Tales of ghosts and gallantry

MORE than 400 years of history lie behind the reinforced doors at Landguard Fort.A vital stronghold in Britain's coastal defences since Tudor times, the fort is now one of our region's major attractions.

MORE than 400 years of history lie behind the reinforced doors at Landguard Fort.

A vital stronghold in Britain's coastal defences since Tudor times, the fort is now one of our region's major attractions.

As the fort opens to this year's visitors today ROSIE PEARCE takes a guided tour.

IT was the Tudors who first recognised the need to defend the Landguard peninsula.

Crucial to trade and national defence, the Harwich Haven was the only deep water port between the Thames and Humber estuaries.

The guided tour begins inside the Victorian keep.

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Operations manager Dave Morgan said: “The fort began under Henry VIII. It was built to defend Harwich which was then the back door to London.

“Harwich was an important port for trade and defence. By the time Daniel Defoe came here in 1724 he could see 100 men o' war and 400 collier (coal) ships on their way to London.”

Over the centuries different enemies have come and gone. Pirates, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the Germans have all shaped the fort and its history.

Dave said: “The fort was first built in 1626 and by the time 1667 came along it was a solid structure. In 1667 Landguard Fort saw the last opposed invasion of England.

“About 1,500 Dutch invaded. They were seen off by the first Royal Marines captained by Nathaniel Darrell.”

Darrell was hailed as the hero as he saw off the Dutch with cannonballs and musket, and only one British soldier was killed in the conflict.

Volunteers at the fort hold a special commemoration of the event each year, but there are other reminders of the era at the fort.

One of the fort's reported ghosts is the first soldier who died in action while posted there. He was a soldier of the Duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment, the forerunners of the Royal Marines.

Rumour has it that the young soldier patrols the area where he fell, wearing the bold yellow and red uniform.

The tour continues in the Victorian pentagonal keep.

Dave said: “Rather like today in peace time money wasn't spent on defence. The fort was updated and repaired each time the threat of war returned.”

In the Victorian Barrack room the visitor gets an idea of the living conditions endured by soldiers.

Dave Wood, volunteer trustee at the fort, said: “There were about nine soldiers in each room. It would have been cramped but for Victorian times it was state of the art accommodation.

“It was well ventilated and by 1900 the fort had hot and cold running water.

“There would have been upwards of 200 people at the fort throughout its history depending on the political situation at the time.”

Built in 1875 the guard room, just off the main gatehouse, would have been where armed soldiers monitored everyone who arrived at and left the complex.

Dave Morgan added: “It was used as a guard room throughout its history and during the second world war and up to the end of military occupation.”

From the guard room the tour continues along the Georgian casement - the east curtain of the fort.

In this part of the fort, built in 1745, the rooms were used as bathrooms, officers' accommodation, the fort's fire station - now home to a Merryweather fire engine - and the fort's shoemaker.

Dave said the army did everything itself and was self sufficient.

It is here that the fort's second ghost has been seen and heard.

Known as Maria she was the Portuguese wife of a soldier who was wrongly executed in the 1700s, and who threw herself off the fort's ramparts.

Dave said: “She has been seen regularly in the Georgian rooms and her story was documented by fort governor Philip Thicknesse. We have a group of re-enactors that come regularly to the fort. They now refuse to sleep in one of the rooms because they say they heard strange noises.”

Lieutenant-Governor Philip Thicknesse held the post from 1753 to 1766.

Dave said he was reputed to be the most argumentative man in England at the time, and was known for his frequent and often ridiculous quarrels.

One of these was with his friend the Suffolk artist Thomas Gainsborough, whose paintings at one time hung upon the walls of the fort.

And there is certainly a sense of mystery surrounding the fort, and a hushed atmosphere which seems to hint at the secrets held within its walls.

The two Daves readily admit that there is still much that they don't know about the fort, and they are constantly expanding their knowledge of its history.

For example, although it is known that the fort played a significant role in the second world war, and helped with the Dunkirk evacuation, relatively little is known of the fort's role during the first world war, other than the existing batteries being armed.

One room in particular which is still something of an enigma is the plotting room.

This room was used a great deal in the 1950s during the era of spreading Communism, when the fort was largely used for training, but there are still many questions to be asked as to what went on, and the team at the fort are looking to develop the room further as they find out more.

In 1998 the fort was taken under the wing of English Heritage. Today it is administered by a trust and manned by 30 or so volunteers.

As we walk to one to the fort's four bastions, Dave Wood shows us the replica gun housed within the iron reinforced casemate.

He said: “It is a replica of one of seven 38 ton, 12.5 inch muzzle loaded guns that would have been here at the fort in the early 1900s.

“Each gun took 17 men to fire and reloading took five minutes - though we can't be sure of this. We think the guns that were here originally are now buried under what is now the dockside.”

During the second world war Landguard again was at the heart of national defence.

A number of coastal defences were hurriedly built to deter invaders - though not part of the tour they are visible from the fort.

In the 1950s - as the cold war threatened national security - Landguard was used as the Seaward Defence Headquarters.

Dave Morgan said: “We don't know much about this period of history. Each time an old soldier comes to the fort we try to

interview him about his experiences here.

“I think those here in the 1950s would have signed the official secret's act and just don't talk about what went on here.”

What is known is that part of the fort contained a plotting room, radar room and communications equipment.

Dave added: “It's an area that gets considerable interest and we are hoping to expand the exhibits here.”

What are your memories of the building? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

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