Days Out: All quiet on the Western Front

From bombs to barracks, the Victorian coastal bastion of Newhaven Fort has a surprising appeal for children, as Andrew Hasson found out

Andrew Hasson
Friday 01 May 1998 23:02
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In a warren of dark tunnels dug into the cliffs underneath Newhaven Fort, Daniel, only 18 months old, shouted and laughed at his own echo, delighted with this new form of magic. On the other hand,12-year-old Nikita found it "spooky down there. It must have been a very scary place to be in the war."

We emerged from the gloom of the tunnels, and climbed up to the gun emplacements on the cliff-top, guarding the entrance to the harbour. Here we stood on the edge of the Sussex coast, where the threat of assault felt all too real during the two world wars.

Newhaven Fort, finished in 1871 as part of a vast coastal defence programme, was useful during the 1914-1918 war, when this Sussex harbour became the main military supply port for the Western Front. It was well defended, but the attack for which it was so well prepared never materialised.

During the Second World War, the Luftwaffe tried, and failed, to do any lasting damage - and the 10-acre site now aims to tell the story of this conflict, and its effect on the ordinary people of the area. This it does successfully - and, of course, in beautiful surroundings. The fort has been run for the last decade by Lewes District Council, which has just spent pounds 200,000 upgrading the scheduled ancient monument.

Among the thousands of ferry passengers now passing annually through the port en route to Dieppe [see Gerard Gilbert's story, age 4], there can't be many who are aware of this Victorian coastal fortress. Yet the ferry itself passes within yards of the ramparts. A few of those passengers may be aware that Lord Lucan's abandoned car was found just down the road, shortly after his famous disappearance. (It is widely believed that he took the ferry himself, but I doubt whether he had time for a visit to Newhaven Fort.)

For me, the charm of the place lies in its irregularity. Instead of the site being levelled and a regularly-shaped fort built on top, like the 70 or so constructed around the coast at the same time, this one was built into the terrain. Spread out below are the barracks. This terrace of brick buildings, built direct into the cliff, have today mostly been converted into display rooms. Inside the arched rooms, the excellent real- life sets have, among others, depictions of a blitzed house, the Home Guard and evacuees.

The Royal Observer Corps established a post at the fort in 1929 and, throughout the war that followed a decade later, visually monitored aircraft movements from all over the country. Two of the old barrack rooms tell the story of the corps; a wartime observation post and operations room have been reconstructed. There are plenty of hands-on activities; guessing wartime rations and prices, displays with buttons that light up parts of a model battlefield, and a quiz trail for children to follow. There is also an excellent play area for younger family members.

The visitors

Andrew Hasson took two of his sons, Harry, aged 11, and Daniel, aged 18 months, and a friend, Nikita Beahan, aged 12.

Harry: There were little model sets showing battles, and all the tanks and guns and stuff were set exactly as they had been. It was as if time had been rewound. The best bit was the bombed-out house, but it was fun climbing on the guns, too. The play area was good, because it makes children feel like being on an assault course. There's climbing stuff, swinging things and chains. The canteen had a really nice smell of coffee and the food was yummy. What they sold in the gift-shop was relevant; model planes and tanks and gas-mask holders.

Nikita: I was here last year on a school trip, and they've really improved it since then. The bombed-out house was realistic. There was lots of information. It was as if the model sets were actually talking to you. The atmosphere made you feel as if you were in the Forties, which is a good thing, but it was quite scary. It made me wonder how I would have coped and how I would have felt.

On top, the sea view is really nice. You can see down over all the boats in Newhaven harbour. You can also see all the fields over towards Lewes and down the coast to Seaford. The fresh air was brilliant. Even teenagers would like it. I love it.

The deal

Getting there: The fort (01273 517622) is signposted on all approach roads to Newhaven, which lies between Brighton and Eastbourne, on the A259 coast road. It is linked to Lewes and the A27 via the A26. There are regular trains to Newhaven Town from London Victoria, and from Brighton 12 miles to the west.

Open daily from 10.30am-6pm (last entry 5pm) until 1 November.

Admission: adults pounds 3.60, children (four to 15) pounds l.95, family ticket (two adults and up to three children) pounds 10.50, senior citizens pounds 2.95, children under four free.

Facilities: some areas are difficult for visitors who are not fully mobile, although most of the displays are accessible with care.

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