Hurst Castle
Image: Hurst Castle (© Historic England)

Protecting Hurst Castle

Situated on a remote and exposed shingle spit which commands the Needles Passage between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, Hurst Castle is subjected to immense forces of wind and tide.

In February 2021, a section of wall on the 19th-century east wing of the castle collapsed, after the sea exposed and undercut its foundations. Our team are now hard at work on a major project to protect and bring stability to the castle.

Latest update

On 13 September, English Heritage began the next phase of our major project to help protect Hurst Castle. The works involve underpinning the castle’s Victorian east wing by using a specialist resin to consolidate the shingle which underlies its foundations, in order to provide additional support for its historic masonry.

Once this process is complete, heavy equipment will be able to access the site safely to clear the damaged part of the outer wall, and the team can assess how best to temporarily protect the breach from the elements whilst a permanent solution is developed.

On 24 June, the completion of the first phase of the project was announced, with new sea defences now in place to help absorb and dissipate the energy of waves and facilitate better access to the damaged east wing.

Following the delivery of 5,000 tonnes of Cornish granite boulders and 6,000 tons of shingle in April, work began in May to construct the 90 metre revetment which extends into the Solent and helps protect the east wing from the forces of the sea.

In late May, Henry VIII's Tudor castle reopened to the public thanks to the support of our local partners Hurst Marine. The east and west wings remain closed whilst our conservation and repair project is ongoing, and we continue to ask the public not to approach these sections of the castle for their safety, particularly given the heavy machinery which is operating on site.

Protecting a remote and exposed place like Hurst Castle in the face of the immense forces of wind and tide is an extremely complex task. English Heritage is committed to Hurst Castle but there can be no quick fix, and our works on site will take many months to complete.

View our statement

Protecting Hurst Castle

Hurst Castle has been in the care of English Heritage and its predecessor the Ministry of Works since 1956, and during that time we have made a number of investments to protecting the castle and its sea defences.

In 2019, we undertook an extensive programme of works totalling £750,000 to stabilise the foundations of the west wing of the castle and to reinforce its sea defences. The charity underpinned the west wing’s foundations, replaced broken groynes and barriers, and replenished the beach with 7,500 tonnes of shingle.

Two years earlier, in 2017, English Heritage invested £1m in a major project to repair and conserve the castle’s roof.

Read about our 2017 project
A digital reconstruction of Hurst Castle in the 1540s
A reconstruction of Hurst Castle, soon after completion of the Tudor fortress in 1544
© Historic England (Illustration by Drew Smith)

How the castle has changed throughout history

The central part of Hurst Castle was built between 1541 and 1544 by Henry VIII as part of a chain of artillery fortresses protecting key ports and landing places around southern England. The castle guarded the Needles Passage leading to the Solent, the port of Southampton and the growing naval base at Portsmouth. Hurst was also occasionally used as a prison – most famously when Charles I was held captive here in 1648.

The castle was greatly modernised in the 19th century, when it formed a key fortress protecting one of the world's most heavily defended areas. Unusually for a Tudor castle, it remained in military use until 1956, playing an active role through both world wars. The castle’s position on the spit has long made it vulnerable to the forces of the wind and waves. With changes in longshore drift, rising sea levels and more frequent storms, Hurst Castle is amongst the most challenging heritage sites to our care to protect, and emblematic of the issues posed by climate change to our heritage.

Visit our history page
Aerial view of Hurst Castle on its spit, looking south-east across the Solent to the Isle of Wight
Aerial view of Hurst Castle on its spit, looking south-east across the Solent to the Isle of Wight

A changing seascape

The castle is in an extremely vulnerable position. The shingle spit on which it sits formed naturally from loose flint pebbles as they eroded from the cliffs further west and were transported over the centuries as a result of the forces of wind and waves. With changes in longshore drift, rising sea levels and more frequent storms, the integrity of the spit has often been under pressure, and during a storm in 2014 100,000 tonnes of shingle were displaced overnight, reducing its height by 7m.

As a result of the pressures on the spit, Hurst Castle is amongst the most difficult heritage sites to protect in England, and the site is also at risk from climate change. Environment Agency data from nearby tidal gauges is already showing a net mean increase in sea levels, and estimates suggest that levels will rise in the area by 1m – 1.5m in the next 100 years. The area between Hurst Spit and Lymington is the subject of a large scale multi-agency flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. As such, the coastal castle is emblematic of the huge challenge posed by climate change to our heritage.

Learn more about the Hurst Spit to Lymington project
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