NewhavenNewhaven is a ferry port at the mouth of the River Ouse in East Sussex.
The town is in a lovely setting with the South Downs at the head of the River Ouse's wide flat flood plain.
The drive down to Newhaven from Lewes along the A26 gives a memorable impression of the river's last few miles before the sea and the rail journey is even better.
Newhaven's most interesting tourist attraction is its fort.
Newhaven FortNewhaven Fort was built in the 1860s to protect the harbour at Newhaven from a perceived threat from the French navy. Lord Palmerston, the great advocate of British gunboat diplomacy, was the chief sponsor of the fort and the many others around the British coastline.
The huge cost of the forts, and the fact that they were never required to fire a shot in anger at the French meant that they are collectively known as Palmerston's Follies. Other forts nearby which were built as part of this programme are Shoreham Redoubt and Littlehampton Redoubt.
The Fort is now a really good museum which gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like to serve there. There is a good deal of information about the role of Newhaven Fort in the World Wars. The Fort also includes eerie tunnels dug into the chalk cliffs.
The whole site takes up around 10 acres and the commanding views to the east, across Newhaven and towards Seaford and the Seven Sisters are impressive.
Other Newhaven attractionsAs well as the comings and going in Newhaven Harbour the area around Newhaven is an attractive one with plenty of interesting things to see:
- The Castle Hill Nature Reserve alongside the Fort provides great views and a chalky grassland habitat;
- Part of the Ouse Estuary has recently been set up as a nature reserve too - a beneficiary of recent flood relief work around Newhaven;
- Newhaven Local & Maritime Museum is an interesting small museum run by local volunteers;
- The Planet Earth Museum and Sussex History Trail is at Paradise Park, a family-oriented attraction with plenty for children to enjoy.
Newhaven historyThere is some evidence of settlement on Castle Hill above the town from the Iron Age and it may be that the Romans also used the area. Interestingly, however, at this time the River Ouse reached the sea much further east than it does today - nearer to Seaford than modern day Newhaven.
The path of the river had been blocked for hundreds of years by a huge shingle bank across the valley mouth, causing it to turn eastwards.
Everything changed in 1593 when a violent storm blocked the river's eastern mouth. The river backed up and eventually forced it's way to the sea elsewhere. This channel wasn't really adequate and so, two centuries later a new direct path to the sea underneath Castle Hill at a village called Meeching was cut. A further 100 years later the massive concrete breakwater which protects the harbour was built.
The New Haven that was established at Meeching was soon thriving and piers were built in the 1630s.
Newhaven has had a succession of spectacular moving bridges to help people cross the Ouse Valley. The first bridge was a drawbridge which lasted from 1784 to 1866 when an iron swing bridge took over the job. In 1974 an electric bridge was installed.
The arrival of the railway from London via Lewes in 1847 gave the port a huge boost and it wasn't long before a ferry service to Dieppe started. This was the Eurostar of its day, offering the most direct route from London to Paris.
Newhaven played a key role in the First World War as an important troop transportation port. It is estimated that over 17,000 crossings to France were made from Newhaven - that's an average of 12 a day over the whole war. The hustle and bustle of this huge movement of apprehensive troops and their equipment must have made quite a sight. Many men lost their lives passing to or from Newhaven during the Great War.
Newhaven played its part in the Second World War too, including being an embarkation point for many Canadian soldiers in the disastrous 1942 raid on Dieppe. Many of these men died and the anniversary of the raid is remembered in Newhaven each August (17th).
The ground a mile north of Newhaven also contained an almost forgotten naval Command and Intelligence unit called HMS Forward, housed in secret tunnels near South Heighton. These tunnels have now been recognised as Nationally Important by English Heritage even though the Ministry of Defence denied they ever existed back as recently as 1993.
After the war the importance and business of the port at Newhaven gradually declined and the town has had to find ways to diversify its economy. The ferry port still supports routes to Le Havre and Dieppe in northern France and the sea and port still dominate the feel of the town.
This has been enhanced by an insistence that recent developments in Newhaven reflect the visual signs of the town's maritime heritage. After a slightly depressing twenty years or so, Newhaven is starting to pick itself up again.
© East Sussex.org 2008-10.
Sunday September 24