A labour of love

Spitbank Fort.  Picture: Paul Jacobs (122364-20)

Spitbank Fort. Picture: Paul Jacobs (122364-20)

Mrs Perry and her five children the youngest of whom was only five spent their days and nights in the front half of their lounge (C4981-1)

THIS WEEK IN 1989: Family tells of ordeal in ‘squalor’

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Rooms once armed with mighty cannons now sleep visitors in five-star comfort.

A washroom for troops has become part of a swanky Champagne bar.

Carol and Mike Clare on Spitbank Fort.  Picture: Paul Jacobs (122364-10)

Carol and Mike Clare on Spitbank Fort. Picture: Paul Jacobs (122364-10)

And the only people working on their ‘guns’ are likely to be found in the gym.

Built to defend Portsmouth Harbour from invasion, Spitbank Fort is now provider of luxury and leisure rather than protector of the nation.

And among this mix of soft furnishings and remnants of the past sits the man that made it all happen.

Mike Clare snapped up the Solent sea fort for a cool £1m and has spent three times as much restoring the Victorian structure as a unique island retreat.

At a VIP launch at the new venue, Mike seems delighted with the result of his ambitious venture, not to mention relieved.

‘It’s really exciting to be finally launching Spitbank after two years. When we bought it we really didn’t know what we were taking on,’ admits the 57-year-old businessman as guests mill around sipping Champagne.

‘I just had a gut feeling it would be something special, but I thought we might spend £1m doing it up rather than £3m.’

The project has been a labour of love for Mike and his wife Carol, who are living their dream of purchasing listed properties and turning them into high-end, historically-fascinating retreats

Mike formed Clarenco in 2009 and has built up a portfolio of castles, towers, monasteries and other historical properties across the country under the Amazing Retreats division of the company.

The businessman famously hadn’t been inside Spitbank’s 14ft-thick armoured walls when he purchased the property, instead sending a scout to have a look.

But the leaden weight in the Solent and the two nearby forts had always intrigued him.

‘We have family and friends on the Isle of Wight and have had holidays here,’ says the Buckinghamshire entrepreneur.

‘I’ve sailed around the forts many times and have always found them absolutely fascinating.’

Now Mike says he is proud to have also swam around Spitbank, while staying at the completed property with family and friends.

He was deservedly enjoying the results of Clarenco’s labour on a break at the fort, reaping the benefits after two years of challenging work on the listed building.

But he’s far from resting on his laurels. The company has now also snapped up neighbouring No Man’s Land and Horse Sand Forts, which will be transformed into a hotel and a museum.

Mike hopes the development of the other structures will open out the experience to many more people. ‘I’m very excited about this. We want to make them a major destination for the south coast.’

The company has its work cut out. When Clarenco took ownership of Spitbank it was the run-down, leaky home of seagulls.

It took months to dry out the property because the roof needed fixing and only then could work begin in earnest.

‘I think that was one of the biggest challenges. You try to get someone to do the work and guarantee against sea water. We had to spend a long time finding the right people,’ says Mike, a risk-taker who seems remarkably laid-back.

Anyone looking out to sea over the past year would have noticed strange things happening. Workmen, cement mixers and even a replica 12.5 rifle muzzle loader gun (destined for a museum) were taken to and from the 19th century fort.

During the first part of the build, 600 sacks of rubble were removed and every bag of building material had to be loaded on by crane.

Thankfully the guests at the VIP launch haven’t arrived in quite the same manner. They’ve been able to step from a boat to a far more civilised staircase.

Mike seems delighted with the response to the eight-bedroomed retreat, even though the launch day has come with thunder and torrential rain.

‘It’s a shame about the weather,’ he says looking out at moody clouds hanging over the mainland. But he agrees that it adds something to the romance and drama of the setting.

The weather has put the fort to the test, but its cosy bars and sitting rooms are doing a great job of defending people against the elements.

It’s a far cry from Spitbank’s military past when the structure was prepared to defend England against the French.

Now the only Gallic invader is the drinking water that comes from the other side of the Channel and is drawn into the fort from the chalk bed by an artesian well.

The boring of this well began in 1877 and the underground stream supplied 23,000 gallons a day.

It is still in use and the resulting bottled drink supplied to the fort’s guests is known as Spit water.

The well is just one of the historical features that are still in place.

The building is a scheduled ancient monument and the Clarenco team have worked with English Heritage and local history groups, including the Palmerston Forts Society, to ensure a sympathetic restoration,

But Mike and Carol are concerned with retaining the historical characters of their properties anyway.

‘We love old buildings and this is a hobby for us as well as a challenge and a business,’ says Mike, who founded Dreams bed company before moving into commercial property and then realising his historical building vision.

‘We could have been more commercial with this but we wanted to make it really special. We’ve endeavoured to improve this unique property and keep its character.’

Floor tracks that allowed the huge guns to swing around are still visible and there are even hooks for the hammocks that gave military men a night’s rest.

Original sinks are under glass covers in the Victory Bar, a kitchen and pantry have been kitted out as museum pieces and there are still shell hoists in the bedrooms which once housed Spitbank’s guns.

Guests can visit the bolt hole – a narrow passageway that encircles the fort. This was built to add additional armour to the building and allowed it to be bolted at the back.

But visitors can’t walk right around this claustrophobic space. Safety bars stop people exploring too far.

One part of the fort has had to continue fulfilling its original function. There have been consultations with the harbourmaster as the lighthouse’s red beacon is still used by ships.

But the fort has all the trappings of the modern age, including stylish but historically-sensitive interiors (the work of Carol), a hot tub where there was once a gun emplacement, sauna with sea views, fire pit for barbecues and a wine cellar.

None of this comes cheap. One night’s exclusive use, based on 16 guests sharing, is from £5,200.

But there have been plenty of enquiries about the fort, which can host many more visitors for day functions. Mike says: ‘It is expensive but this isn’t supposed to be a Blackpool ‘kiss me quick’ type place. It’s a bit more exclusive than that.’

Now his attention is turning to Spitbank’s neighbours, which are three times the size. The plan is to turn No Man’s Land into a hotel complete with helicopter pad and harbour and Horse Sand into a museum with costumed guides.

Mike says he’s never had any regrets about his fort venture.

‘It’s going to take a few more years and a few more millions, but I think it’s going to be truly amazing.

FORTS HISTORY

The Solent forts are part of a string of defences around Portsmouth built in the Victorian era to protect the city from French invasion.

In 1852, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Louis seized power in France and declared himself emperor. He had a large army and people in this country began to worry that he was planning to invade.

But by the time the Solent forts and the string of defences along Portsdown Hill and across the Gosport peninsula had been completed the threat had passed.

Because they were never needed, they became known as Palmerston’s Follies after the then Prime Minister Lord Palmerston who approved their construction in 1860.

Spitbank is smaller than Horse Sand and No Man’s Land. Its main purpose was to target ships that made it past the two main forts.

The fort was disposed of by the MoD in 1982 and was privately owned.

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