Navy Larks: Part One

After last year’s election the BBC commissioned a study to identify those places least resilient in the face of public spending cuts.  Gosport, on the Hampshire coast, finished rock bottom in the rankings for its mix of business sectors , and in the worst 12.5% overall – a rare southern outlier in a sea of northern industrial towns.  So it is perhaps no surprise, a year on, that the Government’s two big ideas for economic development, Enterprise Zones and the Regional Growth Fund, have found their way there.

Like many people, I suspect, my knowledge of the place was restricted to the view from the ferry when leaving Portsmouth for Cherbourg or the Isle of Wight.  And ferries are a big feature of life in Gosport.  In fact it must be pretty much the only large town on the British mainland where you have to take one (pedestrians and cyclists only) to get to your nearest decent shopping centre.  So it is that at 10.30 on a Friday morning, as some 200 people stream off the ferry in Portsmouth, I’m one of about 20 hardy souls embarking for the short trip across the neck of the harbour to Gosport.  And I’m looking forward to a good long walk across the town to the Enterprise Zone at Lee-on-the-Solent.

Gosport, like its more illustrious neighbour, is a Navy town.  And this means that, for locals, losing public sector jobs is nothing new.  In fact the Gosport Waterfront Trail is a 3km long roll call of once thriving, now closed, Navy installations.

I start by walking south from the ferry terminal towards the open sea.  I see some “MoD Property Keep Out” signs, but most of the waterfront is now given over to a huge yacht marina and a submarine museum.  It doesn’t feel very welcoming to be honest.  The museum is perched on the water’s edge, accessed by a narrow walkway between barbed wire fences.    The walkway is apparently the tramway up which wounded sailors were taken to the (now closed) Haslar Hospital.  When it was completed in 1760 the Georgian hospital was the largest brick building in Europe.

Back into town, and the prime waterfront spot at the foot of Gosport High Street is taken by two 1960’s tower blocks.  They are neat and brightly painted, but this doesn’t entirely overcome the impression they give of being plonked down anyhow in a sterile sea of car parking and amenity greens.   Credit to the Council on the choice of names though.  They have eschewed the usual suspects – poets or trees or the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Housing Committee.  In this case they’ve called them Seaward Tower and Harbour Tower, which must be a great help to any relief postman trying to learn his round.

A signboard reminds me that the town centre was badly bombed in the Second World War and had to be largely rebuilt.   And the whole area is now very 1960’s.  The High Street is a bustling place, but it feels like a neighbourhood shopping centre on the way into Portsmouth. The days when it had over 100 pubs and the press gang prowled about at closing time are very hard to imagine now.

The Navy’s retreat from Gosport continues as I walk on along the waterfront trail north into Portsmouth Harbour.  Gosport was historically where the provisioning and arming of Navy ships was done.   The Royal Clarence Yard, once home to Navy butcheries, bakeries and breweries is gradually being redeveloped into the inevitable waterside apartments, and Priddy’s Hard is home to  Explosion!, the Museum of Naval Firepower , housed in the old Armaments Depot.   Perhaps I’m just being squeamish, but a museum documenting our ability to kill our fellow men on an increasingly industrial scale isn’t my idea of fun, so I don’t go in.  In any case it all looks pretty low key.

In fact all along the Gosport waterfront I’ve had a strong sense that the real action is across the water.  More than 10 warships are tied up in the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard awaiting maintenance, and nearby Spinnaker Tower watches over the cathedral, the waterside pubs and the shops of Gunwharf Quays.

A short walk further north along the harbour brings me to Hardway.  This was an unassuming hamlet in the early 19th century, but had a great significance for me.  My great-great-great grandfather was a coastguard here for thirty years, and it was where his daughter met and married my great-great grandfather.  Coastguards in those days weren’t the life savers of today.  Their job was to stop smugglers, and a very dangerous job it was.  I had never understood why he had been stationed here at Hardway, deep inside Portsmouth Harbour two miles from the open sea, but a helpful signboard puts me right.  Apparently it was far enough from the centre of Gosport to be ideal for the landing of contraband.  There is nothing left of the Coastguard lookout today, but it feels good to be standing here.

My little detour to Hardway has left me further from Lee-on-the-Solent than I was when I started out.  And time is getting on.  So I strike out inland, making for it in as straight a line as I can.  Before long I reach Fort Brockhurst, part of Gosport’s mid-19th century landward defences.  This line of forts formed a complete barrier to any army attacking Gosport (and Portsmouth too of course) from the west.  They were never called into action, and became known as “Palmerston’s follies”.  Good to know that 19th century prime ministers were held in just as high esteem as our current crop of politicians.  Fort Brockhurst is now in the care of English Heritage, and the only sign of life I see is a grey heron waiting patiently at the edge of the moat for any injudicious fish which swim past.

Beyond this line of defences, and over the disused railway line, I can follow Grange Road down to the sea.  For the first time since I left the waterfront I’m accompanied by barbed wire marching along beside the road ahead of me.  This is HMS Sultan – a navy training college which occupies all the land along the line of the 19th century forts.  And it forms just as impenetrable a barrier to movement today, particularly for residents of the Rowner housing estate opposite, as the heavy artillery in the forts would have presented to an invading army.

I do a quick count up.  I have passed at least six major sources of public sector employment which have already disappeared from the area – though none of the closures can be laid at the door of the current Government.  And even so the Navy still feels like the biggest employer here, which must be why the town is considered to be so vulnerable to the current round of public spending cuts.

Gosport’s great geographical asset for defence – its peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, with its line of forts protecting the fourth – is unfortunately what makes it unattractive to civilian business today.  Bar the pedestrian ferry the only way out is the single carriageway A32.  And according to Wikipedia the 5 miles to the M27 at Fareham can take 45 minutes in the morning rush hour.  The largely Victorian town hasn’t seemed particularly run-down to me, but neither has it felt like a place with its own identity.  I fear that Gosport the proud Navy town is becoming an out-of the-way dormitory suburb.

Can the new Enterprise Zone at nearby Lee on the Solent help to turn this around?  In my next blog post I will try and find out.