Buy three pieces of history in the Solent
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