125. Solent Forts

April 2015

Continuing my theme of visiting all the islands I have passed, there are some rather unusual islands located in the Solent between the mainland and the Isle of Wight, close to Portsmouth. Unusual in that they are man-made rather than natural. These are some of the Palmerston Forts, a series of defensive forts built all over the country, called after the Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston. There are 4 man-made islands built in the Solent.

These are Horse Sand Fort, No Mans Land Fort, Spitbank Fort and St Helens Fort. All are islands though the last can be waded to at low tides. They were an expensive folly, built to defend against a French attack, by the time they were completed, the threat of an invasion had largely passed and the guns were out of date. They have never seen any action, although were manned during World War I and World War II.

The forts on the south coast were built in 4 lines. Those on the Isle of Wight, the Solent forts in the Solent, coastal forts on the mainland and the last a line of forts on top of Portsdown Hill, the chalk downs above Portsmouth.

Spitbank Fort was deemed surplus to requirements in 1962 and disposed of by the Ministry of Defence in 1982. It was converted to a hotel and changed hands to it’s current owners, Amazing Venues in 2009. They converted it to a luxury hotel.

Neighbouring No Mans Land Fort suffered a similar fate, being decommissioned and falling into dereliction, although it did feature in an episode of Doctor Who. The main guns were removed in 1951 and it was largely decommissioned in the following years. It became a scheduled ancient monument in 1967 but it was retained by the Ministry of Defence until 1987. It was then bought by and converted to a luxury home. It was then sold and converted to a luxury hotel. However legionella bacteria was found in the water supply, forcing the hotels closure and the bankruptcy of the company that owned it. The man behind the venture (but not the owner), then barricaded himself in the fort. He eventually left, having been declared bankrupt, and the fort was again sold. It is now also owned by Amazing Venues.

Horse Sands Fort is now also owned by Amazing Venues but remains in a state of dereliction. My understanding is that the intention is to leave the fort like this, other than to make it safe, and to then open it up as a museum. However it seems that the museum is not open to the general public and it seems only to be possible to visit it as part of a (very expensive) multi-night stay at one of the other forts.

Lastly, St Helens Fort was sold when no longer needed by the Ministry of Defence and became a private residence. It was, as far as I can find out, sold to the Isle of Wight council in 2003 and is now empty and derelict, though a walk out to the fort (usually followed by a barbecue) is organised every year. If you take a look at the photos from this years walk it shows a large number of people take part.

I was very keen to visit at least one of these forts, having gazed out at them so many times from Portsmouth or the Isle of Wight and wondering what they might be like.

The good news is that the current owners of Spitbank and No Mans Land Fort, Amazing Venues now have both these forts open as luxury hotels. In addition they offer events including Sunday Lunch, which provides a far cheaper opportunity to visit the forts than spending the night. I therefore booked to have Sunday lunch at No Mans Land Fort with family on it’s opening weekend. Although still not cheap it was a wonderful and memorable occasion that I very much enjoyed.

I was travelling from Dorset, so drove us round to Portsmouth, where we were told we would be departing for No Mans Land Fort at 11:30am. The rather grandly titled departure lounge is located within the Gunwharf Quays retail outlet in Portsmouth, so I drove to the (expensive) car park under the shopping centre. We arrived early and had time to look around the shops and then nearer the time of departure went and “checked in”. It was at this point we were issued with a discount card for the shops. Ah well shopping is not something that interests me anyway.

As we reached departure time we headed over to the departure point, by the Carluccio’s Restaurant. We set on the top deck of the boat and were introduced to the Spitbank Fort manager who joined us for the crossing. Everyone also had to have their photos taken before departure.

It was a pleasant crossing over the Solent. Although not especially warm, it was a calm day with a mixture of cloud and sunshine. I’ve crossed the Solent many times before to visit the Isle of Wight, usually on the Wightlink catamaran or the Hovercraft, which are quick but offer limited views. This time, we were on a slower open boat and could enjoy the views of the Solent.

Portsmouth is an interesting city with a mixture of old and new, and the view is dominated by the Spinnacker Tower, which overlooks the harbour and was originally intended as a millenium project, but opened late. Memorably, the mayor got stuck in the external lift during the official opening and had to be rescued. The external life was subsequently decommissioned and the area where it was is now used for abseiling. The viewing platform gives wonderful views over the Solent.

The Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

As we departed, we passed one of the beautiful Thames Sailing barges which was a long way from where these boats are usually seen (The Thames and surrounds).

Portsmouth

We also passed the sadly now decommissioned Wightlink ferry, St Helens.

St Helen

Heading further out, we could see HMS Warrior in the historic dockyard as well as the Gosport and Isle of Wight ferries – this is certainly a busy area for maritime traffic.

HMS Warrior

The mouth of Portsmouth Harbour is fairly narrow and well fortified with an older fort on the Portsmouth side and red brick fort on the Gosport side. We were soon in the more open water with fine views back over Southsea, Clarence Pier and the Hovercraft terminal. We could also see Southsea Castle, another of the fortifications built at the same time as the solent forts.

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The company was running Sunday lunches at both Spitbank and No Mans Land Fort this weekend, so we headed first to Spitbank Fort, being the closer to Portsmouth. This was another good reason for choosing to go to No Mans Land Fort since whilst we only land on one fort, we get to see both close up!

Soon we could see the fort straight ahead and soon came up close to it in order to land and allow half the passengers off.

Spitbank Fort

It is an attractive building, rather like Hurst Castle and some of the other castles of similar age, except of course that it’s entirely surrounded by water.

There is a metal landing stage on the front, a lighthouse on the top and a glass windowed modern building on the top.

The boat seemed to struggle to pull up beside the fort, but eventually we were moored up and the passengers for Spitbank got off the boat.

Spitbank Fort

Once they had got off the boat we continued on to No Mans Land Fort. This is further out in the Solent, close to Seaview on the Isle of Wight and it is administratively at least, part of the Isle of Wight, whilst Spitbank is part of Portsmouth (and Hampshire).

Out to sea we could see the large Britanny Ferries boat heading into Portsmouth as well as a large container ship heading, I presume, for Southampton.

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Soon we had No Mans Land Fort in sight, and it is much larger than Spitbank, being around 3 times the size (another reason to choose No Mans Land over Spitbank).

No Mans Land Fort

No Mans Land Fort

Soon we moored up and got off the boat onto a metal landing stage and took the sloping metal paths up to the fort entrance. Here we were greeted by the staff and directed up the steps into the main atrium area.

The Atrium, No Mans Land Fort

Here we were greeted and given glasses of Champagne to enjoy in the large lounge. This was once the open centre of the fort, but now closed in with a roof, it was a bit like a conservatory. There was also a live band playing. We took a seat and enjoyed our drinks and a brief talk by the fort manager and then invited to take a look around. This was the part I was looking forward to most!

First we headed up the steps onto the outer wall of the fort. This goes around the fort and is where many of the guns would have been, as well as a lookout tower. Part of the upper floor was just a brick platform, but much of it had a large area of astro-turf, with a giant deck chair, numerous seats, a hot tub and sauna, barbecue and fire pit. It was a lovely place.

Giant Deckchair, No Mans Land Fort

The views from the top were also lovely with views back to now distant Portsmouth and far nearer, Seaview, Ryde and Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, with Bembridge lifeboat station clearly visible. However, we had not reached the highest point of the fort yet. There was also a Lighthouse. I am not sure if this is the original building or a replacement, but it had been converted to an exclusive and wonderful suite, over 4 floors, with a glass area to the floor on the top floor, giving views back to the ground. The top floor was the most impressive, with floor to ceiling glass, rotating chairs attached to the floor and port hole windows in the glass. It offered a wonderful 360-degree view over the Solent and really made the best of the forts special location. I imagine if you are booked here for a conference this is the area the senior managers would occupy!

Roof Terrace, No Mans Land Fort

View from the Lighthouse, No Mans Land Fort

Below there was also a bit of a pier built over the sea. I think this was originally used to winch things up onto the fort from ships.

Pier, No Mans Land Fort

We headed out onto the pier to get a view back to the fort.

No Mans Land Fort

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Inside the rooms were very impressive. There were numerous function rooms with plush leather chairs, a games room with 3 pool tables, another games room for cards and numerous smaller rooms.

Lounge, No Mans Land Fort

We could also look around some of the bedrooms, the cheapest of which costs more than £400 for the night! I was also surprised to see that they did not have a TV.

Room, No Mans Land Fort

I am sure they would not have been this luxurious originally. Oddly whilst we were allowed to look around the rooms, it looks as if the maids had left mid way through cleaning them, hence the pillows and quilt on the floor.

Room, No Mans Land Fort

Soon we were called to the serving of lunch by a siren and headed into the old Officers Mess. Here we had a lovely 4 course lunch. Eating in this room, with it’s low ceilings and echoey conversation you could really get a feeling of what it must have been like to be stationed out here, although at the time there would be a lot more people in the room. It must have been very hot in there in the summer.

After lunch we were free to wander around the fort again until our depature. Whilst many retired to the main atrium area for tea and the band we explored the rest of the fort. We headed down to the basement which is probably the most original part of the fort. It was dark and the air damp. Many of the original rooms could be explored and the basement is now mainly used for Laserquest (and storage, from what we saw).

Basement, No Mans Land Fort

Heading up to the next floor there was a french-themed restaurant, beach huts and many of the hotel rooms.

No Mans Land Fort

No Mans Land Fort

Beach Huts, No Mans Land Fort

The Street, No Mans Land Fort

There was also a shop and even rather oddly, a gents barber, probably not used any more but more to indicate how it was fitted out during the war when the soldiers might be out here for several weeks or months.

No Mans Land Fort

Embarkation Hall, No Mans Land Fort

Embarkation Hall, No Mans Land Fort

TV Lounge, No Mans Land Fort

Library, No Mans Land Fort

Poker Room, No Mans Land Fort

Having explored the fort fully we headed back up for a cup of tea and then it was time to depart. This was a fascinating place to visit and looks like an amazing place to stay, but certainly an expensive one – the fort now has it’s own heliport, for example, giving an indication of the kind of customers they are expecting. In some ways it is a shame that in the conversion to a hotel it has lost some of it’s character and original features. However without this it would almost certainly end up a derelict mess that the public could not get to see.

Sadly soon it was time to depart, so we headed back down to the boat for the short trip back to the mainland. By now the weather had improved and it was a lovely sunny evening.

We got good views back to the fort and to Portsmouth.

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No Mans Land Fort, The Solent

We passed fairly close to Horse Sands Forts, which was built to a near identical design as No Mans Land Fort, and it was also good to see this, to picture more how the forts originally looked.

Horse Sands Fort

Soon we were approaching Spitbank Fort once more to pick up those who had visited that fort.

Spitbank Fort and Portsmouth

Spitbank Fort

Once we were loaded up we left for Spitbank and back to the mainland.

Spitbank Fort

Portsmouth

This was a lovely day out. It is true not much walking was involved, but I did walk around the fort. It was a fascinating place and a great experience to be out on a man-made structure in the middle of the Solent. It is, no doubt, an impressive location, but I would love to have also looked around Horse Sand Fort, to see how it would have looked for it’s original function rather than what it is used for now. It would be great to spend a night here, to see Portsmouth, Southampton and the Solent lit up at night, watch the passing ships and so on. Though I think one night would probably be enough. I can’t imagine spending a week out on the fort, let alone months, as soldiers did originally.

If you want to visit these forts then there are various options available on the website. The cheapest options are I think the weekend lunch options, which does at least give some free time to explore the fort.

Here are the complete set of photos fort this walk : Main Link | Slideshow

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One Response to 125. Solent Forts

  1. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, a very interesting read. i must admit i was not aware that there were so many forts in the Solent. I might take a closer look when I get around to this part of the coast.

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