Wessex Attractions: Bembridge Fort

Bembridge Fort, on the Isle of Wight, is an example of what is known as a Palmerston folly. Ordered by Lord Palmerston, prime minister from 1855 to 1858, and again from 1859 to 1865, these were a series of forts on England’s Channel coast designed to defend Britain from a threatened French invasion that never materialised.

The fort finally saw service during both world wars, but gradually fell into disrepair until it came into the possession of the National Trust in 1967. In 2011 Trust volunteers uncovered the gun racers at the top of the fort, which gave them some insight into how the guns were moved, and their line of sight.

The surrounding downs offer spectacular views, with excellent birdwatching, as birds of prey use the chalk cliffs as a vantage point.

The fort is currently not taking bookings for tours, as the Trust finalises its plans for 2024. The postcode is PO36 8QY. Southern Vectis buses 8 and 71, and the open-top Island Coaster service pass nearby, and Brading Station on the Island Line is about a mile away.

Essential Wessex: The Earliest Human Settlements

Kents Cavern, a mile and a half northeast of Torquay, is notable for being the site of a fossilised human upper jawbone which has been radiocarbon dated to the Upper Pleistocene era. It is the oldest Homo sapiens fossil to be found anywhere in northwestern Europe. Also discovered on the same site were the fossilised remains of now-extinct species such as cave bears, Pleistocene wolves, cave hyenas and sabretooth cats.

Another prominent site of early human settlement in Wessex is Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge. Here, in 1903, Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton was found. Known as Cheddar Man, the skeleton dates back to the Mesolithic period. A DNA test connected the skeleton to a local history teacher. This was represented as showing the schoolteacher to be a direct descendant of Cheddar Man, but this is an oversimplification. The presence of mDNA of the same haplotype is not in itself proof of descent.

A reconstruction displayed in the Natural History Museum (photo above by Werner Ustorf) shows Cheddar Man as having dark skin–due to not yet having evolved the lighter skin normally found in colder climes, which helps the body manufacture vitamin D in places with less sunlight–and blue eyes.

Wessex in Fiction: The Maid of Sker

The Maid of Sker is a romance by RD Blackmore published in 1872, although he had been working on it since 1847. Blackmore regarded it as his finest work, though it is little-remembered compared to his earlier novel, Lorna Doone. It was first serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine before being published in three volumes.

The plot tells of an elderly fisherman named Davy Llewellyn, who sails a ketch between Porthcawl and Barnstaple at the end of the 18th century, and who finds an apparently orphaned two-year-old girl named Bardie. The story takes place over the course of several years, as Davy tries to solve the mystery of Bardie’s origin. It includes a vivid account of the Battle of the Nile, in which Davy takes part while serving in the Navy.

The Maid of Sker is in the public domain, available as an ebook from Project Gutenberg and as an audiobook from LibriVox.

Wessex Worthies: George Monk

George Monk, or Monck, (1608-70), was a general in the English Civil War. He fought on the Royalist side, but later led the Parliamentary Army in Scotland, being named as a possible successor to Oliver Cromwell. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II appointed him to the peerage, giving him the title of 1st Duke of Albemarle.

Monk was born in Potheridge, Devon, the middle child of a member of the local landed gentry who had fallen on hard times. His mother was the daughter of one of the richest men in Exeter, but he refused to pay her dowry when they got married, and his father died in a debtor’s prison as a result.

As a young man, Monk joined the army, a common career choice for the younger children of distressed gentlefolk. According to some sources, he served overseas in order to escape a charge of attempted murder at home, after he and his elder brother tried to kill the undersheriff who had imprisoned their father.

Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Monck was made colonel of a regiment that was sent to suppress it, allegedly participating in several massacres (your customary reminder here that “Worthies” in the title refers to notability, and does not signify approval). Upon the outbreak of the English Civil War, Monk initially refused to swear allegiance to the king, being imprisoned in Bristol as a punishment. before eventually relenting in order to secure his release.

Following the restoration, Monk became a member of the Privy Council, and was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire. He was also granted lands in the Carolinas, and shares in the Royal African Company, which oversaw England’s contribution to the Atlantic slave trade.

Monk ended his days as First Lord of the Treasury, dying three weeks before his wife at his ancestral seat in Potheridge. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, and Albemarle Sound on the coast of North Carolina is named after him.

Wessex In Fiction: The Butterfly Lion

The Butterfly Lion is a 1996 novel for children by Michael Morpurgo, which won the Smarties Book Prize for that year. It tells the story of a South African boy named Bertie who finds an orphaned white lion cub, but is forced to give the lion to a circus and leave South Africa for a boarding school in Wiltshire.

The book then follows Bertie’s life into adulthood and his service in the First World War. WIth his nurse girlfriend, and later wife, Millie, he tracks down the lion to a farmhouse in France, where it is living with the former circus owner after the circus closed. They bring it back to England, and when it dies, they memorialise it by carving a white lion into a hillside in Wiltshire. Morpurgo says that this was inspired by a glimpse of the white horse at Westbury through a train window.

Like Morpurgo’s earlier The War Horse, The Butterfly Lion has been adapted into a stage play., which uses puppetry to bring the lion to life. The stage play toured the UK in 2013.