Portchester was an important port and the fort and castle occupied a commanding position at the head of Portsmouth harbour.
This is the most impressive and best-preserved of the Roman 'Saxon Shore' forts built around the third century AD to combat raids by invaders. During the Saxon times a wooden castle was built inside the fortifications to defend the area against Viking raids. This was replaced by a stone building in the 12thC when St Mary’s church (see separate review) was built. The castle was a royal residence from the time of Henry II to when it was sold by Charles I.
In the 14thC with the threat of a possible French invasion, the inner ward was remodelled, the outer gatehouse extended and the sea wall repaired. The domestic buildings were refurbished and royal apartments built for Richard II. In the 16thC it was used as a military hospital for those involved in wars with France. The castle was repaired in 1603 for Elizabeth I.
From the late 17thC until the 19thC it was used to house prisoners of war.
It is reached by a long drive from the A27 through 18/19th housing. It is surrounded by a large expanse of open grass which is popular with locals. There is a large car park with an ice cream van doing a roaring trade when we visited in late August.
The Roman walls still stand to their original height. They are built of flint with layers of tile in places. Originally there were 20 bastion towers along the walls although only 14 survive. There is a moat along the eastern side of the walls with ditches around the rest. There is a large entrance gateway over the position of the original Roman gate. The gateway opposite gave access to the shore. Inside is a large expanse of grass with the 12thC Keep (charge) in one corner and the church in another.
The inner bailey and keep in north west corner of the fort is surrounded by a moat. Inside are the remains of the Ashton Tower, constables lodgings and the medieval palace built by Richard II. It is reached through the massive gateway which was built 12thC and extended in the 16thC. The remains of the portcullis slots can be seen although a modern wooden bridge replaces the drawbridge.
The Keep still stands 100’ high. The original entrance was on the first floor reached by a set of wooden stairs and would have been the royal apartments. Floors above were less luxurious and would have housed those of lower rank. The ground floor would have been used for cellars and storage. Access to the different levels inside the keep and to the top was by spiral staircase inside the walls. Now a series of new wooden staircases gives access to the upper floors which were used for housing prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars.
On the ground floor is an exhibition showing the development of the site from the Roman Fort until the 1815 prison camp when extra floors were added for the 3000 prisoners. The rooms on the first floor have artefacts found from round the site.
Ashton’s Tower (a smaller square tower) and the Constables hall were built in 1376 along the north wall of the inner bailey. These provided accommodation for the Constable with kitchen, stable and storage rooms. There is little left of these buildings apart from the walls.
Richard II’s Palace was built along the western wall adjacent to the keep between 1396-9 at a cost of £1700. The kitchens were on the ground floor with pantry and store rooms. The great hall was on the first floor. The outside shell of the buildings survives. Unfortunately, Richard was deposed before he could make use of his palace.
Entrance to the inside of the Roman fort is free and many people drop out here and don’t bother to visit the castle. Cost is £4.90 (£4.40 for us oldies). There is wheelchair access to the ground floor of the keep and the other buildings. Although there isn’t a lot left apart from outside walls, this is an interesting site with a long history. It is worth spending time reading the information about the development of the site.
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