As the Champagne corks pop and the fizz flows, the scenes inside Solent Forts at one of the fabulous parties that are thrown at the luxury hotels are a world away from what Prime Minister Lord Palmerston envisioned when he first set out his plans to protect our island nation in 1859.
Back then, the perceived threat of invasion from Napoleon III was growing by the day and only fortified iron military bases in the sea would do to protect us. Or so Palmerston thought.
But it took 20 years to build Spitbank, No Man’s and Horse Sand Fort in the Solent, and an incredible feat of engineering, made possible by the advances made in the Industrial Revolution.
And since their completion, although soldiers have been billeted there, a shot from one of the many huge cannons on the fort has never been fired in anger.
Spitbank and No Man’s are now owned by multimillionaire Mike Clare – who made his fortune as a furniture retailer – and have been transformed into luxury hotels, completely unique in Europe. Horse Sand Fort has been preserved as a museum.
People travel from around the world stay on them and they are a dream destination for those closer by to celebrate birthdays and weddings.
Mike explains why he invested so much money in what became known as Palmerston’s Follies.
‘Just after I sold Dreams in 2008, interest rates dropped from 5.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent and in the face of complete uncertainty in the financial world, I decided to invest my wealth in property.
‘I happen to love old, iconic and unusual buildings so decided to turn a passion and hobby into a business. When I saw Spitbank Fort up for auction in 2009, it was too much to resist.
‘I was at the time of my life where I was ready for a new challenge and the forts offered just that. I loved the idea of saving a classified ancient monument and sympathetically restoring it.
‘The fact the forts were so James Bond-y certainly appealed to me too. It’s such an exciting place and I always have so many big ideas for the forts, there is so much potential there and I look forward to putting some of these ideas into action.’
And Mike’s not alone in his love for the forts. By his own admission, Kyle Allen lives and breathes them. He has been manager of Spitbank for more than five years and can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather work.
He says: ‘In terms of running it as a hotel but also looking after it as a scheduled ancient monument – the equivalent of Stonehenge in the sea – it is extraordinary.
‘There’s the hospitality side and the historic side, the logistical side and the nautical side. ‘But it’s very good fun and not many people can say they do all that at once.’
And he never tires of telling people how the remarkable story of how the forts were constructed.
He says: ‘At the time (the forts were commissioned) there were hulks, floating prisons in the harbour. Labour for the forts was sourced from the hulks.
‘It was quite a feat to build them. And a great challenge working at sea, to say the least. It would have been very dangerous.
‘The Solent is shallow, only 6ft-8ft deep at low spring tide.
‘They are actually built on a sandbank, and the rubble would be shipped over from Stokes Bay at low spring tide.’
Each fort has its own artesian well. The source of the water, ironically – considering they were built to keep out Napoleon III – is in Alsace, France.
‘At the they were commissioned, Napoleon III had started to sabre rattle’, says Kyle. ‘He was a very successful head of state and brought France into the Industrial Revolution. He was modernising France and suddenly the government thought, “Oh gosh, another Napoleonic War.”
‘There were 45-50 forts built, Portsmouth and Gosport are surrounded by them. But it’s only here, Plymouth and Ireland that have sea forts.’
‘During construction life would have been very, very difficult’ says Kyle. ‘Even today, in the 21st we struggle to get boats out here. Imagine having to build it 150 years ago.’
Because technically the forts are on land – on Spitbank sandbank – they were the responsibility of the army.
Kyle adds: ‘When it became clear they were never going to be used for their intended purpose there was a shirking of responsibility for Palmerston’s Follies.’
Spitbank Fort would have had 156 soldiers while up to 400 would have been billeted in cramped claustrophobic conditions on No Man’s Fort, ‘But, to put that into perspective’ says Kyle, ‘they were built before the era of cars so it wouldn't have been any different out here in the Solent or Romney Marsh, But there was one bonus here – they could do a bit of fishing.’
The soldiers were allowed half a pint of run each day to keep their spirits up.
During the Second World War the RAF constructed anti-aircraft platforms on them and anti submarine defences were strung between them to protect Portsmouth Harbour.
Soldiers slept in hammocks and cots in the iron-clad rooms – where the walls are up to six feet thick – and are now elegantly decorated tea rooms. The cannons, which weigh up to 40 tons, took a team of 24 men to load.
The forts were eventually decommissioned in the 1950s and after numerous owners they were snapped up by adventurous Mike Clare.
Now the dank, dark rooms are luxury suites and guests sip rum in Nelson’s Bar, following a relaxing massage in the spa, rather than a day spent swabbing the decks.