Buy three pieces of his­tory in the So­lent

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Heritage -

Eight­ies and sold it for more than £200mil­lion in 2008.

His in­ter­est in Bri­tish his­tory has since led him to ac­quire a port­fo­lio of odd pe­riod prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing a Bene­dic­tine abbey in Worces­ter­shire and a cas­tle in the far north of Scot­land. But the three So­lent Forts – the first of which he bought at auc­tion 10 years ago – have been a true labour of love. “They have been like a very ex­pen­sive mis­tress,” he ad­mits. “I am not sure my bank man­ager would have rec­om­mended them as a com­mer­cial in­vest­ment.”

Sound in­vest­ment or not, Clare has clearly had a lot of fun with the forts, con­vert­ing them into ho­tels, host­ing Sec­ond World War-themed par­ties and, on one oc­ca­sion, hold­ing an event at which guests hit golf balls made of fish food into the sea. “The har­bour mas­ter was not amused. He thought the fish food was a dan­ger to ship­ping.”

An in­vet­er­ate prankster who does not take him­self too se­ri­ously, Clare has even en­ter­tained fan­tasies of declar­ing in­de­pen­dence from the UK, is­su­ing So­lent Forts pass­ports and en­ter­ing a singer for the Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test. “Some­thing about liv­ing on a tiny is­land and re­pelling all board­ers ap­peals to the ro­man­tic in me.”

You can see his fin­ger­prints all over the forts. There are Union Flag cush­ions, plac­ards read­ing “Swab the decks!”, and old re­cruit­ment posters for the Navy. In one of the forts, guests are sum­moned to din­ner by an old foghorn that must surely be audible in France. If the ef­fect bor­ders on the kitsch at times, you also find your­self imag­i­na­tively trans­ported back to the era in which the forts were built.

In the smaller Spit­bank Fort, which is for sale at £5mil­lion, orig­i­nal fea­tures sit cheek-by-jowl with 21st-cen­tury mod cons. You can see the orig­i­nal wash basins in the of­fi­cers’ mess lurk­ing be­neath the shiny glass sur­face of the cel­lar, and much of the old red brick­work has been re­tained, giv­ing the com­mu­nal rooms a very dif­fer­ent am­bi­ence to a mod­ern yacht.

In the larger No Man’s Fort, which is akin to a four-star ho­tel at sea, there is a pub called The Lord Nel­son (what else?), a cabaret bar, a spa, a large glass atrium, rooftop hot tubs, and even a play area in which guests with laser guns can hunt each through the bow­els of the Vic­to­rian fort. Many of the rooms are named after Bri­tish ad­mi­rals and, in one of them, you can even try catch­ing fish from the port­hole with a rod.

Not sur­pris­ingly, most of the guests at the So­lent Forts to date have been Bri­tish. The forts may not be as­so­ci­ated with a fa­mous mo­ment in our his­tory, but as you sit on the sun deck, with Portsmouth to your right and the Isle of Wight on your left, you do feel a tic of pa­tri­otic pride. The head­land from which Nel­son sailed for Trafal­gar on HMS Vic­tory is clearly vis­i­ble and, if you hear the roar of fighter jets over­head, you will know that an ex­er­cise is tak­ing place on the new air­craft car­rier HMS Queen El­iz­a­beth, which is moored at Portsmouth.

From a com­mer­cial per­spec­tive, ho­tels that can only be ap­proached by boat are ob­vi­ously less than ideal, and the forts lose a small amount of busi­ness ev­ery year be­cause of in­clement weather con­di­tions. There are also no lifts in­stalled in any of them, mak­ing them un­suit­able for guests with mo­bil­ity is­sues. But there are cer­tainly fea­tures of the forts – in par­tic­u­lar, their splen­did iso­la­tion – which should ap­peal to an en­ter­pris­ing hotelier.

No Man’s Fort, with its 23 pri­vate suites, would make a per­fect venue for cor­po­rate events in an un­usual set­ting and out of view of pry­ing eyes. “You could hold high-level po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions here and tell the par­tic­i­pants they were not leav­ing the fort un­til they had reached agree­ment,” jokes Clare. It is on the mar­ket for £5mil­lion, while Horse Sand Fort, which is in the process of be­ing turned into a mu­seum com­mem­o­rat­ing this quirky chap­ter in Bri­tish his­tory, is for sale at £1mil­lion.

The forts might also con­ceiv­ably ap­peal to wealthy buy­ers as pri­vate res­i­dences: not per­haps as pic­turesque as Caribbean is­lands or yachts in the Mediter­ranean, but with a cer­tain louche ca­chet. You can imag­ine a vil­lain in a James Bond movie plot­ting the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the Home Coun­ties from what is now the light­house bar.

What­ever their fu­ture, the So­lent Forts, mil­i­tary fol­lies erected to re­pel in­vaders who never ar­rived, de­serve an hon­ourable foot­note in our is­land his­tory. Who­ever buys them is in for the ad­ven­ture of a life­time.

No Man’s Fort, main; Spit­bank Fort, be­low; Mike Clare, the owner, be­low left

In­side Spit­bank Fort, left and be­low left and right, which has been turned into a ho­tel

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