1 JULY 2019
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This being the monthly cruise edition, it seemed a good idea to bring readers’ attention to the Solent Forts. Ships sailing in and out of Portsmouth and Southampton can see them all, and that also applies to Isle of Wight ferry users.
There are four. Spitbank and No Man's Land are very active as hotels and function and conference centres. Horse Sand Fort is owned by the same company and essentially derelict and inhabited as a bird sanctuary, although there are plans to develop it as a museum. Finally St Helens, essentially abandoned, the beach occasionally accessible with a low tide from Bembridge. It is up for sale.
Now officially listed as ancient monuments, the forts were commissioned, at great expense, by Lord Palmerston, prime minister from 1859 to 1865, who feared a French naval invasion led by Napoleon III. A great engineering feat, in what can be best described as sometimes inhospitable waters, they became known as Palmerston’s follies, at a cost to the taxpayer of nearly half a million pounds, huge money back in those days. What did Queen Victoria make of it as she sailed past to Osborne House? Prince Albert died in1861.
The forts did briefly come into their own during WWII, when anti-submarine defences were strung between them to protect Portsmouth harbour from enemy attack. But although they once sported 35-ton cannons, no shot has ever been fired from the forts in wartime.
Life on the man-made islands was grim and it is said that those serving their country were deliberately chosen based on their inability to swim, to avoid any attempts at escaping their post.
After years of neglect, the forts were finally decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in 1956.
Under the ownership, guidance and enthusiasm of Mike Clare, once the proprietor of the Dreams retail bed company, Solent Forts began work in 2009 on transforming the fortresses into luxury getaway places, firstly Spitbank, which opened in 2012, and later No Man's Land.
Both are under the regulatory authority of Portsmouth City Council, and are certainly not Duty Free.
BTN has visited both in recent weeks, and while they may appear to be similar they are entirely different in character and feel.
Access to both is from Gunmakers Wharf in Portsmouth Harbour, with its very up-to-date shopping complex, Spinnaker Tower and nearby Historic Dockyard. Parking is no problem and the railway station is adjacent. Transfer can be by Rib, OK for the short ride to Spitbank but we are not so sure for No Man's Land, further out into the Solent. Private charters can be booked for parties of any size, and the Solent ferries offer a more relaxing method of transfer.
Our SPITBANK visit was overnight, an introduction to a new select package.
Jonathon Fisher, business development manager at Solent Forts, explained: “We have made the move into exclusive-use only to target customers looking for a one-of-a-kind venue for a special celebration.
"Whether that be for a wedding, a stag or hen do or a special birthday celebration, Spitbank Fort offers a unique accommodation option for a perfect 24hr or 48hr getaway with friends to celebrate in style. Likewise, it’s a fun alternative for a corporate away day for bonding with colleagues and relaxing in a beautiful setting away from everyday stresses.”
Stepping into The Courtyard, we were soon reminded of just how unique this building is. Wonderful Victorian ironwork, red brick walls and arched doors are a charming reminder of the skills of those who created Spitbank Fort more than 150 years ago.
Champagne and a light lunch were followed by a guided tour starting at The Crow’s Nest, a stunning contemporary room located high up in the fort offering sensational sea views across the Solent and space for up to 60 daytime visitors.
The Officers' Mess, as the name suggests, is the principal dining room. Vaulted ceilings help to create an amazing ambience in this historic space.
You have to be fairly nimble to get around the lower reaches of Spitbank. The Gunpowder Room for example is deep down, but higher up the Victory Bar is very accessible (as is the accommodation). The bar, with its comfy club chairs and plush sofas, is also a spot for live band entertainment. There is a wine bar, library and table games room.
Finally we must mention the Roof Terrace with hot pool, sauna, fire pit and sun deck.
The overnight stay package includes drinks reception, a three-course dinner, breakfast and a full guided tour. Children are not allowed, unless for an exclusive private booking.
NO MAN'S FORT is totally different, although the concept is the same with day visits and overnight packages on offer. With both, the Sunday day out with roast beef lunch is particularly popular. Up to 200 can be accommodated for functions. There are 23 spacious en-suite bedroom suites, all offering sea views.
For the most unique stay, the choice has to be The Lighthouse, a self-contained two-bedroom suite with outstanding views across the Solent. This area can also be used for a private function for up to 20. The helipad is just below. There is no such thing as standard accommodation. Some come with standalone tubs, others feature whirlpool baths, but all with TV and wi-fi.
The Central Atrium is covered. We are in the UK, don’t forget. It is the main meeting point and of course there is a bar, complete with stage, extensive seating and even a grand piano. The pub of course is The Lord Nelson and there is a spa with a variety of treatments available
With the much larger No Man’s Fort, the main dining area is the Mess Room, but there is a Ward Room if you require something smaller. Everything is on a grander scale, with the Cabaret Club, somewhere deep in the caverns of the structure, an entertainment (or presentation) venue for up to 200. In total, there are five bars and many side rooms, ideal for private discussions and briefings.
Solent Forts can cater for dietary requirements and allergens. If you want your own chef or cuisine for something exclusive or really special, that can be accommodated too.
Spitbank: Prices start from £349 per person fully-inclusive of food and drinks packages that can be tailored to suit guests’ requirements.
No Man’s Fort: Prices start from £150 per person on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis.
Sunday lunch at a very unusual venue is £99.
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