Thursday, 25 May 2017

Crownhill Fort: on our doorstep

An evening out with the Stoke Climsland Local History Group and it was off over the border into Devon for a guided tour of the fort at Crownhill. This is the best preserved of the ten that constituted Lord Palmerston’s Ring of Fire which surrounded Plymouth in Victorian times, protecting the Royal Dockyard at Devonport from French attack and bombardment. Although Crownhill represented the cutting edge of fortress design for that period, its guns were never put to the ultimate test, for advances in artillery soon overtook it and fortresses became obsolete. Unlike most of its contemporaries in Plymouth and elsewhere, Crownhill was retained by the army for over a century and because of this did not suffer many irreversible alterations. The Landmark Trust acquired the Fort in 1987, and since then they have undertaken major work to restore the grounds, weaponry and buildings. 

It was yet another of the sites more or less on our doorstep that we had never visited. We've driven past it hundreds of times but have never ventured through its portals. It was good to put that right.
Construction of the fort began in April 1863 and conforms to a standard polygonal design, in this case a heptagon. It was built 400 metres in front of the defensive line in an exposed position on a natural outcrop. It is designed for all round defence, with each of its seven sides having massive ramparts and being surrounded by a deep ditch. All sides were also protected by gunfire, with the fort having around 350 built-in rifle loopholes. It had 32 guns on the ramparts and 6 mortars sited in two mortar pits to the south west and north west of the Parade Ground.
The impressive granite main entrance in the outer wall, with decoration which makes more than a nod to the Normans.
And look at the carving at the top of the columns. Not just functional but very  intricate for what was built to house troops. Those were the days.
Barrack rooms from the 1860s. The point was made that these conditions were very much better than most of the soldiers were used to in 'civvy street' and that was why recruitment was never a problem.
A Moncrieff Disappearing Gun, of which there are not many surviving in anything like a reasonable condition. This one is in the process of being restored. It is a beast of a thing and, in essence, is loaded, pops up over the parapet, fires and then drops back on its counterweight to be loaded again. It's a wonderful thing to behold. Just to give you some idea of scale, the barrel weighs around 4 tons.
This engraving shows how the gun works. It must have gone off with one hell of a bang. A lovely bit of engineering maybe but, in actual fact, this design was very unreliable and the gun soon fell out of favour.
This is the name plate from another cannon. This one was made by the Carron company from Falkirk in Scotland. Founded in 1759, and still in existence, the company was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and prospered through its development and production of a range of naval cannons. 
The 1930/1940 barracks, a scene probably very familiar to my and Mrs P's fathers during WW2. The shiny boots reminds me of how I suffered (sort-of) from my father's insistence on school shoes being polished the Royal Marines' way.
Another monster of a weapon: this one was a 13 inch mortar, able to lob a 300 lb shot over the walls. Not very accurate but very effective when loaded with a charge of shrapnel.
The fortification of Crownhill Fort is based on three-storey caponiers. The first floor of each was for infantrymen, the second was for gun casements and the third connects with the Chemin de Ronde, a parapeted walkway circling the fort, allowing troops to get around safely.
  • Getting a muzzle loading 2-pound cannon, from the 1790s ready for firing. Here the (dummy) missile is being rammed home.
Lighting the equivalent of the blue touch paper.
And off it goes. Lots of smoke and flames. A fitting way to bring a very pleasant excursion to a close.

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