Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lines of Torres Vedras

Torres Vedras and Sao Vicente 1810

We started our first day with a very hearty breakfast in our hotel right in the centre of Torres Vedras. The whole holiday was planned around walking on battlefields, and we didn’t want to have to find somewhere for lunch. So after breakfast we had a quick walk around the town and bought some fresh rolls, a chunk of cheese, a few apples and a couple of cans of pepsi. This would be the format for each day, a good breakfast to start and a picnic lunch at a suitable spot on the battlefield with Wellington in the Peninsula by Jac Weller for inspiration.

No problem parking - we were the only visitors

But first we had to check the plan and make sure we had everything ready. For each planned stop I had prepared a folder, containing a road map, detailed directions and photocopies relating to the visit. The directions consisted of a photocopy of the relevant pages from Julian Paget’s book “Wellington’s Peninsular War – Battles and Battlefields”. Each sections consisted of about four A4 pages with a brief description of the battle or area, a simple sketch , a suggestions of places to stop and how to get there.

For detailed information about each battle we were relying on Jac Weller’s “Wellington in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814”. This was the companion to his “Wellington at Waterloo” which had proved so useful for that visit. It has a chapter on each battle, a plan of the battle and usually a couple of photographs.

One of the photos we used to orientate ourselves

We had planned that each visit would follow the same routine. We would find the general area with the road map, then find each spot recommended in Paget’s book. We would find somewhere suitable to sit, and read the chapter from Weller’s book. I find his style easy to read and easy to understand. His descriptions of battles are very detailed and he quotes quite a lot from histories and diaries. So it is an ideal book to write on site. He also took photographs of most locations, and our aim was to find the same spot with the same view. Finally I had photocopies from various books relating to the particular battle we would visit.

The Lines of Torres Vedras

The Lines of Torres were built entirely by Portuguese labour but supervised by 18 British engineer staff. Every possible obstacle was constructed, using natural features where possible. Rivers were dammed, ravines blocked and the hills crowned by forts. They were not a continuous line like Hadrian’s Wall, but a series of mutually supporting redoubts, 152 in all. Each redoubt would have a garrison of 200-300 mean and 3 to 6 guns. They were connected by a semaphone system which could pass a message from Wellington’s HQ to any part of the lines within an hour.

The Fort of Sao Vicente dominates the surrounding countryside

Our first visit was to the strongpoint of Sao Vicente, which lies just to the north of Torres Vedras on the west side of the main road to Lisbon. This was one of the strongest positions of the Lines and has been reconstructed to give a very real idea of what it must have looked like in 1810

Sentry patrol path and garrison strong point

The fort was completely empty when we arrived and we were free to wander wherever we wanted. Not only the walls, but also the accommodation, storage and administration buildings, have all been reconditioned. It was so quiet and in such good condition that you could easily imagine that you were a Portuguese militiaman on sentry duty on the walls.

The forts dominate the surrounding hills

The fortress dominates the whole area, and you could see the outline of more forts on the hills stretching to left and right. Even with the sketch map it was easy to orientate yourself, and explore the area the French would have to pass to approach the fort.

administration and accommodations buildings

We spent a couple of hours walking around the walls both inside and outside, and exploring the many buildings. We sat on the wall with the photographs reproduced here and tried to identify each one. We read extracts about what garrison duty was like here, and what a surprise Marshal Massena had when he discovered them. He was completely unaware of the whole system of defences until he saw approached them and saw them himself.

Jan makes friends with a "local"

As we were about to leave Jan discovered this little kitten. It was a “wild cat”, but actually anything but wild. Jan is a real soft touch for casts, and particularly kittens, and this tiny cat was fed half of my picnic lunch!


  1. Hello
    I chanced upon your blog whilst casually looking at the possibility of taking a holiday walking 'The Lines'. I spend a great deal of time reading my ever increasing, very large collection of books about the Duke of Wellington and his battles particularly but not exclusiely those in the Peninsular.

    My wife is not particularly keen on battles and finds little merit in 'people killing each other'! She did, however, enjoy a week we spent with Richard Holmes some years ago exploring Badajoz, Albuera, The Coa, Fuentes d'Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca among other places but I suspect that what really made it worthwhile was the few days after that that we spent in various Paradors! But she does like walking distances so I am hopeful!

    Having read some of your very extensive blog, I am persuaded to ask you how practical it would be to walk the length of the lines, how much there is to see and how rewarding such a thing would be. I can't imagine it would be as rewarding as actually being present where a battle had been fought so I would be grateful for your advice.

    Kind regards

    Jim McLachlan

  2. Hi Jim

    I am fortunate in having a wife who both enjoys Napoleonic history and walking. So we are happy to combine our joint interest by visiting battlefields.

    We also spent some time in paradors, but only because we could not book cheaper hotels from UK which were nearer to the battlefields. When I asked for assistance from my local travel agents I was met by blank stares.

    We did a couple of guided battlefield tours, including Holts and Midas. I would suggest that these are a good idea for wives who are not completely sold on the idea. They always stop at nice hotels and they usually have "cultural activities" such as visits to local tourist sites.

    Turning to your plan to walk the Lines. Apart from reading a little about the Lines, my only experience of them is a half day visit. So I am not the best one to advise how suitable they would be for an extended walking holiday. I would just make three points.

    First I have found that battlefields often have only a limited interest even for those who enjoy them a lot, like myself. More than once I have returned to a battlefield for a second visit because I thought the first to be too short, only to discover that there was little of interest we had not seen the first time. Not always, but more than once.

    Second I often find in general leisure walking that it is better to be selective. For example there are many parts of the Pembroke Coastal Path that we have retured to time and again. But walking the whole Path includes some long and boring sections. So you might be better to explore those parts of the Lines best suited to visitors, such as Torres Vedras, in a lot of detail, rather than walk miles and miles of uninteresting Portuguese countryside. If you do decide to attempt it I would suggest a lot of research before hand. Don't just go and hope you will find things of interest - you almost certainly will not.

    Finally there are areas of the Peninsular which require a lot of time to explore, and might be more interesting. I am thinking in particular of the Pyrenees. We have spent two holidays there and never ran out of places to visit.

    Please don't be swayed by my opinion - because that's all it is. I did consider returning to walk the whole of the Lines at one time, but the reading I did at that time convinced me that there were more promising battlefields and areas to visit.

    Do let me know if you decide to do your project. I would be interested to hear how it goes.



  3. Hi Paul

    Many thanks for your advice. i will certainly let you know if it goes ahead but judging by what you say, I shall probably decide to adapt my plans.




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