There have been strange things going on out at sea. Anyone gazing out from Portsmouth or Gosport might have noticed a hard working little boat carrying all manner of surprising items between the shore and the middle of the Solent.
Workmen, cement mixers and even a replica 12.5 rifle muzzle loader gun have been taken to and from Spitbank Fort.
Those sailing past the fort will also have noticed some changes. The familiar round structure, built along with its neighbouring sea forts in the Victorian era, has had a bit of a clean-up and is sporting a new watertight roof.
Built to defend Portsmouth in the 1860s, Spitbank is being turned into a luxury retreat.
And as the construction period nears its end, the full glory of the newly-refurbished fort will soon be ready to unveil to some lucky visitors.
Eight large bedrooms will have wonderful views across the Solent. A function room, hot tub, sauna and fire pit for barbecues will make the upper level a place for gathering. And the fort will also boast private dining rooms, bars, games rooms, a wine cellar and tasting room.
All of this doesn’t come cheap. The tariffs for the fort – which sleeps 16 in eight rooms and can hold up to 60 people for functions and 48 for banquet dining – are £14,400 for one night. Seven nights will cost visitors £61,200. But there are promotions of exclusive use stays from £8,000 and day conferencing from £150.
Snapped up for a cool £1m by company Amazing Retreats, Spitbank will be used for corporate functions, weddings and anyone who wants to hire the building as a unique holiday destination.
Work on the roof began in 2010 and the waterlogged building took several months to dry out. The rest of the refurbishment began in earnest in May this year.
During that time an 11-metre working boat, belonging to Gosport based Fortess Marine Services, has chalked up about 1,800 trips taking all manner of things to and from the fort.
‘I think the most surreal thing I’ve seen is a cement mixer coming off this little boat and onto the fort,’ says Spitbank Fort’s general manager Mark Watts, although the gun had to be a bizarre sight too. That was being taken away from Spitbank to a museum.
‘The logistics of this thing have been very challenging, physically getting the stuff across,’ adds Mark. ‘There is even a specialist company to lift everything in. It’s not you everyday job, it’s not like you can just send out for screws whenever you want.’
Fortess Marine Services is the business of forts expert Dave Hall, who has been running the boat back and forth and advising on maintenance at Spitbank. Heavier goods have come over by barge, but Dave’s boat has battled through wind and waves to deliver the rest.
He says: ‘It can get a bit choppy sometimes up near the fort, when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. But there have only been a few days when we couldn’t get out here.’
Amazing Retreats boss Mike Clare famously purchased the fort without seeing it, instead acting on reliable information from members of his team. The total cost of purchase and construction has been £3 million.
‘People will price something and then as soon as they learn it’s being taken out to sea, the price shoots up,’ says site manager Lee Tyson.
‘But for us the only real difference is getting a boat to work instead of a van. In the last six months, we’ve only lost about five days because of weather. So it’s working pretty well.’
But every bag of material has to be craned onto the fort and during the first part of the build 600 sacks of rubble were removed.
The barge, belonging to Portsmouth-based Baker Trayte Marine, has carted over generators, a sewage treatment plant and is due to deliver the kitchen equipment.
But the cost and difficulties had been envisaged, explains Mark. ‘From a bank’s point of view, they would laugh you out the door. But that’s not why Mike and Amazing Retreats have done this. Buying these properties and putting them back together are a labour of love, although obviously we want people to stay at them and enjoy them.’
The company has been working closely with local historical societies and English Heritage to retain and make features of importance historical details.
The bar tables will be original portholes from ships, framed in oak, and the sinks in the washroom will be cleaned up and covered with glass as a feature of the Champagne bar.
The original fireplace stays in the lounge and two rooms – a kitchen and pantry – are being kitted out as museum pieces.
One of the most interesting features of the fort is an artesian well, which draws drinking water form the chalk bed. The boring of this well began in 1877 when the fort was almost complete and it originally supplied 23,000 gallons a day. Now the water supply will be bottled for guests.
One part of the fort will have to fulfil its existing function. There have been consultations with the harbour master over the lighthouse as its red beacon must stay as a direction for ships.
‘I think people want to know about where they’re staying,’ adds Mark. ‘It’s all part of the theatre of coming to Spitbank Fort. If you just want to go to a nice hotel, you can go anywhere in the world.’
A new landing stage has been developed so guests will simply be able to step sraight off a RIB or cruiser.
For now, men and machines are still taking to the waves, making sure everything is ready for March next year.
Spitbank Fort is one of the string of forts around Portsmouth built in the Victorian era to protect the city from a 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 panic that he was planning to invade.
But by the time these and the line of forts 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 Fort is the latest addition to the company’s UK-wide range of historical properties.
Other buildings refurbished by the firm as luxury retreats include Ackergill Tower, a 15th century castle on the Caithness shore in the north of Scotland, two miles from Wick.
Ackergill is the setting for the legend of Helen Gunn, who was said to have been abducted from her home in Braemore on her wedding night and kept prisoner in the tower by the infamous Dugald Keith. Rather than succumb to his advances she leapt from the battlements.
Meanwhile Grade I listed Morley Old Hall lies in the Norfolk countryside and dates from the 16th century.
John Sedley, the original owner, was an architect to Henry VII. The house has had several owners including Field Marshal Sir Edmund Ironside, who was Commander in Chief of Home Forces during the Second World War. In the 70s, it was owned by Janet Shand Kydd, the first wife of Peter Shand Kydd, who was Princess Diana’s stepfather.
For information on these and other properties visit amazingretreats.com