A home among the waves - inside No Man’s Fort

No Man's Fort in the Solent off Portsmouth.
No Man's Fort in the Solent off Portsmouth.
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The Isle of Wight, passing ships and sea swell as far as the eye can see.

The Isle of Wight, passing ships and sea swell as far as the eye can see.

It’s no normal view to be greeted with after drawing back the curtains in a hotel bedroom. But then again, this is no normal hotel.

This is No Man’s Fort, one of four military monoliths the Victorians built in the Solent to make continental rivals think twice about trying to seize Portsmouth.

The 200ft-wide armour-plated hideaway was until recently known as No Man’s Land Fort, but the new owners shortened the moniker to bring it into line with their other Solent possessions – Spitbank Fort and Horse Sand Fort.

The venue finally opened for business last week as a luxury hotel with a twist – unless there’s a boat in dock, you have a private chopper on the top deck or you fancy your chances swimming ashore, you can’t leave.

Performers welcome guests at No Man's Fort.

Performers welcome guests at No Man's Fort.

But it’s the fort’s exclusivity that’s part of the pull. Where else can you sip cocktails in an open-air hot tub or dance into the night, knowing your nearest neighbours are a good stretch of sea away?

‘This fort is something really spectacular,’ says Alexandra Botting, spokeswoman for the fort’s operator, Amazing Venues.

‘We like to say we are the master of all trades here.

‘In every nook and cranny you can do something different – whether it be a hothouse where you can cook fresh mackerel, to the basement level where you can shoot laser wars.

We like to say we are the master of all trades here.

Alexandra Botting

‘It’s not quite a theme park but there’s so much to do and the fact that you’re in the middle of the sea makes it even more special.’

The fort’s managers are loath to call it a hotel – far from just a fancy stand to hang your hat for a night, this is a place where stuff happens.

‘We don’t want to be known for just selling bedrooms,’ says Solent Forts general manager Mark Watts.

‘What we want to do is create an experience which is away from that standard hotel model.’

Guests can ride a RIB or go kayaking, roast marshmallows over a fire or bash golf balls made of fish food into the waves.

For something different, you can venture down into the unrestored bowels of the fort and run around playing laser quest.

There are also the features of a typical top-notch hotel including a disco, spa centre, a shop, library, bars and a restaurant.

There are plans to hold everything from Great Gatsby-themed soirees and James Bond nights to wartime-era ‘Blitz’ parties and ‘Rule Britannia’ lunches.

Much of the action will take place in the enormous domed atrium at the centre of the fort, which can hold up to 200 revellers.

Not all of them can stay, however, as there are only 21 rooms, or 22 including the luxurious four-storey lighthouse with sweeping 360-degree views.

One of the first visitors Ricky Nelson, of Gosport, says he has been past the fort many times with the navy and often wondered what it looked like inside.

Ricky says: ‘It’s not like a night out in Portsmouth where you can say “I want to go home now”.

You’re very much encapsulated in one location,’ he says.

‘But with the hot tubs and marshmallows over the fire-pit, it’s fantastic.

‘They make you feel comfortable enough to want to stay.’

At a glance...

No Man’s Fort

Where: The Solent. The Solent Forts Port Office is at Canal Side, Gunwharf Quays, PO1 3FH

Cost: A ‘22 hours at sea’ overnight stay package costs between £450 for two for an executive room, to £700 for the superior suite or the lighthouse, which sleeps four. Prices rise up to £1,150 a night during summer. Daytime visits to the fort, including lunch, start from £60.

Web: amazingvenues.co.uk/venue/no-mans-fort

Contact: Call 0330 333 7 222 or e-mail via the website.

Romance blossoms

Looking for a truly memorable location to propose to your sweetheart?

How about a once-abandoned military fort in the middle of the sea?

The idea might not have occurred to everyone, but 33-year-old pub manager Gergo Keleman thought No Man’s Fort was the perfect spot to go down on bended knee.

Gergo, from Hungary, took his girlfriend, Alexandra Holik, 27, for a night at the fort during a sneak-peak weekend over Easter.

‘I was thinking of maybe taking her to somewhere like Rome or Barcelona, but everything was booked. And then I saw this on the internet and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make the proposal.

‘I thought it would be a really amazing night, something that we would never forget.’

The proposal was followed by special treatment from the fort’s staff. A manager even opened a bottle of bubbly with the pointy end of a ceremonial sword, sending the cork shooting across the atrium.

The bride-to-be says she was stunned at her beau’s burst of romance.

Alexandra says: ‘I was surprised and so happy.’

Gergo runs the Brewhouse and Kitchen in Guildhall Walk, Southsea, and the couple live above the pub.

My night at the fort

Spend a night on a refurbished fort in the middle of the Solent?

I must admit, the chance to tag along on a ‘Fort du Soleil’ sneak-peak preview of the fort over Easter was one of the more alluring propositions I’ve yet had for a Weekend cover story.

Joining a boatload of finely-dressed guests ascending the stairs into the central atrium, it felt a little like entering a parallel universe.

The welcoming committee was made up of silver-winged circus performers on stilts, who went on to perform frankly astounding feats of flexibility from hoops suspended from the ceiling.

Then it was down to the mess hall for an elaborate four-course meal, partly served incongruously in a mess tin.

There was butter-poached rabbit and then a seafood medley of crab, crayfish and gazpacho, which the fort’s Portuguese food and beverage manager told me reminded him of home.

‘The flavours all come into your mouth,’ says Paulo Papanca.

‘The food is beautiful and we try to do fantastic events here.

‘It’s all about the experience.’

This is followed by beef fillet, a mascarpone pud and a few pints of specially-branded ‘No Man’s Beer’ with a label boasting of its fortifying effects.

Then it’s back up to the atrium 
for a fire show and finally a 
late-night soak in the hot tub before, eventually, retiring to bed below deck.

The next day, as I pulled back the curtain for that incredible view over the sea, the ferry home came into sight.

Time had flown and it felt as if I’d experienced only a fraction of what the fort had to offer.

‘Some of our guests say they actually want the weather to be so bad they don’t have to get on the boat home,’ confides Alexandra.

Now I know why.

No Man’s Fort was always someone’s

Built as a bulwark against the French, the story of No Man’s Fort has as many twists and turns as as its labyrinthine floorplan.

The artificial island was built between 1867 to 1880, part of a string of defences prompted by concern over Napoleon III’s territorial ambitions.

But by the time it was finished, the Gallic threat had passed and the fort’s 49 cannons were never fired in anger.

The foundations were dug 27ft under the low-water mark and included a borehole which could supply fresh water to its near 80-strong company.

No Man’s had a minor role as a navy signal station in the First World War and was equipped with anti-aircraft guns for WWII, although they weren’t big enough to play much of a role in defending Portsmouth from the Luftwaffe.

The guns were trained on French warships anchored in the Solent after France surrendered in 1940 - the fear was they would sail off, fall into Germany’s hands and later be used in an invasion of Britain.

But the Royal Navy easily 
seized the French ships and the guns remained silent.

No Man’s was a functioning, if backwater, military fort until 1957 when the Ministry of Defence decommissioned the site and put it up for sale in the 1960s.

In 1971, the fort was used a set for The Sea Devils, a six-part Doctor Who adventure starring Jon Pertwee.

It made another TV appearance in 2002 in Banged Up With Beadle.

Presenter Jeremy Beadle stayed there for six weeks for the show, learning a new survival skill each week.

No-one was interested in buying the fort, however, until a developer took it on in 1987 with a plan to turn it into a luxury 

No Man’s was refurbished and its lowered centre section was domed to form a huge atrium with all the trimmings, including a heated pool.

A lack of interest in the hotel pushed the fort back on the market and it was bought by Birmingham businessman Harmesh Pooni in 2004 for £6m.

But the pool’s contaminated water sparked an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and Mr Pooni had no option but to put the fort up for sale again.

When, perhaps unsurprisingly, no-one was willing to cough up the £4m Mr Pooni was asking, he barricaded himself in the fort to stay out of reach of his creditors.

But Mr Pooni couldn’t hold off the accountants forever, and he was evicted in April 2008.

Administrators sold the fort to Gibraltar-based Swanmore Estates the year after for £910,000, a steal seeing how it had been valued at more than £14m just five years before.

Clarenco, a firm owned by luxury property guru Mike Clare, bought it in 2012 and runs it under its brand Amazing Venues.

The same company also bought the smaller Spitbank Fort and spent £3m turning it into an exclusive-use venue.

Clarenco owns Horse Sand Fort as well and has plans to turn it into a ‘living museum’ to open in spring next year.

This fort will be restored to its original glory with cannons, shell stores and crew living quarters.

The fourth Solent fort, St Helens, isn’t owned by Clarenco.

It sits just off the east coast of the Isle of Wight and can be walked to at low tide.