Joanna Booth stays on a converted fort in the Solent and takes a look at other unusual UK properties
There’s rarely a decent excuse for using the phrase ‘yo-ho-ho’, but I have finally found one.
Despite the fact the sun isn’t nearly over the yardarm I have a tot of rum in my hand, and I’m surrounded by oil paintings of ships with three sheets to the wind. Which is what I’ll be soon, unless I lay off the rum.
I’m in a dedicated departure lounge at the Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport, about to board a luxury launch and buzz out over the Solent to my home for the night – Spitbank Fort.
I’ve slept in some strange places in my time: a Bedouin tent made of goat-hair in the Moroccan Sahara, a wooden hut on stilts on a cliff in Mexico and a cave hotel in Cappadocia, Turkey. But in a 19th century fort in the middle of the sea? This is a first.
A PIECE OF HISTORY
The round mass of Spitbank Fort appears on the horizon like some sort of alien spacecraft – a floating saucer, if you will.
Except it’s not floating, it’s built into the ocean floor – a man-made island of concrete, iron and granite, 50 metres wide, rising out of the swells of the Solent.
If it all sounds – and from the outside appears – rather brutal and military, don’t be fooled. Though built in 1870 as a sea defence – you’ll spot some rather impressive cannons with hefty 850lb shells – it’s now a luxurious crashpad, with a rooftop hot tub and Laurent Perrier champagne bar.
But travellers of taste needn’t worry. This piece of British history hasn’t been turned into a bling-tastic gin palace.
Sensitively converted by owners Clarenco with the support and expertise of English Heritage, it walks the perfect line between preserving the past and making profit in the present. Working as a boutique hotel or available for private hire, and sleeping a maximum of 18, it’s the perfect 24-hour escape pod, just minutes – but a world away – from Portsmouth.
PAMPERING IN THE PRESENT
The three-storey fort ages from the top down. The roof is all sleek modernity, from the circular hot tub (for daytime sitting, while drinking champagne), to the sunken fire pit (for night-time sitting, while wrapped in blankets, drinking rum).
The glass-walled crow’s nest, which protrudes above the rest of the fort and is crowned by a jaunty red and white lighthouse, doubles as an informal restaurant and a lounge bar. After extensive research we discovered it to be an excellent place to sit day or night, watching the weather roll in off the sea and drinking whatever you darn well please.
The most minutely calibrated balance of present and past is achieved on the middle floor. It’s here you’ll find the restaurant (in the former officers’ mess), champagne bar and lounge, and the eight huge, wedge-shaped guestrooms, all named after military commanders.
I’m in Vice Admiral Drake, where the heritage elements – porthole, antique globe, chairs that could have come straight from an Austen novel – are set off by the contemporary comforts of a sleek slate bathroom and marshmallow-soft bed. Which is only as it should be – the fort’s owner used to be a major shareholder of Dreams.
Across the curving corridor from each room is a ‘snug’, a sort of brick cave with leather armchairs, low lighting and a selection of erudite books – perfect for an afternoon snooze. You can also spot numbers on the walls: these were for the 200 soldiers stationed here, and signify the narrow strip of space for each hammock.
TIME TO PLAY
Down another flight of stairs is the Recreation Rooms, a museum-come-adult playpen. In among marine and military memorabilia there’s a wine cellar, a dartboard, bar billiards, a DVD room, a pinball machine and a poker table with leather chairs. If James Bond were to have a stag do, he would have it here. If he’s not using it, it would be perfect for clients celebrating a special birthday.
On this level there’s also the original – tiny – kitchen, and the entrance to the Bolt Hole. This narrow, pitch-black corridor runs between the inner and outer skin of the fort’s perimeter wall. Hard-hat on head, I walked the chilly stone passageway alone – the others were too busy upstairs eating cake – but this thrilling and somewhat spooky experience was an amazing reminder of the structure’s original use and proximity to the sea.
On my return to the surface, there was plenty of cake left, but the already straining seams of my clothes would probably have advised I didn’t eat it. The food at Spitbank is exquisite – the standard you would expect from a luxury hotel – and with service to match.
From general manager Mark’s short but fascinating tours explaining the fort’s history to deputy GM James’s almost psychic ability to know when champagne glasses need replenishing – no one wants to make a chilly dash from the hot tub – everything is perfectly judged.
This is a real retreat from the world. If the sun shines, guests can bask on the roof or fish for mackerel over the side of the fort. When a storm rolls in, there’s little cosier than hunkering down in one of the snugs or lounges. Whether clients want to hire the entire place to celebrate with friends, or nip over with a loved one for a secluded overnight stay, the words on the free Spitbank luggage tags will ring true: “I’ve been Fortified.”
Three more unusual venues
Star Castle, Isles of Scilly (pictured above)
This 16th-century castle is a short walk from the centre of St Mary’s. There are rooms in the castle and the grounds, a rafter-high open fire in the restaurant, and the bar is in the former dungeon. Prestige Holidays offers four nights’ half-board in a garden room, including transfers, from £680 by boat from Penzance, and from £748 by air from Land’s End during April and May.
Berwyn Stationmasters House, North Wales
Budding train drivers will love this Grade II listed, three-bedroom property, which sits on the platform of the Llangollen Heritage Steam Railway. Unlimited travel on the trains which wind through the Dee Valley is included. Hoseasons offers four nights in October from £339.
0844 847 1144
Chewton Glen Treehouse Suites, Hampshire
Want the luxury of a Relais & Chateaux hotel but with a touch of Robin Hood? Chewton Glen’s treehouse suites (below)are built on stilts into the leafy canopy of the New Forest, and accessed by gangplank. There’s a hot-tub on the deck, and a woodburning stove by the sofa, plus hampers with everything from breakfast to afternoon tea. A treehouse studio suite starts from £700 from Sunday to Thursday.
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