YOU may well be familiar with the Needles Old and New Batteries, managed by the National Trust.

But did you know that beneath them lies a sea-level fort? These now abandoned tunnels merge at a central point, a lift shaft which leads to the old battery.

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The Needles point was chosen as a location, to cover Alum Bay and the Needles passage against a French invasion.

Isle of Wight County Press: Abandoned sea level tunnels at the Needles Battery. Pictures by Joanne Thornton.

The view out to sea from the now-abandoned sea-level fort. Picture by Joanne Thornton.


There were five other locations on the Isle of Wight where defensive batteries were built across the Needles passage.

These were Hatherwood Battery, built 1865-69, Warden Point Battery, which existed in some form by 1803, Cliff End Battery, which also was in existence by 1803, Fort Albert which was built in 1854-56, and Fort Victoria, built 1852-55.

Originally the Needles battery was planned to be built in 1855, but it was not until 1859, when panic over French attacks surfaced that progress on the building of the battery was finally made.

The land to build it on was acquired by the Ward family of Cowes, and the first battery was built on the top of the headland between 1861 and 1863.

It was defended by six seven-inch rifled guns. These could fire shells which weighed a whopping 256 pounds each and they were installed on traversing platforms.

In 1887, a lift shaft was dug down from the Needles Old Battery and five tunnels dug out to form gun emplacements in the northern cliff face at Alum Bay.

Isle of Wight County Press: Abandoned sea level tunnels at the Needles Battery. Pictures by Joanne Thornton.

The lift shaft - now disused. Picture by Joanne Thornton.

These were built for quick-firing guns to combat torpedo boats in the Needles passage.

By 1892, one of the emplacements was being used for searchlight experiments, and two six-pounder QF guns were installed in another two.

This proved a problem however, as it appeared that visibility was too restricted at sea level for the two guns, as the gun ports were too small, and the torpedo boats were passing too quickly to make the guns effective, so they were removed.

The searchlight provided a fixed beam across the channel and any ship which passed this beam would then be followed with searchlights from the battery above.

During the First World War, a searchlight beam was installed and used in one of the emplacements. This was powered via a Lister diesel generator.

Originally the lift was powered by a Robey engine, this powered both the searchlight and the lift, but by 1915 this was changed to a Campbell Oil engine.

From 1944, an electric lift gave access to the sea level battery.

This electric lift carried men to the sea level, where in 1943 a fixed beam searchlight had been installed.

Underground, the sea level battery also houses a reservoir, complete with a water pump. This fresh water was pumped to both of the batteries from 1887.

The garrisons for the Needles batteries were at Golden Hill Fort in Freshwater, although there was a small barrack block built on site at the Needles, and a small officers’ quarters built in the parade ground in the Old Battery.

It must be stressed that the sea level battery is not accessible to the public, but remains a fascinating part of Isle of Wight history.

The lift shaft is long disused and access is only on very low spring tides — typically only once or twice a year — so anyone who tries to visit runs the risk of becoming stranded.

The entrance has also unfortunately been subject to a cliff fall and rocks have fallen across the entrance gate.

It should be noted that a power cable for the Needles lighthouse runs from the sea level battery out underneath the sea bed to the lighthouse too.

Are you interested in the hidden history of the Isle of Wight? So are we!

READ AGAIN: There’s a tunnel under there: tell us your tall tales of subterranean shenanigans

Like reading stories about life on the Isle of Wight in bygone days? Click here to visit our Looking Back section.