Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Grey Point Fort, Co. Down

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Near the end of the summer (2014) the Chapple Family decided to spend an afternoon at Grey Point Fort, Co. Down. I’d heard of the place, but didn’t really know what to expect. Even though it’s less than 10 miles from my house, I’d no idea how to get there. That, coupled with my over reliance on my GPS, meant that several wrong turns were taken and that we arrived with me loudly vowing never to undertake any journey without looking at a real map first! … we’ll see how long that lasts!

Historically, the entrance to Belfast Lough was defended by Carrickfergus Castle on the west side of the Lough. However, by the early 20th century, this was no longer considered to be sufficient and plans were put in place to build new coastal defences at Grey Point and Kilroot. Construction of a battery on this site began in 1904 and was completed in 1907. The purpose of the site was to defend Belfast Lough from seaborne attack. From its completion up until 1937, the fort was operated by the Antrim Royal Garrison Artillery Special Reserve, and thereafter by 188 Antrim Coastal Battery. During the inter-war years the site held two searchlight emplacements. During its operational life, the fort was armed with two Mark VII six-inch bore guns, built by Vickers, Sons & Maxim. These guns were capable of hurling forged or cast iron shells, weighing up to 100lbs, for distances of up to six miles. For all their defensive capability, the original guns were only once fired in anger. The NIEA’s guide book Grey Point Fort: A short guide to the fort complex briefly relates the tale of how, two days after beginning of WWII, the E Hayward out of Liverpool entered Belfast lough. She failed to answer an order to identify from the fort, and a ‘plugged round’ was then fired across her bow which, presumably, sufficiently grabbed her captain’s attention. Unfortunately, when the attack on Belfast did come – in April and May 1941 – it was from the air, and these coastal installations were largely ineffectual.  

In the post-war years, the defences at both Grey Point and Kilroot were manned by the Territorial Army until the disbandment of the coastal artillery forces in 1956. The Grey Point site passed to the Department of the Environment in 1971 and, following restoration, was opened to the public in 1987. Although the majority of the buildings at the site survived in relatively robust condition, the original guns had been removed at the time of the site’s decommissioning. In the years since, efforts have been successful in sourcing replacement ordnance of the same type originally installed at the fort. In 1993 a gun, originally from Spike Island, Co. Cork, was installed here, and was eventually followed by a second gun in 1999. Within the fort today there are extensive collections of military radio equipment, and various forms of memorabilia.

Although the guns are the focus of the site, they are not its entirety. Within the site boundaries there is a gun store, the magazine, the battery observation post, the fire command post, and the radar platform. Outside the fort, on the landward side there are the original engine rooms and military quarters (now a private residence), while closer to the rocky shore are three searchlight emplacement buildings. The NIEA publication Grey Point Fort: A short guide to the fort complex gives brief synopses of each building and I’m not going to attempt to better them! I will just add that the Grey Point Fort Amateur Radio Society [Facebook | Website] are based in the old battery observation post building. I had a lovely chat with one of the very knowledgeable and enthusiastic Radio Society volunteers, who was keen to tell me everything about the group and their activities. He was even able to overcome my crippling lack of technical knowledge to communicate his passion for Amateur Radio – he almost had me primed to sign up!

On the day we were there the site was alive with volunteers, visitors, and historical reenactors. The latter were represented by three men kitted out and armed as British, German, and Russian forces as they would have appeared at the outset of World War I. The Chapples Minor eventually tired of looking at the displays, playing games in the big tent, and generally running about the site with abandon. We decided to stretch our legs, and take a walk down to the shoreline. Unfortunately, we ignored the gathering clouds and pressed on. By the time we noticed the moving wall of darkness and rain it was too late. We were drenched in seconds, so there was no point even running for it. With an air of stoicism, sufficient to impress Zeno of Citium, we proceeded down to the water’s edge to collect seashells and find suitable stones for skimming. By the time we made it back to the car we were cold, wet, and generally exhausted. Vagaries of the weather aside, we had a great time – entertaining and educational – and hope to be back again soon!

The Russians are here!
As are the Germans & the British!
Field gun on display
Activity tent – lots of stuff to keep children amused and entertained.
Don’t tell them, but it’s even educational!
Chapples Minor get introduced to Kim’s Game
Chapple Minor attempts to seize control of
some weaponry
Overview of the site
The battery observation post, now the home
of the GPFARS
Discussion on German and British weaponry at the outbreak of WWI
‘I like my gun better’
Military humour … it doesn’t appear to change!
One of the displays in the fire command post
Part of the radio equipment collection
More equipment
I’ve no idea what this stuff does, but it looks amazing!
Even more equipment!
View along the top of the magazine between
 the two gun emplacements
This & following: views of the guns

Grey Point Fort is now among the best preserved 20th century military costal defences in these islands, and is unique in Northern Ireland – come and have a look for yourself!

As I mention above, on our trip in August we didn’t have the opportunity to visit all of the buildings. Of the various displays, I only managed to take a look at the radio equipment collection in the fire command post. Although my understanding of this form of technical equipment is at the level of ‘it’s a box that goes ding’, I found it absolutely fascinating. I missed out completely on the other collections, but it’s all the more reason to go back and explore further!

On the 4th of August 2014 – a century after the British declaration of war on Germany – a single round was fired from one of the Grey Point Fort’s guns. Video: here. On November 11th 2014 the gun was fired gain to mark Armistice Day. Video: here.

Since our visit, I see that the NIEA have launched Phase 2 of the Defence Heritage Project 2014-18. Initial work at Grey Point Fort includes a campaign of Ground Penetrating Radar and targeted excavation (here). As well as any fort-related discoveries, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s Facebook page reports (here) that they found struck flint on the site, testifying to activity on this site in the prehistoric period. This should fit well with the Mesolithic flint previously reported from Grey Point (here).

An earlier version of this post claimed that the Kilroot Battery was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the Kilroot Power Station. I'm not sure where I picked up that particular item, but I have recently been informed that I am incorrect on this point. Instead, I'm informed that "Kilroot fort is still in good condition, all the building are still there, Irish Salt Mines bought it in 1960 and built pre-fabricated buildings on top of the original building, the only things missing are the guns". I am delighted to be corrected on this point and to emend the record accordingly.

NI Sites & Monuments website

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