Stubbornness at Spitbank
I was up and off the next morning, excited at the prospect of organising a boat trip out to the Palmerston forts, a series of four nineteenth-century structures in The Solent, all of which originally housed lighthouse towers on their roofs. Two of the forts have since been converted into luxury hotels, whose concierge was down at Gunwharf Quays, so I was there as soon as they opened their doors that morning.
Philip Schofield had tweeted about how much he had enjoyed his visit there one afternoon a couple of summers earlier, and the hotel owners had tweeted a picture of him standing next to the lighthouse on Spitbank Fort. I don’t go out of my way to follow in the steps of daytime TV presenters, but on this occasion it felt entirely appropriate to do so.
I explained about my adventure to two tall, blond members of the Solent Forts Hotel Group crew, and asked if I could join the next boat taking guests out to one or other of the hotels. After a couple of hushed phone calls out of earshot, one of them informed me that the only way I could visit Spitbank Fort would be to book a Sunday lunch package at £160 per person. Alternatively, I could opt for a two-night, two-dinner ‘trio of forts experience’, but she declined to mention the price for this, having seen my face drop at the cost of lunch. My disappointment was written all over my face, but they clearly didn’t care. There were to be no exceptions. Besides, the two crew members had already moved on to serving a more profitable customer, and they clearly wanted me out of their way.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 8, 2015
I settled for a long-lens photo of Spitbank Fort from Southsea, and later took photos of Horse Sand Fort and No Man’s Land from the Isle of Wight ferry, and finally St Helens Fort from Nodes Point on the Isle of Wight.
No Man’s Fort
No Man’s Fort is one of four remaining granite and iron forts in the Solent, built between 1867 and 1880 when Prime Minister Lord Henry Palmerston commissioned them to defend the Royal Navy fleet in Portsmouth harbour against a Napoleonic invasion. However, they were later referred to as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ because the French invasion had never materialised.
It is about a mile north east of Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, and once housed more than seventy soldiers. The fort played a part in the defence of the English Channel in both world wars, but was declared surplus to requirements in 1962 and disposed of by the Ministry of Defence in 1982. It has changed ownership several times since, and is now a luxury hotel.
There is a lighthouse on top, with an octagonal tower, currently painted white with narrow red bands. The light itself was deactivated in 2010, and the lantern now serves as an observation room for hotel guests. Personally, I will always associate the fort with a 1972 episode of Doctor Who, when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor attempted to negotiate a peaceful co-existence with the Sea Devils, a race of amphibious prehistoric reptiles.
Spitbank Fort is another of the original Palmerston forts, built between 1861 and 1878. It lies close to the entrance of Portsmouth harbour, about half a mile south of Southsea. The lighthouse on the fort was built in 1866 and has a twenty-four-foot-tall, red and white striped circular tower with red lantern. It shows a flashing red light, visible for seven miles. Like No Man’s Fort, Spitbank Fort is now a luxury hotel.
Horse Sand Fort and St Helens Fort
Horse Sand Fort was built between 1865 and 1880, around two miles south-east of Spitbank Fort. Although the top section houses an octagonal lighthouse tower, its light has been replaced by a green light mounted on a short post. Horse Sand Fort has been purchased from the Admiralty by the same hotel company, and is in the early stages of being renovated and restored.
St Helens Fort is the most southerly of the four forts, about a mile out opposite Bembridge harbour on the Isle of Wight. Like the other forts, work began in 1867 and completed in 1880. Although the roof originally supported a lighthouse, the current light is now mounted onto a metal latticed tower.
With no realistic means of visiting the forts, I took the fast ferry to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Reaching Ryde at around lunchtime, my plan was to circle the island clockwise, aiming for Shanklin, where I was due to stay. I had only been to the Isle of Wight once before, by car, and I hadn’t appreciated how remarkably hilly it is. Compared with the relatively flat terrain around Southsea the previous day, this was something altogether more challenging. The other cyclists I encountered all wore skin-tight Lycra, riding bikes with tyres a third of the width of my own. They looked at me, my clothes and my bike with some disdain, and perhaps a little pity.
I stopped at Nodes Point Holiday Park and took a decent photograph of St Helens Fort. I circled Bembridge and climbed a steep hill to Culver Down. I had learned that this was the best point on the island to see the Nab Tower, a strange-looking light built on a circular concrete and steel fortress at the western entrance to the Solent. On the top of Culver Down I had an excellent view out into the Solent, but I couldn’t immediately make out the distinctive shape of the red Nab Tower light. I had passed a small teashop a little earlier, so I retreated to its shelter to see if I could pinpoint its precise location on a map. Fortified by a strong mug of tea and a slice of coffee and walnut cake I found my answer. The lighthouse tower I had been picturing in my mind had been removed two years earlier and replaced with a simple fixed light on a pole.
I retraced my tracks, found the tower in an instant and took a handful of long-lens photos.
The Nab Tower was a large concrete and latticed steel fortress built during the First World War at the western entrance to the Solent. It was intended to be one of eight such fortified towers, with nets and cables strung between them to form an anti-submarine barrage across the Solent.
Only the Nab Tower was completed and after the war it was identified as an ideal location for a lighthouse to replace the lightship that had been based nearby since 1812.
A small steel tower and lantern, painted red, was added in 1920 and it was staffed by three keepers, relieved monthly, from then until the station was automated in 1983. It was converted from oil to solar operation in 1995.
Due to extensive corrosion of the upper levels of the tower’s steel, a major refurbishment programme was started in 2013. By the time I was on the Isle of Wight, the tower’s height had been reduced, the external steel and cladding dispensed with, and the red lighthouse tower was removed and replaced with a fixed pole light with a range of twelve miles.
From Culver Down I retreated back the way I had come to the main road, then took a smaller road to Yaverland on the coast. From there I was able to hug the coast all the way to Shanklin along the Red Squirrel Trail, an exhilarating stretch of track right at the sea’s edge. Large waves cascaded onto the track every few moments, so I found myself slowing down and speeding up to avoid getting drenched. If this had been one of my son Tom’s computer games, then I reckon I would only have lost a couple of lives by the end.
Arriving at Shanklin along the sea front, I had been warned to expect a steep climb up to the town centre by Chris, the owner of the guest house where I was due to stay. But after the joy of the previous few miles, I didn’t care, and I was dismounting in front of my accommodation only a few minutes later.
Chris and Joan are wonderful hosts, running a brilliant guest house in Shanklin, Hayes Barton, with generous, comfortable rooms and excellent food. Chris is also a lighthouse enthusiast and volunteers as a tour guide at nearby St Catherine’s lighthouse. By contrast with the mean-spirited Solent Forts Hotel Group, Chris and Joan put me up for two nights, gave me breakfast and dinner on both nights, and refused to charge me a penny. I will always be grateful, and I recommend Hayes Barton without hesitation if you are planning a trip to the Isle of Wight.