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Spitbank Fort (Portsmouth)
Member Name: caro
Spitbank Fort (Portsmouth)
Date: 09/09/00, updated on 17/06/01 (446 review reads)
Advantages: Very interesting, fun
Disadvantages: Limited visiting times
Spitbank Fort is one of four Victorian sea forts in Portsmouth harbour, known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’. They were originally planned to protect Portsmouth naval base against French invasion. However, by the time of their completion it was apparent that France was not only not going to attack, but had never planned to do so. Hence the 'folly' nickname.
Work had begun in 1861 but the plans changed several times; work was also delayed while the government debated the relative merits of such forts as compared to armoured ships. As a result, construction the fort was not finished until 1878.
Of the four sea forts, Spitbank is the only one restored and open to public. It remained in use as part of the coastal defences until 1956 and was declared surplus to requirements by the MoD in 1962. They sold in 1982 and the new owners restored and opened it. Of the other forts, one is currently unused, while another has been converted into a luxury home (now available as a luxury venue for events, and currently for sale at a bargain ten million pounds).
The fort is a round building, surrounded entirely by sea so that the only way to visit is by boat (the trip takes about 15 minutes each way or can be part of a three-hour tour). Built of stone, concrete and granite, the walls are 15ft thick and were armoured with teak and iron to resist heavy fire. This construction makes the fort a distinctive and imposing sight both viewed from shore, and at close quarters when you land by boat.
Although initially, I wasn't too keen to visit the fort as I'm not really interested in military history, I'm very glad I did as I enjoyed myself immensely. On arrival, you can take a guided tour: this is well worth doing as the fort is a bit of a maze, so the overview is helpful, and you also learn a lot of fascinating history. Most interesting of all, you get a strong sense of what life was like in the fort during the
nineteenth century - although it's hard to appreciate how claustrophobic and overcrowded it must have been when it had its full wartime complement of over 150 people.
After the tour, you are free to explore at will. There are over 50 rooms arranged around a central courtyard/staircase, and all of these seem to be open to the public. As well as those which held guns (there are several replica guns now in place), you can see the kitchen, forge, and well. Dug (or do I mean drilled?) in 1877, the well is just over 400 feet deep and can provide large quantities of very pure, fresh water.
If you're feeling brave, you can explore the 400-foot passage which circles the fort. It's barely wider than your shoulders, and lit only by a candle you carry with you. (It's also wet and smelly...). Climbing the steps to the top of the fort is also worthwhile (and definitely less smelly!), with great views across Portsmouth harbour.
Once you’ve finished exploring, there is a bar/tea shop, so you can pause from exploring the fort to have refreshments. Despite the monopoly, prices are very reasonable.
This was a brilliant way of spending an afternoon, and I enjoyed it very much. Reasonable weather probably helped: although most of the time was spent indoors, it was fun to climb onto the top and to sit in the courtyard for drinks. Calm sea also ensured an enjoyable crossing! All in all, a boat trip to Spitbank Fort provides a fascinating insight into an unusual landmark.
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