Hurst Castle (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Hurst Castle could have been saved

Following the collapse of the sixteenth-century sea fort, Brice Stratford says that the disaster was completely avoidable

In January, English Heritage blithely assured us all that concerns over the dangers facing the sixteenth-century sea fort of Hurst Castle were vastly exaggerated; there was no need for them to alter their schedule of carefully pre-planned restoration and repairs and there was no likelihood whatsoever of imminent collapse. On 26 February, Hurst Castle collapsed.

English Heritage’s response to concerns was the textual equivalent of a shrug

Constructed by Henry VIII between 1541 and 1544, the castle was originally designed to protect against invasion from France or the Holy Roman Empire, neither of which came. It was undervalued by the authorities from the start, and in the seventeenth century reached a sorry state after generations of underfunding and official disinterest had taken its toll. After the Civil War, Charles I was briefly imprisoned there to await trial, and local tradition reports that his headless ghost still walks the walls (I wonder where it will go now?). In the eighteenth century the dilapidated fortress was just as much a home to smugglers as it was to soldiers, and after centuries of neglect it finally found itself renovated and “modernised” in 1794 in response to the revolutionary war with France.

Hurst Castle Near Portsmouth, England, in 1773. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

After a few years governmental interest in the sea fort passed and it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that it found itself at the centre of real activity. It is around this time that the two lighthouses and the great, sprawling east and west wings were constructed, and it was later whipped into something approaching combat readiness for the First and Second World Wars, before finally standing down from active service after more than 400 years and passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in the 1950s, and English Heritage on its foundation in the 1980s. Since 1996 day to day running of the site has been taken care of by the “Friends of Hurst Castle”, while English Heritage looks after the fabric of the building. Or, apparently, doesn’t.

Growing up in the New Forest, and going to school in Milford on Sea, Hurst Castle was about as prominent a piece of local heritage as one could imagine. The imposing, otherworldly hotch-potch was a source of fascination, and I remember once visiting the sea fort for a wholesome, educational, early childhood birthday (I forget which). I recall the overwhelming sensation of standing there, at the great and solid stones, feeling a sea-wind whipping at my clothes and my hair, staring out into the horizon and vividly imagining the soldiers and sailors, the smugglers and kings who had stood there before me, over the past 500 years, and had held the same view, and breathed the same salt air, and felt the same thrill of isolation and freedom and powerless insignificance that the sea always instils. It was one of my earliest experiences of a historical building acting as a conduit into that history; something that unlocks the humanity of the past and turns dry textbooks and exotic stories into lived reality, into sensory experience.

Hurst Castle, Portsmouth, 1860. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Erosion began to threaten Hurst Castle after its retirement (and who can say otherwise?) in the 1940s, when groyne barriers were installed at nearby Christchurch and Bournemouth which stopped the shingle “spit” that the castle is constructed on from naturally renewing itself. Government efforts to remedy this began in the 1960s, and in 1990 everyone patted themselves thoroughly on the back after a £5 million scheme of gravel dumping proved so successful that it was deemed unnecessary to top up the work every decade, as had originally been planned. Twenty years passed without event and then, to everyone’s surprise, the problem came back.

In 2013 David Jupp, then Chairman of the Friends of Hurst Castle, went public with his concerns over the imminent dangers of erosion to the castle structure, claiming that an investment of millions was required urgently:

The pattern of coastal erosion has changed dramatically in the past six months … Shingle separating the waves from the castle is being eroded away, threatening part of the ancient monument. Some of the stone cladding has fallen away and part of the foundations has been exposed. It’s very difficult to judge what will happen next but we could lose portions of the southern wall if nothing is done.

English Heritage’s response was the textual equivalent of a shrug, merely confirming that:

Coastal protection works were undertaken around 20 years ago and these had been effective until relatively recently … this winter has seen an area of erosion develop along the east wing, where the level of shingle along the beach has dropped in some areas … This has resulted in part of the concrete foundations being exposed to high tides.

Remedial works were carried out, as were further temporary measures the following year, when storms intensified the damage.

Heritage campaigners had been warning of the necessity of conservation works for some years

Of the nineteenth century additions, it was the west wing that received the bulk of various militarising works during the wars of the twentieth century, whilst the east wing remained essentially unaltered. As the near-unaltered wing it arguably possesses the greater heritage significance of the two, which makes the fact that as early as eight years ago it was identified as the most vulnerable, the one most in need of repair and defence, doubly alarming. From thereon out the parlous conservation situation steadily worsened, and by 2019 English Heritage had cordoned off part of the adjoining beach, acknowledging the structure had fallen into a “precarious” state, but maintaining that “we’re in the process of planning the best approach for conservation work to the castle itself.” Though heritage campaigners had been warning of the necessity of immediate, emergency conservation works for some years, English Heritage always downplayed the urgency, and assured the press that it was only “Over the coming decades” that “the stability of Hurst Castle could be at risk from coastal erosion”, and not anything like as soon as these misguided, excitable types were claiming.

So, finally, in 2019 English Heritage began making a shortlist of contractors who would ultimately develop a plan of conservation works to begin to remedy the erosion problem. Having carefully weighed up the best approach, it was apparently decided that, as time wasn’t really a desperate issue, it would be best to start on the west wing, rather than shore up the more important, more vulnerable east wing. After all, it would be “decades” before the stability was at risk, so no rush. Heritage campaigners and “Friends of Hurst Castle” continued to try to convince them of the urgency, and of the real danger of imminent collapse in the east wing. English Heritage patted them on the hand and told them not to worry their pretty little heads. Then the storms came, and huge cracks started to appear, and heritage conservation watchdog the Solent Protection Society confirmed that what the volunteers had been claiming for months, for years, was entirely correct; that parts of the castle’s outer walls were being undercut by the tide, had lost their shale underpinning, and were exposed and unsupported. The SPS brought this up with English Heritage in April. As late as November they were still desperately trying to convince them to take serious action.

The works began, but it really was too late. The costs mounted, delays were endless, the progress was glacial, and then the great, infinite excuse of coronavirus absolved them of any sins in idleness. Finally, come 2021, they had finished working on the west wing and could start to think about how they would consider going about the east wing. Of course there were more storms, as there had been every single year for decades, and the Friends of Hurst Castle again pleaded with English Heritage to reassess the urgency of the works, warning them that immediate, emergency action was vital. As recently as 25 of January this year I was reading that: “fears that without the work the sixteenth century building, near Milford, could topple into the Solent were rejected by national conservation agency English Heritage.” The article goes on:

A source who works at the castle said there were ‘real fears’ that if left unrepaired the whole wall of the east wing could disappear into the sea, saying: ‘It is hugely worrying.’ English Heritage insist this is not the case, however, saying: ‘While urgent repairs are required to the east wing battery, there is no immediate risk to Hurst Castle.’

The whole wall of the east wing had disappeared into the sea almost exactly one month later. A few hours after that I had grown tired of the insipid, backside-covering, caravan-circling, media-bland misrepresentation I was seeing from the English Heritage twitter account, poured a large whisky and wrote this article. It has just gone midnight, and it is now my birthday. If I close my eyes and let the Laphroaig work its magic, I am back at that childhood party all those years ago, standing tiny at the sea fort, staring into the endless tide and breathing in the ice cold, ageless wind.

The disaster at Hurst Castle was completely avoidable. If the works of the 1990s had been renewed every decade, as they were intended to be; if the concerns of heritage campaigners and volunteers had been taken seriously; if the works of 2013 and 2014 had acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and the tight timeframe; if English Heritage had acted in April rather than November; if they had prioritised the east wing; if they had accurately assessed the danger posed at any point within the past 30 years. If any of these things had been different, Hurst Castle might still be standing.

The long-term failings in the Hurst Castle case are deep, endemic and unacceptable

English Heritage’s response has been characteristically defensive. It claims that they couldn’t possibly have foreseen this, and that everything would have been fine if it hadn’t been for those pesky storms we’ve had recently. Also, it’s actually very “challenging and difficult” to look after Hurst Castle, you know, and nobody died, so really they’ve done an excellent job considering, and they’ve already started on the works anyway so yeah we were going to get around to that actually. The fact that literally a month ago they were actively dismissing claims that this was a danger and assuring the public that there was “no immediate risk” isn’t mentioned, let alone the fact that this same cycle of warnings, storms and complacency has been repeating itself unheeded for decades.

The long-term failings in the Hurst Castle case are deep, endemic and unacceptable. This is a story of institutional arrogance, conservation mismanagement, bureaucracy and hubris. We need a full, independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding it, so that perhaps we can finally break the cycle of incompetence. There are hundreds of questions that need answering, but for now I’ll settle for just three: Why did English Heritage reject advice that this collapse was an imminent danger? On what basis did they conclude there was no immediate risk to the structure? Do they acknowledge they were wrong?

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