Over the last 1,000 years the Solent has played a vital strategic role in the defence of the realm and much of the country's strength in the Medieval Ages derived from the trade at Southampton and the growth of Portsmouth as a naval base. This made the Solent a logical place for invaders to attack. Attacks usually came from the Eastern Solent and this is why there are so many fortifications located here, the Needles passage to the West was too narrow. There are fifty three fortifications located around the Solent shores including forts, castles and batteries.
Portsmouth is the traditional home of the Royal Navy and it has a long naval history going back to Roman times. A military presence was established in 1194 with the building of the first dock, which was walled in 1212 on the orders of King John. Since then and, particularly after the time of Henry VIII, it became home to the Royal Navy and remains an important naval base to the current day. Its heritage can be traced through the museums and displays at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
HMS Victory and the Mary Rose are located at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and many other great military attractions are located in the surrounding area. Gosport has a long association with the Submarine Service and is the location of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the Museum of Naval Firepower - Explosion! Traditionally grand Reviews of the Fleet took place at Spithead, the famous anchorage at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour.
Southampton is the home of the Supermarine Spitfire, one of the most famous aircraft ever built. The Solent Sky museum tells its fascinating story.
The Royal Victoria Hospital lies on the shores of Southampton Water and it was once the largest hospital in the country. The need for such an hospital was realised during the Crimean War (1854 - 56) when the Army had no large purpose built hospitals to treat casualties. The site at Netley was chosen because it was close to the port of Southampton where hospital ships could arrive from all over the British Empire. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria on 19 May 1856 and the hospital opened for patients in 1863. The chapel remains housing a permanent exhibition, and the wider surroundings provide a popular country park.
The Solent is rich in seafaring history and the Spithead Forts are part of its defensive tradition. When Napoleon III declared himself French Emperor in 1851, there was public panic and English Prime Minister Palmerston commissioned five forts to defend the Royal navy's fleet at anchor. The sea forts were commissioned to run along The Solent's eastern approaches.
All four remain today, although one was abandoned during construction due to building problems. They are a testament to Victorian engineering expertise, although they were later dubbed 'Palmerston's follies' as the French threat never materialised.
Today Spitbank Fort is one of the most impressive of the sea forts, with its solid foundations and labyrinth of tunnels and fortifications. The construction of Spitbank began in 1861, but stopped due to the political wranglings. Work resumed in 1864, with the first stone being laid in March 1867 and completion taking place in June 1878. The cost of the fort was £117,964, plus the ironwork.
In its heyday a garrison of nearly 30 maintained the fort which was run like a ship with life below 'deck' being remarkably similar to that on the sea. In 1956, the Coast defence program was abandoned, and the fort's searchlights and generators removed during the following year. During its working life, Spitbank Fort was never tested against a Naval invasion. In 1952, it was sold to a private concern, and it is now run as a visitor attraction.