If you think about it, the British sure do have a knack at executing razzle-dazzle adaptive reuse projects: converting disused water towers into private homes, phone boxes into solar-powered gadget-charging kiosks and old power stations into world-class modern art museums.
In the Solent, a straight of the English Channel that separates mainland England and the Isle of Wight, you’ll find a quartet of mysterious fortifications that resemble hulking, granite white noise machines emerging from the depths. Erected in the late 1800s to protect bustling Portsmouth Harbor, home to the Royal Navy, from Napoleon III and his army (they never showed), these forbidding Victorian sea forts haven’t been used for defense purposes for decades having all been decommissioned shortly following World War II.
Over the years, attempts, most failed, by private owners have been made to restore and breath new life into the ring-shaped structures. Some are said to be haunted; one has made a cameo appearance in “Dr. Who;” another was featured in a reality show; all, from a distance, give off a creepy, post-apocalyptic vibe.
Now, two of these
steampunk pirate Royal Engineer-erected Solent sea forts, Spitbank Fort (1878) and the larger and appropriately named No Man’s Land Fort (1880), have been extensively retrofitted and reborn as the U.K.’s most exclusive — and not to mention, secluded — party destinations; offshore hedonism hotspots where no one can hear you scream (the walls are over 15-feet thick) … or watch you indulge in a luxury spa treatment, feast on an extravagant four-course meal or get completely tanked and dance the night away with your best mates.
The firm responsible for the forts’ transformations from spooky maritime citadels to posh private islands is AmaZing Venues, a historic preservation-minded hospitality company that’s also transformed neglected Benedictine abbeys, Scottish castles and Welsh chateaux into jaw-dropping (and certainly not cheap to rent) backdrops for weddings, corporate events and large private parties. (AmaZing Venues itself is part of British mattresses titan and serial entrepreneur Mike Clare’s Clarenco Group).
Spitbank Fort was the first Solent sea fort to receive a luxury-drenched makeover from AmaZing Venues in 2012. With five distinctive function rooms, eight bedrooms ("luxuriously fitted to the highest standards") and the capacity to sleep a total of 18 overnight guests, it’s also the most intimate of the forts. AmaZing Venues-recommended activities for guests include rum tasting, cocktail making, exploring the “wine cave” and opening champagne bottles with sabers.
Non-booze related diversions during a visit to Spitbank Fort include hot tubbin,’ sunbathing, fishing, unwinding by the massive fire pit and getting married. You know, the typical stuff you’d do on a historic gun emplacement off the coast of England.
The two-year restoration process at Spitbank Fort was carried out in cooperation with English Heritage.
The careful restoration of historic Spitbank Fort, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, was overseen by Heritage England. (Photo: Charlie Dave/flickr)
With room for 60 revelers, Spitbank Fort's Courtyard is "perfect for serving Pimms, G&T or good Old Navy Rum." (Photo: Charlie Dave/flickr)
And then there’s No Man’s Land Fort (shortened by AmaZing Venues to "No Man's Fort"), a veritable floating pleasure palace for-hire that just recently opened for business.
At 75,000-square-feet, the lighthouse-topped structure — just think of it as a cruise ship that doesn't move — offers more of the same as Spitbank Fort with additional amenities and attractions including 22 luxury suites, a billiards room, indoor swimming pool, mini golf course, fine dining, a cabaret bar, a nightclub and something called a “LaZer Battle Arena.” Previous to its acquisition by AmaZing Venues in 2012, the abandoned fort briefly served as a luxury hotel/event space but was shuttered in 2004 after Legionella bacteria was found in the water system.
Similar to its smaller sister fort, No Man's Land Fort is available for weddings, theme parties, business meetings, corporate events and “exclusive use.” Unlike Spitbank Fort, No Man’s Land Fort, located about a mile-and-a-half off the coast of the Isle of Wright, has not one but two helipads. Still, this doesn’t mean you can escape from awkward corporate team building events any easier.
Next up for AmaZing Venues is the refurbishment of a third Solent sea fort, Horse Sand Fort (1880), into a “private luxury museum.” Although it's hard to make sense of what exactly a "private luxury museum" entails, from the sounds of it the company will leave the fully armor-plated sea fort largely as is (no wine cellars, games rooms and saunas) and cater more to a more historic tourism crowd interested in the unique history of the structure, which, for decades, has sat empty.
Best known for appearing in an episode of "Dr. Who," No Man's Land Fort just reopened as a chichi private island. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).
Horse Sand Fort, one of the largest sea forts in the Solent, is due to open next year as an immersive museum. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
There are no apparent plans to transform the fourth and smallest Solent sea fort, the privately owned St Helens Fort (1880), into a high-end event space-cum-boutique hotel or museum like the others.
Both Spitbank Fort and No Man's Fort are accessible via private boats that leave from AmaZing Venues's new departure lounge at Gunwharf Quays Marina in Portsmouth.
The Solent itself serves as a high-volume area for vessels of all sorts and is also popular with sailors and recreational boaters — in other words, the straight's famed sea forts aren't that far-flung. It's also worth noting that the Solent has an fascinating association with a real-deal secluded island that's been in the news recently: Tristan da Cunha. When a volcano erupted on the South Atlantic island in 1961, the entire population of the super-remote settlement evacuated to the coastal village of Calshot, located on the Solent. When it was decided that it was safe to return to Tristan da Cunha two years later, only a few families decided to stay put in their new adopted home — a majority of the population returned to the incredibly isolated island. Tristan da Cunha's notoriously difficult-to-access harbor, Calshot Harbour, is named in honor of its residents' temporary home during their displacement.
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