had no prior knowledge whatsoever. I found my visit really interesting.
The Old Battery has a café, shop and picnic area, as well as toilets. The New Battery, being smaller, has only a small kiosk selling drinks and ice-creams.
Dogs are welcome at both sites provided they are on leads. Groups are welcome, but are requested to contact the site before visiting.
At the Old Battery, there is limited accessible parking (please contact beforehand for details). There is also an adapted toilet, an induction loop and a wheelchair available for hire. The New Battery has no such facilities.
NT Member: Free
Entry to the New Battery is free.
I enjoyed my visit to the batteries: I learned a lot and had a good experience. I think kids would enjoy spending time here too as the secret tunnel is great fun and there are interesting rooms to explore. I feel that the admission price is a fair one, particularly as you can visit the nearby New Battery for free. The area is a little tricky to get to compared with other heritage sites such as Osborne House, but once you are here you can view the Needles and explore Alum Bay, which are important parts of the Isle of Wight experience!
For more information about the Needles Old Battery and New Battery, see the website:
If I were to gauge just how popular an attraction is by how many photos I want to take of it, then the Needles on the Isle of Wight are hugely popular with me. I must have taken about 20 photos of the jagged slabs of chalk from slightly different angles when I was there recently.
* The Needles Old Battery *
Wanting to see what is undoubtedly the most spectacular natural feature on the Isle, we found ourselves at the Needles Old Battery. It had been a simple toss up between a boat trip out to the rocks or a visit over land to what are called the Old and New Batteries. We chose the latter although at the time knowing precious little about them.
On the most westerly tip of the Isle of Wight, what is now called the Old Battery was built in the 1860s as a coastal defence against the French with whom British relations were not at all cordiale. Within a mere 30 years though, it was deemed outdated and the New Battery had been built partly due to safety concerns about the damage to the cliffs from the guns being fired there.
The Battery was manned during both World Wars, but after the troops left in 1945 it was decommissioned until in 1975 it became the property of the National Trust along with much of the surrounding Down.
Having visited other parts of the island in the morning, we didn't actually arrive here until mid afternoon. The Southern Vectis 'Needles Tour' bus we arrived on stops first at the New Battery which is one the headland above the Old Battery. We got off there and walked around both the New and Old Batteries.
Despite the Old Battery having been open since 10:30am and it being a nice warm day in early June, it wasn't very busy when we arrived.
* Entrance *
The difference in visiting one of the lavish country homes which are owned by the National Trust, and a property such as this which was built for military purposes becomes noticeable as soon as you arrive at the entrance to the Old Battery. The lack of space for the men who were based here is always apparent. A small office on the left is where we paid to enter, or you can wave your NT card if you are a member. There's also a small selection of postcards and other touristy gifts available to buy here.
A few of my favourite things...
~ The Parade Ground ~
A rather grand name for an area that is really rather small, although it holds two of the most eye catching attractions at the Batteries, and that is the two 9" Rifled Muzzle Loader guns on display. Six of these guns protected the garrison from 1893, for a mere ten years. For reasons either not explained, or I missed, all six were then thought to be surplus to requirements and thrown over the cliffs.
Having been fired at will, or Bonaparte, or whoever else tried sailing up the Solent, to my untrained eyes they look more like cannons. It took a team of nine men to load (what I'm determined to call) a cannonball which would have weighed an astonishing 250 pounds each!
All six have since been recovered. The guns are very real, but the carriages they are sitting on now are replicas.
~ The Needles ~
For all it's undoubted military importance to Portsmouth, the Solent, and probably the Dorset coastline not far to the West, it would be fair to say that most people come to the Old Battery to get a close up view of the Needles. We did, and we weren't disappointed.
The first and most atmospheric means of viewing the Needles is via the underground tunnel. This leads to the Searchlight Station which was built, or dug out, in 1899. A testament to the men of the day that despite its precarious position it's still perfectly safe to visit. The tunnel is accessed via a small spiral staircase in the middle of the Parade Ground.
The Searchlight Station is again a rather grand name for what is really a very small room. With a searchlight in the centre, built incidentally by The London Electric Firm of my hometown of Croydon. It was a surprise to see the word Croydon writ large at a National Trust property, and not a graffiti artist in sight.
The second viewing can be had by simply walking around the outer grounds. The grounds, needless to say, go right to the edge of the cliffs in part and in the Old Battery has a chicken wire fence at the cliff perimeter for viewers safety, albeit anyone foolish to test it with their bodyweight might finding it wanting.
~ The museum ~
The ground floor of the small Port War Signal station at the far end of the Parade Ground is home to a small museum with various exhibits. The most striking of these for me were those relating to two young men who had fought in the Second World War. One surviving soldier has kindly donated his medals to the museum. The other exhibits relate to a Sapper killed in action in Tunisia in 1943. Along with his medals are the original notifications sent to his wife, informing her of his death and that according to others in attendance he hadn't suffered. A small but touching tribute which brought home the importance of the island and the local people during WW2.
* Food glorious food *
If you aren't able or inclined to take a walk underground or the weather isn't good, a cosier view of the Needles can be had from the first floor Café. This is housed in what was the small Port War Signal station at the far end of the Parade Ground. When we were there a few weeks back we were lucky that the café wasn't very busy and we able to sit on some bar stools looking out at the sea - and the Needles of course. The food includes baked potatoes with a choice of fillings, pasties and various cakes and is reasonably priced considering they have a monopoly in the locality.
Given that the NT has had to 'make do' with the existing buildings when they took ownership in 1975 it's understandable that the café itself is tiny. There is a small adjoining room to sit and eat in too, although they ask that all pushchairs are left on the landing outside because there simply isn't the room for them. I would imagine that during busier periods it gets quite hectic. There are also a few largish tables to sit at in the Parade ground for those unable to reach the first floor, but bear in mind how wind swept it is here, even on a warm day.
One nice touch is the two pairs of binoculars the National Trust keep at the café windows for visitors. I thoroughly enjoyed one of their vegetable pasties and a bottle of lemonade while watching some small yachts sailing past the Needles through their binoculars.
* Land Ahoy! *
Given it's location, it's no surprise that there have been so many ships wrecked in these waters. A walk around the Old Battery doesn't just provide for some bracing sea air or wonderful vistas, as the NT have erected four notice boards in the grounds. These contain information as to different ships which all met their end in the immediate vicinity together with details of the crews fate.
Given that its location puts The Old Battery outside the realms of a day visit for nearly all of us, what else is there to encourage people to come here?
* Codename Black Knight... shhh. *
Situated on the down just above the older Battery, the New Battery came into it's own in the 1950s thanks to Saunders Roe. Anyone familiar with British aero or marine engineering may already be aware that this company were commissioned by HM Government to manufacture rockets, which were intended to be capable of delivering H bombs and atomic bombs. Some twenty three Black Knight rockets were launched from here in seven years. The success of these rockets led to the Government wanting to launch British satellites into space. The result of that mission is that Prospero - the only British satellite launched into space by a British rocket - is still orbiting the earth exactly forty years later. Sadly, despite the exhibits at the New Battery, which concentrate mainly on the rockets and Prospero and which are interesting - together with a small tuck shop - it's rather sad to see what remains of the testing site here.
* A walk along the downs. *
Splendid, but best if it's only tried in good weather.
* A trip to the nearby Alum Bay Pleasure Park? *
No, I couldn't recommend it. This is the place where you can buy the different coloured sands of Alum Bay though, which is probably the best reason to visit here, for reasons I may go into another time.
~ Getting there...
... is going to be impossible unless you are already on the island, which to be fair makes it a no go for most of us.
Once here though, why not stay in one of the converted Coastguards Cottages above the Batteries that the NT own and rent out? Probably more expensive than the usual b & b's but I'm sure the unmatched views would help take the sting out of the tail. Quite how you'd get your luggage up here though I'm not sure.
The NT own much of the down surrounding the Batteries, and for those willing to walk, the Trust have a car park 2 miles away at the end of Highdown Lane in Totland. You could then choose to take a steep path that comes out on Tennyson Down at the Alfred, Lord Tennyson Memorial, or there is an easier walk along the bottom of the down. Both distances are nearly 3 kilometres though. Alternatively, there is a public car park at Freshwater Bay which would also involve a walk over Tennyson Down. That is apparently nearer 5 kilometres away and is also much more strenuous.
Did I walk it? Are you crazy? While I'm sure the coastal views would be stunning, we actually parked in the Alum Bay Pleasure Park's car park and caught the Vectis open top bus from there up to here. The fares on the bus is £2.50 one way or £5 return for adults, and half that price for senior citizens and children. Expensive, verging on rip off, but the views from the top deck on a sunny afternoon were worth it. National Trust members also get half price fares on showing their card.
For those wanting neither a vigorous walk or to pay the inflated bus fare there is a gentler walk, which many do, from the alum Bay Pleasure Park to the Batteries. It's just under a mile and involves walking either on the bus route (a single lane road) or when the bus comes along every half hour, moving on to a path to the side. The views looking back towards Alum Bay with the different coloured cliffs are marvellous, provided the weather is good.
There is, according to the NT website, parking available at the site for Disabled visitors, though I don't recall any. You would have to phone ahead to arrange this, and be advised to travel along just behind the bus. You really wouldn't want to meet one on such a narrow road, by such steep cliffs.
* Recommended? *
To visit a National Trust property - or rightly two properties - which focuses on something entirely different from the usual Upstairs Downstairs scenario was certainly enjoyable for me.
In all fairness, I think the NT have tried to make the Batteries as welcoming to people with disabilities and those with children as possible. That said, I'm not sure how enjoyable a visit this would be for those with very small children or those needing wheelchair access. The terrain surrounding both Batteries is hilly and in parts very uneven, meaning that apart from the walk along the bus route which is on tarmac, walking anywhere can be tricky even for the most sure footed, which is worth remembering for those needing wheelchair access or pushing a kids buggy.
The NT do at least make an effort to engage with younger visitors here by providing activity packs for families to complete as they go around, children's quizzes and a soldier's trail. Those with children we saw seemed to be enjoying themselves though, especially in the chilly underground tunnel.
Given the risk of inclement weather here, the Batteries are only open between the middle of March and the end of October every year. If you intend to walk here, please phone ahead to check it's open first, as the NT reserve the right to close it in high winds.
Given it's superb location, and historical significance - I couldn't help wondering what it must have been like to watch the Allied troops sail towards Normandy for D Day from here - yes I would recommend a visit. However I can understand those who think the overall cost is too expensive.
Admittance to the Old Battery ( the New Battery is free)
(There are no concessions)
Where it is
The address is:
The Needles Old Battery and New Battery
West High Down
Isle of Wight
Telephone: 01403 891 212
Until 30 October 2011 it is open every day 10.30am to 5pm, with last admission at 4.30pm.