Hampshire County Council’s Executive Member for Recreation and Heritage, Councillor Seán Woodward, said: “I was lucky enough to have a preview this week and what a remarkable transformation it is. Visitors can now explore the unique military past of the site and walk in the footsteps of the patients, doctors and nurses of the once vast and imposing Royal Victoria Military Hospital.
“If you have a head for heights, the tower of the Royal Victoria Chapel is also being opened up to the public, for a small fee, and offers a perfect view across the surrounding Hampshire countryside. On a good day, you can see across to the Isle of Wight, Southampton docks and can even spot the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth.
“Visitors will also be able to marvel at the newly painted ceiling and conserved stained windows from the chapel balcony, which is being opened up to the public for the very first time in many years. An opportunity made possible thanks to Hampshire County Council’s award winning Property Services Team.”
The 19th century chapel is the last remaining part of what was once the world’s largest military hospital, a personal project for Queen Victoria who laid its foundation stone. Built with 30 million red bricks from 1856 to 1863, the Royal Victoria Military Hospital could care for up to 1,000 troops from across the British Empire on its 138 wards linked by quarter-of-a-mile long corridors.
But after the Second World War the hospital fell into decline and was demolished after a major fire in 1963 destroyed large parts of the building. The site was later bought by Hampshire County Council and re-opened in 1980 as Royal Victoria Country Park.
The conservation work to the chapel includes the replacement of the original ornate and hand-painted glass windows that were in disrepair due to vandalism and age. A new staircase and accessible lift have been installed as part of the work - significantly improving public access to the higher floors.
Roof slates on top of the Chapel have also been replaced thanks to volunteer group, Friends of Royal Victoria Country Park. They organised a ‘Raise the Roof’ campaign to support the conservation and restoration of the Royal Victoria Chapel by inviting members of the public to decorate a roof tile for a small donation. This resulted in more than 900 slates sponsored at £5 each, raising over £6,600 for the project along with £1,225 donated by Building partner Brymor Construction.
The new exhibition in the main body of the chapel tells the story of the former hospital, from its beginnings in the 1850s, through the Boer War, and both World Wars - to its current status as much-loved local country park, including important medical advancements made at the site, such as the discovery of the vaccine for typhoid.
New displays highlighting the fascinating history of the site are also located throughout the park, including ones to mark the four corners of the former hospital to show the scale of the once vast building.
The refurbishment forms part of a County Council programme to transform the County Council’s main country parks, making them more accessible and enhancing the special features at each park, to attract more visitors and encourage people to stay longer. The long-term aim of the transformation programme is to make the parks financially self-sustaining. The Chapel at Royal Victoria Country Park is the second project to be completed, following Lepe Country Park where major improvements, including a new visitor centre, were recently completed. The County Council is hoping to continue the improvements at Royal Victoria Country Park subject to a funding decision in September.