“I want to go to a castle,” says Henry (6) at the start of the holidays. I like to try and make his dreams possible if I can but as ever, time is always an issue. So it is great to find that there are some castles on our Hampshire doorstep. We decide to head for Portchester Castle, a mere 15 miles from home and it is a wonderful, educational experience for us all.
Apparently there was a fort on this site way back in 290AD which over time evolved into the castle ruins that we see today. It became a Royal palace and then a war prison, being ideally situated on the coast, the Solent nearby. This is a magnificent castle with its thick stone walls, considered to be one of the best examples in Europe. From an architectural perspective there is much character including a delightful, if rather challenging, stone spiral staircase that leads from the bottom to the roof. Caroline musters all her courage and joins us all to walk around the edge of the roof where despite the rain, views across the Solent can be enjoyed. This is certainly an unexpected highlight of our visit.
It is eye opening for us all to be able to walk in history and the audio guides help to bring it all to life. The children absolutely love immersing themselves in the past. Henry and Heidi (9) like to tear about and discover hiding places while Harriett (11) prefers to listen and read. “Look at those clay pipes,” she says, as we enter a room where items including an old Roman shoe, jewellery, a skull and jaw with most of the teeth present, have been discovered by archaeologists.
Through the audio guides we learn about the terrible life that would have been led by a prisoner here. The foul stench from the chamber pots being thrown into the moat, which was so potent the prison could be smelt from a long way away. Even prisoners from the Caribbean found their way here and this reminds us of the dominance of Great Britain and its empire during these times. Yes, history is far from rosy. There were so many prisoners from the war with France in the 18th century that additional floors had to be added. There’s a story about a French prisoner who repeatedly broke out. The unpleasant conditions were not experienced by the officers who lived in plush residences in Portchester itself, which we pass as we walk to the castle. The castle itself has a large footprint and we learn how prisoners would have had blankets but it is a cold and drafty place and no number of fires would make for a cosy existence.
When we stumble upon the French prisoners’ theatre it’s too good an opportunity for Harriett to pass up and remembering the lines she learnt for her audition as Mrs Wormwood for the school play of Matilda, she says it word for word. We think she’s great.
There is so much to learn about Portchester Castle and this is but a tiny, tiny piece of its history. But the great thing about English Heritage membership is that you can return again and again and with each visit you can learn a little bit more.
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