Living History: Newhaven Fort

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A glimpse of the Downs from the ramparts of Newhaven Fort

A couple of weekends back, my history-buff mother-in-law came to stay from the North.

This was the perfect opportunity to visit Newhaven Fort for the first time. And her stay also coincided with their ‘Living History’ weekend.

I contacted Newhaven Fort and they kindly gave my family tickets. But as ever, this will be an honest glimpse at our experience of it.

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Take-home memorabilia from Newhaven Fort

THE ESSENTIALS

Drive: 14 minutes

Address: Fort Road, Newhaven, BN9 9DS

Tel no.: 01273 517 622

Website: newhavenfort.org.uk

Hours: Mar-Sept, 10.30am-6pm (last admission 5pm); Oct + Nov, 10.30am-5pm (last admission 4pm)

Price: Adult £6; Senior/Concs £5; Child (4-15) £4; Family £18.70. Take your ticket to The Martello Tower in Seaford or The Redoubt Fortress in Eastbourne and gain reduced entrance to both.

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THE DETAILS

  • Newhaven Fort is a Victorian fortification built in the 1860s.
  • The website calls the fort ‘the largest work of defence ever constructed in Sussex‘.
  • It was a vital part of the coastal defence of Great Britain through the two World Wars.
  • After years of incredible neglect – and a period serving as a holiday camp – it was opened as a military heritage attraction in 1988 by Lewes District Council.
  • The fort brings history to life, through interactive displays, reconstructions and exhibitions.
  • There are events throughout the year, including live jazz evenings, military re-enactments and children’s activities at Easter and Halloween. The next big one is Battle of Britain Day on 15 September.
  • The theatre here shows a bite-size 12-minute film on the fort’s history. It runs every 20 minutes.
  • The fort consists of ‘casemates’ set around a central courtyard (parade ground). In each are the displays and experiences that combine to make this a military museum.
  • We didn’t not go into all the casemates, but there are ‘rooms’ dedicated to the Royal Observer Corps, Sussex and Surrey Yeomanry and Dieppe and D-Day, among others.
  • The Newhaven Fort website has an excellent list of imaginative, inspiring ideas for a day spent here. You can look at it here.
  • Dogs are welcome if on a lead.
  • Parking is free.

LITTLE LEWES LOVES

RESTFUL VIEWS FROM THE RAMPARTS

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The sweeping arch of beaches Tide Mills and Seaford – viewed from the ramparts at Newhaven Fort

It was a beautiful day and we walked the ramparts.

From the top there were sweeping views out to sea. There’s something restorative about looking deep into the distance, with nothing to obstruct the eye.

Then, looking left, there was the beach at Tide Mills, and beyond it, Seaford Beach. In the far distance were the steep white cliffs of Seaford Head.

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Views of the breakwater and West Quay Beach, from Newhaven Fort’s ramparts

To the right, over which hovered a lone hang glider, was Newhaven’s West Quay Beach. Within the breakwater this is sand. To the west of it, the beach is shingle, backed by white cliffs.

Then, everywhere else behind us, were the South Downs. I always find their gently undulating peaks and dips very relaxing to look at.

Along the ramparts were the gun emplacements and magazines. Kids (including mine) loved climbing on these and exploring them.

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Exploring a gun emplacement at Newhaven Fort

THE HOME FRONT

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Entering Newhaven Fort’s ‘Home Front’ casemate

This ended up being the only casemate we explored.

Apparently this is where ‘The Blitz Experience’ air raid simulation was. How we managed to miss it, I don’t know!

I immediately liked the display as it began with the role of women in the war effort.

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Women running a wartime pharmacy in ‘The Home Front’ casemate, Newhaven Fort

The roles they occupied were illustrated with life size scenes featuring plenty of mannequins. I adore a mannequin. Kitch-but-creepy – and yeah, OK, also educational!

My mother-in-law told me her mother ‘had a lovely war’. Because she worked several jobs usually held by men. She was in the fire service! And apparently loved occupying a purpose outside the home.

Incidentally, all the images in this ‘Home Front’ section of the post link to a BBC Primary History page.

There are interesting, easy-to-digest facts about the war effort and the home front. Included are activities to download for kids about rationing, and letters from evacuees to their parents.

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More of the ‘Women at War’ part of the ‘Home Front’ exhibit
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Love a museum mannequin…

It was also interesting to explain rationing to my son. And to look at the experiences of evacuees with him. There were large photographs and displays of letters, toys and little half-packed suitcases. He was fascinated by what the children took with them.

His paternal granddad was evacuated from Liverpool during WWII. So this display had some personal meaning to my son.

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Children practise wearing their gas masks – an image in ‘The Home Front’ casemate, Newhaven Fort
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An interactive way to learn about rationing, in ‘The Home Front’ casemate, Newhaven Fort

TAPPING OUT MORSE CODE IN RADIO ROOM

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The morse code oscillator and key at Newhaven Fort’s Radio Room

Rarely do my older son and I do things just us two. But this day we managed to peel away from the others and go the Radio Room together.

Inside were three elderly gents from Newhaven Fort Amateur Radio Group. They were surrounded by machinery and wall-to-wall wartime maps.

They encouraged him to tap out his name. My usually-shy son stepped forward. With some help, he did it!

In our age of iPhones, texts, computers and emails, this had a purity to it. This now-naive, but incredibly historically important way of communicating…

That his paternal granddad was in the Royal Signals, as was my own grandpa, again gave the experience something personal.

He was given a certificate by one of the kind experts. Then we went next door to look at a display of typewriters and communication equipment from bygone eras.

THE PLAYGROUND

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The main frame at Newhaven Fort’s playground

I always appreciate it when attractions of historical interest recognise that as fascinating their artifcacts and hands-on displays are, kids need to run off some steam.

The playground here was simple but good. There were picnic tables next to it. While our big one happily played on the equipment, our newbie walker toddled around the expansive parade ground.

And we could sit down TOGETHER for longer than five seconds!

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Play apparatus that resembled army drill equipment, at Newhaven Fort’s play area

THE PASSIONATE HISTORIANS

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Hard tack and salted beef, to carry to and consume during battle

It was Living History weekend. There were people present who had dedicated themselves to learning as much as possible about a chosen era.

Being shamefully lacking in the historical knowledge department, I was fascinated by a simple conversation with a couple of men in full regalia (whose lunch we interrupted, but they carried on chatting to us anyway!) about how soldiers going into battle in 1815 prepared and preserved food to take with them.

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In costume at the Living History Weekend, Newhaven Fort

TO BE AWARE OF

This is a fort and there are ramparts. There are obviously drops and there is unsteady ground. Keep an eye on tinies when up here.

I didn’t go into the café as we took lunch. But there is one.

Some areas of the fort aren’t that buggy friendly. You may have to carry your buggy down steps to get down from the ramparts if you don’t want to go back the way you came. Some casemates are under ground.

OVERALL

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A musket drill by the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards, 1815

When we arrived at Newhaven Fort I admit I felt a bit underwhelmed. I had seen pictures of army jeeps on the website. I stupidly told my son there would be vehicles. So there was initially some disappointment to explain away.

Also, because everything is behind the casemates, it looked a bit…well…empty. Save for the five guys above preparing for a musket drill as the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards, 1815.

But (to nick a phrase coined by my friend Sophie), the casemates are ‘little pockets of brilliance‘. I came to like that it was all hidden away. There was no pressure to see everything.

We would return to Newhaven Fort. It’s an attraction I’d class as low-key. My favourite kind – leisurely and non-manic.

Incidentally, the views from the ramparts inspired us to head straight to Tide Mills afterwards. We beach combed and watched the waves until tea.

The perfect relaxing way to end a perfect, relaxing day.

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The windswept beauty of the abandoned village at Tide Mills

Thank you to Newhaven Fort for giving us complimentary tickets to the ‘Living History’ weekend. 

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I’m Kate, a copywriter, brand consultant and editor who creates messages that are clear and clean. I create these for brands and agencies both big and boutique, in areas including design, homes and interiors, travel, fashion, lifestyle, beauty, food, and kids and families. I believe clear, clean messages bolster brands and businesses. They evoke emotion and ignite inspiration, and when written well, they’re easier to absorb – and respond to. I live in Copenhagen and am half-English, half-Danish. I write as comfortably in American English as in British, and behind the scenes I'm also studying Danish. Need help getting your message out? Contact me.

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