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A night in a fort

Spitbank Fort

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Spitbank Fort near Portsmouth

Introduction to Spitbank

In 1860 Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, commissioned a series of forts to defend the country in the event of an attack from France. Napoleon III was strengthening his navy and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. As well as several on land, four were built in the waters of the Solent to protect Portsmouth, the most important naval port.

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Horse Sand Fort from Spitbank Fort

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No Mans' Fort from the catamaran to Spitbank Fort

The forts were never used however. By the time they were completed the French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and were no longer to be feared. The forts became known as Palmerston’s Follies and although maintained in case of need, and pressed into use for defence purposes in World War II, there was never a shot fired in anger from Spitbank, the smallest of them all, or any of its neighbours. And today, after several different incarnations, it has been thoughtfully restored to serve as a luxury hotel offering ‘24 hours of opulent luxury’.

A winter visit

A stay here does not come cheap, even though when we visited (like the other guests with whom we spoke) we got a good off-season deal. But as a special experience to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday or some other milestone it offers something rather out of the ordinary.

The fort lies a mile off the southern coast of England, in the stretch of sea between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight known as the Solent. So to get there you need a boat, and this is arranged as part of your stay. We were asked to be at the ‘Departure Lounge’ (in Gosport when we went but moved to Gunwharf Quay in Portsmouth) by 11.30 AM. We drove there, and parking was provided with a pass that entitled us to stay till midnight the following day – so time to do some sightseeing the next morning if you fancy it.

We were greeted with tea or coffee (disappointingly weak coffee, I have to say) and met some of our fellow guests. We were then formally welcomed and offered a tot of Navy rum served in old gun canisters that had been transformed into rather stylish drinking vessels.

At midday we left, walking a few yards to the jetty where we boarded the catamaran that was to take us to the fort. It was a very cold day, so we were glad to find indoor seating, though I did brave the elements to stand for a short while on the open aft section and take some photos of Portsmouth as we departed.

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The catamaran

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Leaving Portsmouth Harbour

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Arriving at Spitbank Fort, in the rain

The crossing takes about 20 minutes so it was not long before we were pulling up alongside the fort. It was easy enough to step ashore, although anyone with walking difficulties should note that there are several flights of metal stairs to climb. At the top of these we entered the warmth of the fort’s Victory Bar and were welcomed with champagne.

A tour with Kyle

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Start of the tour

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Kyle at the lighthouse

We were welcomed to Spitbank by Celine and Kyle, who were to look after us during our stay. Both were very friendly and helpful, and worked hard to make our visit fun and interesting, but it was Kyle who took us on our tour of the fort and who really brought the place to life.

Every company catering to tourists should have a Kyle! He was clearly passionate about the fort – both its history and its current new life as a hotel. He was enthusiastic to the point of bouncing, reminding me more than a little of Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh books. Even a non-history enthusiast could not have failed to take an interest when he showed us the various remnants of the fort’s past, or told the story of the ghost said to haunt the ‘bolt hole’ – a passage that circumnavigates the fort in its lower outer wall.

Although he seemed to me to enjoy all aspects of his job, it was this tour that saw him at his best, and it was no surprise when he told us that he was hoping that when the company opened the planned museum on another of the forts it owns, nearby Horse Sands, he would be able to transfer there. I hope he got his wish, but meanwhile he made a very good host here on Spitbank.

And when things did go wrong (a mix-up with our breakfast order) he was quick not only to apologise but also to make what he called a ‘gesture’ – a generous halving of our drinks bill. Yes, every company should have a Kyle.

So, fired up with Kyle’s enthusiasm, let us learn a little more about the history of Spitbank Fort …

Spitbank Fort – some history

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On Spitbank Fort

I had never studied the period of history during which Spitbank Fort and the other so-called ‘Palmerston Follies’ were constructed so I had only a sketchy idea of its intended purpose, beyond the obvious general one of defence. But on Kyle’s tour I learned a lot more, and have since filled in a few gaps through my own research.

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Central area of the fort

In the mid nineteenth century Britain was nervous. The Napoleonic Wars were still relatively fresh in people’s memories, and now Louis Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, had become President of the Second Republic. In 1852, he seized complete power and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, showing himself to be ruthless and ambitious. It seemed very likely that he would want to expand his territory, and an invasion of Britain was feared. These fears subsided briefly as Britain joined forces with France to fight a common enemy, Russia, in the Crimean War, but soon afterwards surfaced again. Under pressure from the general public to protect our shores, the government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, commissioned a series of forts to be built. And because of advances in weaponry that meant that ships could now fire at the land while remaining out of range of coastal defences, several of these forts were built offshore in the Solent, with the particular aim of protecting Britain’s most important naval port, Portsmouth.

Work started in 1860. Spitbank Fort was the first to be completed in June 1878, and St Helen's followed shortly after. The two larger outer forts, Horse Sands and No Man’s Land, were started earlier but took longer, only being finished in spring 1880. But by this time the threat had passed. The French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and were no longer to be feared. And even if they were, technology in weaponry had moved on, and the cannon the forts were designed to accommodate were fast becoming obsolete. They became known as Palmerston’s Follies and the huge sums spent on their construction became a source of embarrassment to him and his government.

Over the years they were rearmed several times, in case of need, but that need never arose. During the First World War they served as signal stations but not used in defence, and in the Second World War they were also of limited use, unable to support heavy anti-aircraft guns for general air defence. They seem also to have under-performed in their other role as observation posts intended to limit attacks on the sea ports, since both Portsmouth and Gosport were more than 60% destroyed by enemy bombing raids. However, they were equipped to support the seizure of French warships anchored off Portsmouth in 1940 after the fall of France. This was the only time that their arms were trained on the target for which they had been originally built, a ‘French’ invasion. But the seizure was accomplished with little opposition and the guns on the forts remained unfired.

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Kyle with an original shell

After the war all the forts were deactivated and decommissioned. In the 1960s they were put up for sale, but none were sold until the 1980s (perhaps it was only in that decade that an interest in restoring historical buildings for modern use surfaced?) Since then they have all been through various incarnations, with Spithead itself serving as a private home and a venue for rave parties before being acquired by Solent Forts and turned into the luxury hotel that we visited. The same company also purchased No Mans Land and Horse Sands Forts; the former was turned into another, larger, hotel where the emphasis will be on partying and corporate entertaining rather than intimate luxury, and the latter is being developed as a museum, restored to something of its original appearance. I got the impression that the plans for the latter reflected not only the company’s genuine interest in the history of their properties, but also a way of ensuring a strong relationship with English Heritage and endorsement by them of the use made of the other forts and accompanying changes to their appearance.

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The old cookhouse, and the Bolthole (said to be haunted)
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Entrance to the bolt hole

Those changes, at Spitbank at least, are very sympathetic to the fort’s history and architecture, with many original features retained.

Our bedroom, Admiral Milne

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Corridor to bedrooms

There are just eight bedrooms at Spitbank, all located on the main floor in what was once the seaward-facing gun floor, holding the cannons that were trained in the direction of a possible invasion. (The other half of this floor, now the Victory Bar and Officers’ Mess restaurant, held the smaller landward-facing cannons). All the rooms are luxurious, with two being advertised as even more so than the others, but ours, although not one of these, was so fantastic that I can’t really imagine what you would get for paying for the upgrade – although I have seen mention of there being both shower and bath (we had ‘only’ a generously-sized walk-in shower).

All the rooms are named after admirals, some (such as Nelson and Drake) more famous than others. We were in Admiral Milne, whom I confess I had to look up. I learned that it was named for Admiral Sir (Archibald) Berkeley Milne, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet at the start of the World War One, and also one-time captain of the royal yacht, Osborne. I’m not sure what this distinguished gentleman would have made of what has become of Spitbank but I have a feeling he would have enjoyed the luxury of the room that bears his name!

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Admiral Milne bedroom

The room was very large with a king-size bed that was super-comfortable. There was an armchair and a lounger, but I loved best the simple wooden seating that ran the length of the outside wall and allowed me to keep an eye open through the window for passing ferries and other shipping.

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In Admiral Milne bedroom

Many of the rooms include original features. One apparently has a glass-covered opening in the floor through which you can see directly down to the waters of the Solent – a remnant of the old ventilation system. I would have loved to have had that, but we did instead have our own piece of history, in the shape of one of the wooden hoists that were used to lift the heavy shells between the different floors. You can see this near the back of my right-hand photo above.

Relaxing on the fort

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Crows' Nest Bar and lighthouse

Our 24 hour package had a heavy emphasis on food and drink. Having been met with champagne on arrival in the Victory Bar (more about that bar later), and after our tour and a little time to unpack, a buffet lunch was served – and a rather gorgeous buffet at that, with the highlight possibly the beautiful seafood platters, although I also really liked the couscous and Thai noodle salads. This was served in the fort’s other bar on the roof, the Crows’ Nest, with views out to sea.

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Seafood platter

We spent the afternoon exploring the fort on our own to take photos; relaxing in the hot tub on the roof (despite the chill in the air) and warming up in the sauna, and spent some time in our comfortable room, enjoying the views.

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The hot tub

Spitbank Fort is situated in a busy shipping lane with ferries passing to and from the Isle of Wight and naval ships into and out of Portsmouth Harbour, as well as the occasional fishing boat and others besides. So there is always something to see if you look out of a window, or from the hot tub – even the sauna has a perfectly-positioned window! There are also great views to be had of the Island (as locals call the nearby Isle of Wight) and of Gosport and Portsmouth on the mainland.

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View of Portsmouth

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The Isle of Wight

We also couldn’t resist visiting the Victory Bar where coffee or tea and cake were served late afternoon. This was also an opportunity to explore what I found to be the most interesting part of the fort – probably because it is, I felt, the one that had been restored with the most original features (but also possibly because it is a bar!)

The bar has been created in part of the gun floor that once held the smaller landward-facing cannons and you can still see in the stone floor the arced metal runners along which the big guns would be swung to direct their fire, and the large iron hook in the ceiling that helped to support their immense weight. Smaller hooks elsewhere in the ceiling were, Kyle told us, where the crew would sling their hammocks.

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The Victory Bar

Along the inner wall a series of smaller rooms open off this one. Today they form part of the bar area, but they would once have been fully sectioned off. One was the officers’ bunk room, one their washroom (now used to chill the champagne!) and one their mess. Dotted around the main room and these small snugs are lots of appropriate pieces of furniture, pictures and other items. I was particularly interested in a copy of a German newspaper (we assumed a replica) dating from the time of the Normandy Landings (see photo below).

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The former mess room

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Corner of the Victory Bar

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Original features

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German newspaper

For all its history, the restoration of the fort has created here a properly cosy bar, with comfortable seating areas and windows equipped with telescopes from which you can get a close-up view of the land you’ve left behind.

Our evening on the fort

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Sous-chef and oysters

The restaurant at Spitbank Fort is known as the Officers’ Mess, but it is not in the space that would have originally served that purpose (which is a small room opening off the Victory Bar) but in part of the smaller land-facing gun floor (the same Victory Bar occupies the remainder of that floor). It is quite large and tables, which are also large, are very spread out. It was slightly odd dining here with just 12 other people – seven couples in total, all seated on separate tables. We ate dinner here – or rather, we ate most of it here. But before it started, we were invited to the Crows’ Nest for an ‘interactive’ oyster bar – which basically meant that anyone who wanted to try their hand at shucking could do so. I took one look at the knife involved, remembered how clumsy I can be, and wisely decided against. Unfortunately, I less wisely forgot that I occasionally have a problem with mussels and oysters – something I was to pay for during the night :(

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Rabbit in a mess tin

Meanwhile though it was on to the main event, and we were surprised to be told that our first course, ‘Butter poached rabbit, celeriac remoulade, pancetta & mustard’, was to be served not in the Officers’ Mess restaurant but in the wine cellar on the basement floor, in mess tins and accompanied by a dry sherry. It was a little strange to perch on bar stools and eat what was a delicious dish (actually my favourite of the whole meal) in this fashion, but it added an unusual touch to our experience.

We then headed up to the restaurant and were seated at our allocated tables. Ours was near the door and we found it rather cold and draughty, but we learned later that most of the others were no better, being near the windows. It was a bit of a shame that the chill slightly detracted from what was an excellent meal: another starter of ‘Hand-picked Lymington crab, gazpacho, lobster & coriander’, a main course of ‘Surrey Farm beef fillet and 24 hour shin of beef Anna, salt baked parsnip, violet carrot & horseradish’ (the beef cooked medium rare, as I like it) and a dessert of ‘Raspberry & mascarpone torte, pistachio praline and basil poached raspberries’.

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Beef, and raspberry torte

After dinner, hot chocolate and marshmallows were served round the firepit on the roof, but it was a bitterly cold night and few of us hung around there for any time, preferring to return downstairs to the warmth of the Victory Bar. The drinks we bought there, and the wine we chose to accompany our dinner, were the only things we had to pay for during our stay by the way – everything else was part of our package.

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Night view of Portsmouth

The next day

We were lucky that our bedroom faced east and that we woke up just in time to see a wonderful sunrise over the sea. The previous day had been dull but now there were plenty of gaps in the clouds and the February sun gave us a special display as it rose.

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Sunrise from Spitbank Fort

Breakfast was, like dinner, served in the Officers’ Mess – a buffet with cereals, pastries and fresh fruit, plus a menu from which you could order a full English breakfast or perhaps just some eggs and bacon. Unfortunately the staff made a bit of a mess of taking our order (I think each of the two on duty thought that the other had done it), and one was then too busy chatting to other guests to fetch it from the kitchen, with the result that my poached eggs (all I could fancy after a challenging night brought on by the oysters!) were over-done and not runny. On the positive side though, when we came to check out a little later and pay our drinks bill, this had been halved as a gesture of goodwill to apologise for the mix-up, and as we had enjoyed several drinks (including a lovely bottle of Malbec with dinner) this was much appreciated and ensured (as no doubt they had hoped) that we left Spitbank with a very positive impression.

After breakfast it was time to pack our overnight bags and board the catamaran back to Gosport where our car was parked. We had a quick look in the fort’s gift shop nearby, but didn’t buy anything. A number of other guests did however, with prints of the fort being the favourite item from what I could see, but we preferred to rely on our own photos for the memories.

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Farewell to Spitbank

Posted by ToonSarah 11:20 Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises food history hotel fort drink seas Comments (11)

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