A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about seas

Where the Mendips meet the sea

Brean Down

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Looking back towards the 'mainland' from Brean Down

On the coast of Somerset between Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea, a long finger of land juts out into the Bristol Channel – the Mendips’ last hurrah before disappearing beneath the waves. Brean Down rises high above the beaches on either side, a two-kilometre-long ridge of limestone and an obvious place to build a fort – or several. Certainly Iron Age man thought so, as there is evidence of a fort and field systems from that period. The Romans built a small temple here, and much more recently, between 1864 and 1871, another fort was constructed at the very tip of the promontory.

Today the land is under the protection of the National Trust. As with most of their open countryside there is no charge to walk on the land, but you pay for parking. We visited on a rather dull September morning during the Coronavirus pandemic and found the car park quite busy with dog walkers and with ‘staycationers’ such as ourselves.

A three-mile walk leads you up onto the ridge, along its western edge to the fort, and back along the eastern side. It starts with a steep climb up a long flight of steps. There are small stopping areas at intervals where you can pause to admire the view – surely no one will guess that you’re really stopping to catch your breath?!

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The steps up Brean Down, and old post box at the foot

Once at the top the path is undulating, crossing grassland closely cropped by sheep and goats that live here. Walking out towards the far point you have wonderful views west along the coast and across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently you can see the remains of the Romano-British temple somewhere along this stretch but it eluded us.

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Trees on Brean Down

The coastline here is famous for the wide expanse of sand (some say mud!) revealed at low tide. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal movement in the world (second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada); according to the National Trust website, the distance between high and low water can be as much as 0.75 of a mile (1.2 kilometres). This made for some interesting photo opportunities in today’s changing light, but is a challenge on sunny days for anyone wanting to swim!

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Views of Brean Beach from Brean Down

Brean Fort

Our walk brought us eventually to the remains of the fort built here in the 19th century. This was one of the Palmerston Forts (named for Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister), designed to protect Britain from invasion by France – an invasion that never came. As I explained in my post about Spitbank Fort, in the Solent, Napoleon III was strengthening his navy at that time, and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. But the invasion never came and the forts were never used for their original purpose.

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Looking down on Brean Fort

Although in ruins the walls of many of the fort’s buildings still stand and there are signs to guide you as you explore. I felt it had a slightly haunted atmosphere, despite the presence of other visitors here and there. Maybe I was sensing the ghost of Gunner Harris, who one night in July 1900 inexplicably fired a carbine into the ventilator shaft of a magazine storing gunpowder. The resulting explosion caused huge damage to the fort and killed Harris. There was some speculation that this might have been suicide – Harris was known to be sullen, with a bad temper, and was in trouble because he had left the fort without permission the previous day. At his inquest the jury returned the verdict that, ‘the explosion was caused by the deceased firing a carbine down a ventilator and that at the time he was temporarily insane.’ Whatever the reason, Harris had effectively dealt a fatal blow not only to himself but to the fort. It was closed down soon after, decommissioned and its guns sold for scrap in 1901.

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Brean Fort

However the building has been put to various uses both before and since then. Marconi had used it in 1897 to test his new wireless transmission equipment, setting a new distance record of 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) for wireless transmission over open seas. For a while it was used as a café (what a great spot to stop for a coffee that must have been!) before being rearmed during WW2 with anti-aircraft guns. The site was used to test bouncing bombs and other secret weapons. You can still see the length of rail employed to launch the bombs. A sign at the fort explains that the tests didn’t always go well. On one occasion the bomb, along with the trolley carrying it, flew off into the Channel, did a sharp right turn and came back inland to land in a local farmer’s chicken run!

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Bomb launching rail, with Steep Holm Island beyond

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Bomb launching rail, and window in the barracks

This is a great spot to take a break, sitting on the old walls with a view out to Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. The former is English while the latter, lying just beyond it, is in Wales (its Welsh name is Ynys Echni). Both islands were also fortified under Palmerston's scheme. Flat Holm has had a lighthouse since the early 18th century (this is a treacherous area for shipping) but the current building dates from the early 19th and is today automated, running almost entirely on solar power.

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Steep Holm Island from Brean Down

The return walk

After exploring the ruins of the fort and enjoying the view out to sea, we retraced our steps but on the eastern side of the headland. The path here is a little lower and more sheltered, but even here trees struggle to grow.

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On Brean Down

There were some pretty wildflowers and views across the wide sands of Weston-super-Mare below.

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Wild flower

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Lichen

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On Weston-super-Mare beach

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Sparrow near the café

At some point this path passes the banks and ditches that mark the site of the Iron Age fort, but this too, like the Roman temple, we managed to miss!

Beyond the top of the steps we had climbed at the start the path curved back on itself and we were able to descend a more gentle slope down to the road, the car park and the café. Here we bought cold drinks and hot pasties to enjoy at a table overlooking the beach – a good reward for our efforts!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:57 Archived in England Tagged landscapes trees coast history ruins views fort seas Comments (6)

A Cornish birthday

St Ives

‘As I was going to St Ives’

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St Ives harbour in stormy weather

My birthday falls at the end of October and we often go away, usually abroad. But with work being done at home (installation of new wardrobes) our holiday time was limited this year, so we decided on a break closer to home. I’ve been wanting to go to St Ives for some time, having not been to Cornwall since family holidays as a child, so that was our choice. We hoped for good weather (it quite often is fine and sunny at that time of year in England) but knew there was plenty to do there if it rained, in the form of the newish Tate St Ives and numerous smaller galleries and artists’ studios. Just as well, as it turned out!

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St Ives harbour

We decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel, which also proved to be a good decision, and to travel by train rather than drive the long distance from London. The train journey took us along one of the most scenic stretches of rail track in the country, so close to the sea in parts of Devon that some years ago it was totally destroyed in winter storms. Thankfully today’s weather, although wet, wasn’t bad enough to pose a threat to the line and our journey went smoothly – a long run from London via Exeter, Plymouth and Truro before changing at St Erth for the little branch line to St Ives. Waiting in the wind and rain at that small station I think we both wondered why we hadn’t made the time to go to Sicily, our original plan!

Arriving in St Ives we walked to the apartment following directions sent by its owner. These led us along what would be in fine weather a pleasant path right by the sea, but which today was at one point being regularly swamped by large waves. I manged to dash between them but Chris was not so lucky and got caught, resulting in a pair of decidedly wet trousers! Luckily our accommodation was only a short distance further, above a shoe shop near the market hall and parish church. We let ourselves in with the key that had been sent to us a week previously and climbed two flights of stairs to the very cosy flat. We liked it immediately, with its seaside themed décor and view of the sea beyond the roof-tops.

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Apartment sitting room

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Apartment bedroom

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Apartment kitchen

We settled in and, given the weather, decided not to go far on this first evening. Our hostess had kindly given us lots of local restaurant recommendations and one which appealed, Beer and Bird, was only a few minutes’ walk up the main street, Fore Street. This consists of a ground floor bar and first floor restaurant, and although it was busy we got a good table in the latter. We enjoyed our meal on the whole, but had to wait a long while for our main courses because the wood-fired pizza oven was playing up, and Chris had ordered pizza! They really should have just told us that pizzas were off for the evening as despite that being his favourite, I’m sure he’d have found something else on the extensive menu as an alternative. As it was, when the pizza did finally arrive, alongside my very good halibut, its crust was disappointingly brittle although the topping was good. Still, it had been a pleasant evening on the whole – and some dry weather was promised for tomorrow!

A wet birthday in St Ives

My heading above tells a different tale from that weather forecast. We awoke to rain that lasted most of the day, off and on (mostly on!) Clearly it was a day for indoor pursuits so after breakfast at a nearby café (Scoff Troff, which failed to live up to the rave review provided by our hostess but was OK) we walked along Fore Street to its northern end and then followed signs that led us to Tate St Ives by Porthmeor Beach.

Tate St Ives

As the name suggests, Tate St Ives is a regional hub of the original Tate Gallery in London (now Tate Britain) and the Tate Modern. It was preceded by the gallery’s first venture out of the capital, Tate Liverpool, and opened in 1993. A fairly remote small Cornish seaside town may seem an odd choice of location for a major gallery, but once you know something of St Ives’ history and its long association with artists it becomes much less surprising.

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Tate St Ives entrance

There is something special about the quality of light in this part of the country which has always tended to attract artists, and once the railway came to the town in 1877 many visited from London for short or longer stays. A local fisherman, Alfred Wallis, had taken up painting following the death of his wife, and his naïve style appealed to visiting artist Ben Nicholson, influencing his move towards more abstract art. When the Second World War started, Nicholson moved to St Ives with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and other artists followed – Naum Gabo, Patrick Heron, Bernard Leach and many more.

The heyday of what became known as the St Ives School was in the 1950s and 60s, but the town continues to attract artists and is home to many small galleries and studios. Barbara Hepworth’s former home and studio has been open to the public for some years, displaying many of her works in the setting where she created them, and was taken over by the Tate in 1980, so it was a natural next step for them to build a new gallery in the town dedicated to the art movement that bears its name.

We bought our tickets, opting for combined ones that also included the Hepworth Studio, on our to-do list for tomorrow when it should be drier (most of the sculptures are exhibited in the garden). Although not large the gallery has a series of rooms telling the story of the St Ives School with works by all of the more famous artists considered members and others I hadn’t heard of.

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Artwork by by Otobong Nkanga

There are also rooms devoted to temporary exhibitions which were showing works by Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian artist now living in Antwerp. She uses tapestry alongside photography, painting and video, and I found some of the works very intriguing. The exhibition From Where I Stand explored ‘the politics of land and its relationship to the body, and histories of land acquisition and ownership’, according to the Tate website, but I liked it most for the colours employed in her tapestries and the interesting video showing how she works to bring her huge designs to life.

After looking around the gallery we made our way to the top floor café where we were lucky to secure a table for our coffee break, as the café is quite small and the weather was far too inclement for anyone to be sitting out on the terrace! On finer days there would be wonderful views of Porthmeor Beach from here; as it was, the windows were streaked with rain and, inspired perhaps by all the art we had seen, I had fun creating my own abstract images using the colours of sea and sand blurred by raindrops. Even in this weather I could see that there was indeed something rather special about the light here.

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Rainy day photography, Tate St Ives

Porthmeor Beach

After our coffee we took advantage of a brief let-up in the rain to get a few photos of Porthmeor Beach. Quite a few people were braving the elements to walk dogs and a few even to surf!

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Porthmeor Beach

We then headed back to Fore Street where we had a light lunch in one of the pubs, the Union Inn – good toasted sandwiches and local beer. After our meal we visited some of the studios and independent shops. As it was my birthday Chris had suggested I pick out a gift here, and I found a pretty silver necklace in a Celtic design at Silver Origins at the southern end of Fore Street.

We spent the rest of the afternoon back in our cosy apartment before wrapping up again to walk to the restaurant where we had booked a table for my birthday dinner. The Porthminster Kitchen was another of our hostess’s recommendations and had also been suggested by a foodie friend who holidays here regularly, and what a good choice it proved to be. OK, we couldn’t really make the most of the lovely setting overlooking the harbour, but that didn’t matter when the food was so good and the service so friendly. Of course I had to have some local fish and chose mackerel pate followed by a hake special, both of which were delicious, while Chris had scallops and a pasta dish. An excellent evening – and surely tomorrow at last it would stop raining?!

A brighter day

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Harbour

Yes! We awoke to skies which, if not exactly bright, were lighter and no longer throwing water at us. So after breakfast at another local café (a much more successful choice, the Cornish Bakery on Fore Street) we walked down to the harbour, hoping to get better photos than we had managed yesterday.

There were a lot of birds on the lifeboat slipway which subsequent research indicated could be Turnstones in their winter plumage, or possibly some sort of Sandpiper – bird-watching friends might correct me, of course!

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Bird at the harbour

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The Island

We followed the water’s edge, taking a few more photos as we went. At the far side of the bay that forms the harbour is St Ives’ most distinctive natural feature, the Island. Despite its name this is not an island but a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and separating the harbour from Porthmeor Beach. On a map it looks to me a little like a face in profile, with a hook nose, a shock of hair and a very thin beard!

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Map showing the Island

There are great views from the Island of the coast in either direction.

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Panoramic view east from the Island

Rocky outcrops offshore were dotted with cormorants, and further away we could see Godrevy Lighthouse on its small islet. The lighthouse was built in the 1850s as a result of numerous shipwrecks on the Stones Reef – most famously one in 1649 when a ship carrying many personal effects of King Charles I, including his entire wardrobe, was lost. This is the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf to write ‘To the Lighthouse’, a novel I studied for my A Level English Literature course, although she locates the lighthouse on the Scottish island of Skye.

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Rocky coastline

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Cormorants on rock, from the Island

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Godrevy Lighthouse

On the highest point of the Island is the Chapel of St Nicholas, which dates back to the 15th century. It was used in the past by 'Preventive Men', as the excise officers were known, to keep watch for smugglers, for whom the island provided an ideal landing place for their contraband. Later the chapel was used for storage by the War Office, who partially demolished it in 1904, unaware of its historic significance. Fortunately a public outcry stopped the destruction and resulted in its restoration in 1911. Inside it features floor tiles depicting fishing scenes, the work of the famous St Ives potter, Bernard Leach, but we found the door locked and very little could be seen through the somewhat grubby windows.

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St Nicholas Chapel

At the furthest point of the Island are the remains of an old gun battery, constructed in 1859 to help to protect Porthmeor Beach and the harbour against the threat of invasion by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). There were three gun emplacements and a barracks, which housed the gunners and their families. Later the largest of these emplacements was adapted to serve as a Coastguard Station. This was closed down in 1994, when the government decided that the use of satellite and wireless technology to monitor distress calls made keeping a visual watch unnecessary.

In 1999, the coastguard station was reopened by the St Ives branch of the National Coastwatch Institution, a voluntary organisation established to ‘provide the eyes and ears along the coast’. The station is now manned by volunteer watchkeepers, who keep a log of all the activity within sight of the lookout all year round during daylight hours. Several were on duty when we passed, and outside a poster appealed for further volunteers.

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On the Island
~ you can see the gun battery at the furthest point

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Porthmeor Beach from the Island

Looking down on Porthmeor Beach we could see lots of surfers in the water so we decided to head in that direction to try to get some better photos than we could manage at this distance. We got our shots, then found a good table in the Porthmeor Beach Café, perched above the sands opposite Tate St Ives, for a cup of coffee with a view.

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Surfers, Porthmeor Beach

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Arty St Ives

Many of the town’s small artists’ studios and galleries are located along the winding streets of the area between Porthmeor and the harbour, and we spent a pleasant hour visiting some of these before descending again to the harbour-front.

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Door details

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Our harbour view at lunch-time

Here we bought Cornish pasties (well, it had to be done!) from one of several shops claiming to sell the ‘best in town’ and perched on a breakwater to enjoy our lunch.

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

After our break we made our way through some more of the back streets to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. As I mentioned above, Hepworth and her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, came to live in St Ives when World War Two broke out in 1939, as a haven from London. She stayed here for the rest of her life, living and working in Trewyn studios (which are now the Barbara Hepworth Museum) from 1949 until her death in 1975 (she died in a fire here at the studio she loved). It was her wish that her home and studio were set up as a museum of her work.

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In the studio

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Sleepy cat
(this one is real, not a sculpture!)

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Small sculpture indoors

Our visit here was a real highlight of our short stay in St Ives. Inside the house it was possible to get a sense of the artist and her work, through a series of photos taken over the full period of her time here. There were a few pieces displayed here too, but it was in the garden that the exhibits really come to life, placed just as she wanted them among the plants and flowers. To me their organic forms fit perfectly into this garden landscape.

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At the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

Final evening in St Ives

We had dinner this evening in an Italian restaurant we had spotted and liked the look of earlier in the day, Caffe Pasta at the far end of the harbour-front. It was just as well that we had thought to make a reservation when passing, as on this Halloween evening lots of families were out and about and this seemed to be a favourite local choice for post Trick or Treating get-togethers. And our hunch that this looked a promising spot for our final dinner in St Ives paid off, as we had a delicious meal. I loved the sea bass special, served with candied beetroot & squid ink risotto, and Chris had some excellent wild boar meatballs.

Outside we had a go at a bit of impromptu night photography, using a breakwater as a slightly uneven temporary tripod!

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St Ives harbour at night

Farewell to St Ives

The next morning there was time for another good pastry and coffee breakfast at the Cornish Bakery before we had to make our way back to the station (no waves crashing over the path today!) and home to London.

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Last views of St Ives

The train journey, although long, passed as uneventfully as the journey down and we were home in time for dinner after our very pleasant, if not always dry, few days in Cornwall.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:45 Archived in England Tagged beaches art birds night boats rain harbour coast views sculpture weather seaside lighthouse seas chapel cornwall st_ives Comments (20)

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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