About a mile and a half from the coast of the Isle of Wight, off the south of England, a fort sits out in the water. Built in the second half of the 19th century, the building was once home to in excess of 70 military personnel. They had been sent there to help guard the city of Portsmouth.
Driven by fear of attack from Britain’s old enemy, France, the U.K. government commissioned four massive fortresses. They proved to be the biggest and most costly defenses constructed during peacetime. Yet fate decreed that they’d never see any military action. At best, you might regard them as an effective deterrent to invasion.
Now the stronghold known as No Man’s Land Fort has a use far removed from maritime defense. Where once it must have been a hated posting for soldiers, uncomfortable and cramped, now it offers a very different experience. But how did this transition come about, and what’s it like now?
The Solent is the stretch of water that lies between the Isle of Wight and the English mainland, on the south coast of Great Britain. Roughly 20 miles in length, its varies from slightly more than a couple of miles wide, up to about double that. Much-used by ships, its tidal peculiarities caused by the shelter of the island have led to the nearby ports being hugely successful.
One of those ports is Portsmouth, famed as the home base of the British navy. To this day, renowned ships of days gone by are berthed there, including Admiral Nelson’s Victory and Henry VIII’s ill-fated Mary Rose. Home to the world’s earliest dry dock, the city once led the world in industrialization
Given the importance of the harbour and docks at Portsmouth and the ongoing enmity between the U.K. and France, perhaps it’s no surprise that a Royal Commission in 1859 urged new fortifications in the area. Fearing an invasion from the French Empire, which was growing ever stronger, the “Palmerston Forts” answered the commission’s demands for greater security.
Concerns about France had arisen because Louis Napoleon had made himself emperor in 1852. He called himself Napoleon III. His very name put chills into the Brits; he was nephew to the famed conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte and shared his name. And although he claimed that he wasn’t interested in wars of expansion, he aimed to increase the influence of France.
As a consequence of the growing concerns, Lord Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston, the prime minister of the U.K., set into motion the building of five forts in the east of The Solent. The four fortifications that were eventually finished would later bear his name, although unkindly they became known as “Palmerston’s Follies.”
Despite the seemingly pressing need for the forts, they weren’t constructed in a hurry. Building began in 1861, but after some messy politics it didn’t really get under way until the middle of the 1860s. The forts would not be completed until 1880, some years after the demise of Napoleon III and with him the French Empire.
Nevertheless, the forts – particularly No Man’s Land Fort, as the biggest is known – still stand in the Solent. And they’re redoubtable structures – black and ironclad. The walls show off the bricks that make them, studded with massive hooks that helped sailors position cannons. In some parts, the heavily reinforced walls are up to five feet in thickness.
Building the forts was quite a feat, as Nicholas Hall, who operates as keeper of artillery at the Royal Armories site at Fort Nelson in Fareham, U.K., told the BBC in 2009. He said, “The Victorians seem to have been supremely self-confident when it came to large engineering projects.”
Hall continued, “They had to use divers to place the first stones, which weighed several tons and were beautifully cut and fitted. The forts are amazing constructions.” And this kind of engineering did not come cheap. Indeed, No Man’s Land set back the government in excess of $550,000 – a lot of money in Victorian times.
Originally, the fortress had space for as many as 80 servicemen and nearly 50 cannons. Built as a circle, its diameter was nearly 200 feet. The depressed middle offered both shelter and access to fresh water. Ingeniously, the fort had its own well sunk into the bed of the sea.
However, the fortress did not offer much in the way of creature comforts. Hall told the BBC, “It must have been very unpleasant. There isn’t actually much room. It was cold, damp and miserable, and they had to go on a gantry platform to go to the toilet. It must have been grim.”
Nevertheless, the fort and the others in The Solent did turn out to have some utility, despite the “Palmerston Follies” moniker. As Hall explained, they weren’t as worthless as the nickname implies. He said, “In a sense the term applies less to the sea forts as they do stand in the approaches and could, and were, used as defenses for much longer than the land forts.”
The forts’ chance came in the First World War, although by then the Isle of Wight had proved a more attractive site for heavy guns. Nevertheless, the forts carried 4.7-inch and 6-inch guns, which permitted targeting of less heavy groupings of ships that might try to sneak into range of Portsmouth.
Two of the fortresses, No Man’s Land and Horse Sand, also functioned as signaling centers for the navy. But with strong defenses in the English Channel, the feared attack never came, and troops stationed in the fortifications had little to do. Once the war was over, the military left them unmanned until hostilities resumed 20 years later.
When the Second World War began, the forts once more came into use. They formed part of the ring of defenses that protected the docks at Portsmouth. The sea fortifications weren’t a much-loved posting, though, and the servicemen sent there were chosen because they couldn’t swim, making desertion impossible.
Living on the fortresses proved unpleasant. They were dingy, wet places, with none of the comforts that might be on offer in nearby Portsmouth. Footage shot during the war shows soldiers and sailors trying to make the best of harsh conditions – battling boredom with games of cards and table tennis.
In the meantime, the big danger that threatened that city came in the form of submarines, and a boom ran between the forts to keep potential underwater raiders out. Invaders did approach the forts, but they came from the air, a type of assault for which the fortifications were not best prepared.
The fortresses ended up suffering some damage from air raids. Not that they were totally defenseless: the wartime film shows an attack on the forts, met smartly by servicemen manning anti-aircraft weaponry. Ultimately, the fortifications ended the war in fairly good shape and were still in use for some years afterwards.
Nevertheless, by 1956 guns no longer defended the coast, and the military abandoned the forts. They went on sale in the early 1960s, but no one spent a dime on them for two decades. Finally, Spitbank found itself in the hands of a couple who made a museum out of it.
As for No Man’s Land Fort, by the 1990s it had changed into a hotel, lavish with luxury touches. However, it didn’t really make the splash its owner hoped for, and it passed into the hands of Harmesh Pooni, a developer, in 2004. He had some ambitious plans for the fort, but misfortune struck.
It turned out that the hotel’s swimming pool was a breeding ground for bacteria. Legionnaires’ disease broke out, bringing an end to Pooni’s hopes. By 2007 he was looking to sell it at a loss, but even though there was some chatter about pop star Simon Le Bon taking it on, no sale was completed.
Finally, a buyer turned up for three of the forts. He was Mike Clare, a businessman who had founded and then sold a U.K.chain of bed stores called Dreams. Clare had ambitious plans for the forts, telling realtor Knight Frank in 2018, “We carried out a money-no-object restoration of two of the three forts.”
Work started in 2009, and by 2012 Spitbank Fort had become a luxury hotel. In that year, Clare snapped up Horse Sand and No Man’s Land. The former he turned into a museum, allowing people to learn about the forts’ history from the 19th century to today. The latter became an even bigger and perhaps even more luxurious place to stay than Spitbank.
Although the fort has been updated, it does still have many of the original features, even if it hasn’t been kept as untouched as Horse Sand Fort. The bottom of the fortress is still in its original condition, with a depot for supplies and an emergency way out into the sea. There is even a batch of books that look like they date back to the days when the military occupied the site.
It’s undeniable that from the outside the fort is imposing, all concrete and iron painted in black. The austere looks of the exterior hide a much more welcoming inside, however. Blue and cream are the dominant colors, and a nautical theme informs the interior design. Only the metal support struts remain a visual clue to the structure’s military provenance.
Since it’s out in The Solent, you need a way to cross the waves; a boat is the most common means of arrival to the hotel, although the fort also boasts a helipad. And once a visitor does reach No Man’s Land Fort, they’re pretty much stuck there. But it’s not a hardship. There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy a drink, including the atrium, which has a glass ceiling.
Dotted around the atrium are the hotel’s 22 bedrooms, which are massive. On the walls in between them, the visitor’s eye is caught by notable phrases. It turns out that these are quotes from wartime legend Winston Churchill. The bedrooms themselves prove to be as sumptuous as they are large.
That’s largely because what were once holes in the wall for guns to thrust through now serve as the windows of the rooms. Not only do they allow masses of light into the chambers, but they give amazing views of The Solent. Some guests even sleep with the curtains open so that they can enjoy the first light of the day on waking.
The hotel has some charming touches elsewhere too. One part has the feel of beach huts, while at the end of some cobbles you can find a restaurant that ironically hints at the original purpose of the forts. Yes, the French may not have ever sent soldiers to The Solent, but at least their cuisine has invaded No Man’s Land Fort.
Memories of the fort’s military past still pervade it, despite the luxury update. Some of the decorations turn out to be relics found while the fort was being renovated. And a replica cannon sits as a mute reminder of the labors of the soldiers who once kept weapons trained on the seaway outside.
However, if the visitor climbs to the top of the fort, they can see that it has all the trappings of modern life. The roof offers hot tubs and a fire pit for night-time grilling. As previously mentioned, should the visitor have their own helicopter, there’s a landing place for that too. There’s even a horn you can sound as a friendly greeting to passing ships.
A lighthouse tops the fort, containing a couple of suites on its ground floor and allowing guests to look out from higher up. From its highest point, viewers can see in all directions. To the south and west you can see the Isle of Wight, to the north Portsmouth’s harbor. It’s even possible to make out the distant New Forest.
Not everyone comes to the fort to stay the night. Some turn up just to eat and take in a show, leaving at midnight. The fort offers cabaret some of the time. Overnight guests check out at 10:00 a.m. the following morning, when a boat returns them to dry land.
Whether guests are overnighters or just around for a shorter visit, dinner proves memorable. Despite the location out in the strait, chefs rustle up three-course meals. They feature fish caught locally as well as meat and vegetables brought out from the mainland. Once dinner is done, guests can gather around the fire pit to enjoy a cup of cocoa and toast marshmallows.
Having slept off dinner, early risers can enjoy some golfing practice, as the fort has its own driving range. The more active can take part in laser gun games, whereas those in search of something more leisurely might prefer a fishing trip. Above all, guests can simply relax in the evocative surroundings, striking enough to have featured in a 1972 episode of cult British sci-fi serial Doctor Who.
No Man’s Land Fort isn’t alone as a luxury venue for a stay. Spitbank Fort serves as the owner’s “exclusive use” space. Corporate visitors, bachelors and bachelorettes, birthday boys and girls and other revelers head there for a day or two of fun out in The Solent. It provides a further eight bedrooms where visitors can stay in luxury.
The forts in The Solent have come a long way from their beginnings as defenses against an invasion that never happened. And after spending millions on making them into successful businesses, Clare decided to step away. The forts went up for sale in 2018 for just over $13 million, perhaps a small price to pay for such unique properties.