Britain’s Space Race Uncovered

For 15 years the Needles New Battery was home to the British rocket-testing base. Its imposing concrete structures conjure scenes from old Bond movies.

Only sound of seagulls and the odd low flying light aircraft can be heard at High Down these days, but the ear splitting sound of rockets being tested for launch was once commonplace.

It’s hard to believe now, but the Isle of Wight was once one of the premier rocket testing sites during the Cold War and the Space Race period.

Between 1957 and 1972, 27 rockets were tested at High Down before being shipped by air or sea to Australia where they were launched from the middle of the desert.

If you are more adventurous you can walk from Freshwater along Tennyson Down and take a stile across the fence into the site on the south facing side of the headland. Almost at the Needles Point, you can now picnic overlooking what is left of the former concrete test bunkers and there’s a fantastic view of the Needles and the mainland beyond.

Or you can take the open top Breezer Bus up from Alum Bay car park, which drops you at the New Battery on top of the headland that houses the National Trust exhibition about High Down’s rocket days.

But at its peak during the Cold War security was high and only authorised personnel would be allowed access. Police were stationed at the entrance gates and patrolled the perimeter fences with Alsatian guard dogs.  Everything on site was top secret and even the families of the 200 employees, including canteen girls, secretaries and engineers, were not allowed to enter the site.

Even locals had little idea of what the ‘rocket men’ were up to ‘up there’, which was for the most part testing designs for guided weapon vehicles called Black Knight, particularly the re-entry physics for a nuclear warhead.

Designed and produced by Saunders Roe in Cowes at the invitation of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the Black Knight rockets would undergo static testing with every procedure except the actual launch being carried out.

The New Battery Site was chosen because it already had underground rooms (it was previously a fort) and the site on the cliff edge was a natural ‘bowl’ shielding it from prying eyes and directing any noise and vapour out to sea.

The rockets would be unloaded from lorries, modifications would be made and then they were strapped into specially designed test gantries and loaded with fuel. Workers then took cover in the underground rooms of the fort as countdown began.

Following the Black Knight rocket programme, the Black Arrow satellite launch programme started at Highdown. When it successfully launched the satellite Prospero in 1971 it became the only all-British satellite to be launched by the only all British launch system.

Then the government pulled the plug. A week after the launch everyone was sacked – the government couldn’t see the money coming out of the National Service budget.

In July 1972 the bulldozers moved in, the site was closed, the buildings demolished and entrances to most of the underground rooms were filled in with rubble.

Three years later in 1975 the National Trust purchased the headland but it wasn’t until 2003 that staff and volunteers began to clear the rubble and restore the underground network.

Now the former control rooms have an exhibition telling the secret story of the Isle of Wight’s rocket testing site and there are even actual rockets on view and a scale model of the Prospero satellite. There is a café kiosk in one of the former ‘charging rooms’ and you can walk round to the rocket launch site on the southern side of the cliff.

And for the really brave there is a vantage point right at the edge of the cliff for viewing the needles and the seashore many feet below. This is a must for photographers – but watch your footing as the pathways can be strewn with chalk rubble.

Jo Macaulay

7 April 2016

By Jo Macaulay in Articles