HMP The Verne, Portland, Dorset
The Verne Citadel is an incredible piece of architecture. Built in to the hillside atop the highest point of Portland and surrounded by an enormous moat, it’s Victorian grandeur in every sense. Built in the mid-late 18th century it became HMP The Verne – a category C prison in 1949.
Growing up on the island, The Verne had always been a place of mystery. Gazing down in to the moat and seeing arches leading in to darkness, walking around the perimeter and visitors car park looking through the old battlements & tunnels. There had always been a couple of abandoned buildings in the grounds too – extremely unsafe and weather-beaten, but interesting nonetheless.
In 2013 the prison was closed and plans put in place to turn it in to an immigration centre which would work as a kind of “holding pen” for around 600 illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. Some parts of the citadel were never converted from its military beginnings, and these antiquated, original parts are really interesting.
Walking across the bridge, easily 100ft over the moat there’s a distinct feeling of, “you ain’t getting out of here, son!” but over the prison’s 64 year period, there were in fact several escapees! HMP The Verne actually holds the record for the world’s most successful prison fugitive, notching up 60 years after escaping using knotted bedsheets!
Passing over the bridge you walk through a winding entrance tunnel, the kink in the tunnel presumably there to make would-be invaders life difficult if they ever managed to traverse the moat.
Once inside, there’s a lower level to your left, accessed via a set of stairs at the far end. It’s on this level where the old mortuary exists. Next to the mortuary is a room with a spiral staircase, it’s here where you descend in to the depths of the citadel towards the moat.
The next levels down are dark, stone passageways branching out to large rooms where infantry would defend the citadel through the slits in the thick stonework. Back to the spiral staircase you head down again and a large double-door exits in to the impressive ditch. And there’s really no easy way out of here! The moat walls surrounding you are dizzying and the thought of being a prisoner, seeing daylight thinking you’ve escaped to be confronted with this would be demoralising to say the least!
The moat has two doors around the base, the second door leads to a much more dormant, abandoned section of the citadel with passageways to the interior all blocked off. Graffiti on the walls suggest that this has been a local hang-out for kids over the decades. In fact, ask any Portlander who grew up in Fortuneswell and the surrounding areas and they’ll tell you that they often played in the prison grounds & tunnels.