Visit Newhaven Fort (East Sussex)

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

Sussex is dotted with great little museums that provide pockets of historical treasure and social interest. Newhaven Fort is definitely one of these. You’ll find it on the west side of the River Ouse and Newhaven harbour and it’s well signed if you’re arriving by car. It’s open every day from 10 am and also has fantastic views over Newhaven and the coast.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

Building Newhaven Fort

The building itself is beautiful (in a functional sense) and you enter over a drawbridge and through a tunnel. The sound effects here made me jump but are an indication of the interactive nature of some of the exhibitions. The Fort was built in the 19th century and is the largest defence structure built in Sussex. It was built in response to the threat Napoleon posed to England and it took 10 years, 6 million bricks and 20,000 square metres of concrete mixed by hand! The Fort was strategically important in both WWI and WWII.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

Once through the tunnel, you find yourself in a large courtyard, with a row of brick arches running up the hill. Inside of these are a number of small exhibitions.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

From the Stone Age to the Home Front

You start your tour with a theatre experience and a film that explains the thousand-year defensive history of the Castle Hill site, on which the Fort is built. Walking up Castle Hill is a must when you’ve finished at the Fort because the views are spectacular and there is another information board there.

Newhaven Castle Hill Coast Path

From the theatre, you make your way through a series of cellar-like rooms starting with a trip back to the Stone and Iron Ages. This interactive experience gives you a taste of a very different time and explains some of the artefacts and tools found in the area that date back 600,000 years! Amongst other things, you learn that Neanderthal man would have hunted woolly rhino and mammoths near here, you learn about the Neolithic chalk art at Cissbury, about the Atrebates Tribe and about Roman Britain. I was expecting an almost exclusively military museum so this was a real bonus.

Newhaven Fort

From here, you learn about Newhaven as a strategic location from the Roman period, through the time of the Armada, to the 17th century conflict with the Dutch, and the threat from Napoleon. Then you delve into the Crimean War and WWI (including life in the trenches and the role Newhaven Fort played in the Great War) before you move on to WWII.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

Anecdotal accounts from the people of Newhaven bring the exhibitions alive as you learn of the casualties in the war and an exploding barge (which blew Newhaven residents out of their beds). You can dip into the bits that interest you the most. For me, it was life on the Home Front and during the blitz, along with the air-raid shelter with special effects that appealed most. And the insights into what life would have been like in the Fort in the 19th century for the soldiers (and their families) who lived here.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

For others, it will be the Sea and Air exhibition where you learn about the planes and dog fights in the skies as well as naval history and accounts by locals of life on the seas.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

Tunnels and lookout points

Although the fort that you see and visit feels quite sizeable, there is also a large network of secret tunnels, ammunition stores, and lookout points, many of which are not open to the public (as they are not safe). There is even a network of tunnels underneath nearby South Heighton where a naval intelligence unit was based.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

However, some of the tunnels are open and here you’ll find military artefacts and even some painted murals depicting Arabian palaces and undersea gardens with a hologram that tells the story of a Christmas party in 1946 in the tunnels. Then you climb the ramparts and get close and personal with a large gun as you look out over the sea!

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

Adventure playground and cake  

Next to the vintage-style café (which has some fabulous cake) and in the parade ground is an activity playground for children, and then you realise there’s a whole section you haven’t visited yet which includes the Archive rooms. They also host guest exhibitions at the Fort which when I was there included an exhibition about The Royal Observer Corps alongside a permanent collection about the Sussex Yeomanry.

Newhaven Fort East Sussex

There’s a lot to see

Mine was a flying visit but I think it would be easy to spend half a day or more here. As a mother of boys, I wish I’d brought them when they were little and loved all things war, military and loud! But actually, as an adult, there is plenty to soak up, learn and enjoy.

If you like this post about Newhaven Fort, and are in the area, you may also like:

Visit Tide Mills, the Forgotten East Sussex Village 

Walk the England Coast Path: Seaford to Peacehaven 

Discover Driftwood by Sea 

 

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