The Solent, renowned for its warships, cruise liners and yachts, is also home to a stunning, if a little eccentric, boutique hotel which gives ‘getting away from it all’ a new, and distinctly nautical perspective.
Spitbank Fort is in the centre of the Solent, a mile off shore between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Built in the 1860s with the threat of a French invasion, she played a role as a defence base in both the First and Second World Wars, but then fell into disrepair.
In an inspirational and entreprenurial move, Spitbank and her sister, No Man’s, were acquired by Solent Forts Ltd who set about a comprehensive renovation programme working closely with English Heritage, before being transformed into what the company describes as “luxury island retreats”.
Ferry across the Solent to Spitbank
Access to the Forts is via ferry from Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, a designer outlet shopping centre with bars and restaurants on the harbour and home of course to The Spinnaker Tower. So it’s easy to while away your hour from check-in to departure.
The 15-minute ferry ride to Spitbank is a treat in its own right, and getting on an off the ferry is more straightforward than you might think. You can take in the sights of Portsmouth Harbour, the Solent and the Isle of Wight and the landscape of the Portsmouth and Southsea coastline.
But, against a backdrop of this stunning seascape, on the approach to the fort itself, you can’t help but be a little apprehensive.
This is a foreboding grey granite structure created for war and weathered by the extremities of the winds, waves and salt water of the south coast.
They do say never judge a book by its cover, and as you step off the ferry and through arched wooden doors into the fort, you instantly enter another world.
Warmest of champagne welcomes
Here you are welcomed to The Victory Bar, a spectacular, rich and cosy, low-ceilinged brick vault with deep sofas, stone floors with gun gulleys, amber candle glow, ships’ lights and the warmest of champagne welcomes.
The engineering capability to build the fort in the 1860s is seriously impressive – and the vision demonstrated by Solent Forts to use these historic monoliths in this unique way genuinely mind-boggling.
Measuring less than 50m in diameter and with just eight bedrooms, Spitbank is served by a small and genuinely delightful team personally looking after their 16 visitors. Manager Kyle welcomes guests to the fort and suggests they leave their bags in the bar (there’s nobody here to steal them!) before hosting an evocative and quirky tour woven from history, war, ghosts, rum, engineering and the sea.
On the tour we’re introduced to Spit Water, drawn from Spitbank’s natural well with its source reportedly in France – we’re cheekily offered Spit in our bedrooms, at dinner and for one guest even with his Scotch!
As the tour heads into the depths of the fort, Kyle tells us of the ghost of Henry Attreal who has haunted the lower levels since his death in a tragic accident in 1910. For the ghosthunters amongst you, take a look at Most Haunted’s filming of Spitbank in 2006 and I guess head to the fort for Halloween – if you’re brave enough!
Luckily Henry never paid a visit to any of the eight Spitbank bedrooms during our stay. Each of these suites is unique in its own way, definitely worthy of their ‘boutique’ billing and the individual quirky features are great discussion points, even a little competition, for guests over drinks in the bar.
The rooms are large yet cosy with design flair, rich fabrics, an eclectic style, and windows (admittedly small) looking out over the sea.
Having settled into our rooms, we spent our afternoon relaxing with a glass of wine, our books and the spectacular view from the rooftop bar, with its panoramic 180-degree views and (very windy) balcony.
Others took to the hot tub and sauna, played chess, backgammon or the piano, fished from the gantry or just sat by the lighthouse soaking up some unexpected rays of late summer sunshine.
Personality makes Spitbank special
There’s an attention to detail at Spitbank which has, at its roots, homely rather than hospitality. The passion of the team for their Ancient Monument hotel is clearly evident in everything they do.
Our waitress, Tilly, when asked about No Man’s Fort, tells us she’s never even been, she fell in love with Spitbank and has stayed ever since (well for 3 1/2 days of each week). Kyle tells stories of his time on Spitbank – going back to his involvement in the refurb and visualising and refining the elements which make this hotel experience unique.
So while you may well spot a bench which needs a lick of paint or a cushion which is past its best, these little flaws are somehow endearing rather than offputting. You sort of feel like you’re staying with a family, probably wealthy and definitely a little odd, but the warmest of families nevertheless.
This underlying welcome, a genuine brand essence with an inate sense of fun, is we decided, what ultimately makes Spitbank special.
With so few guests and a shared reception, tour and lunch, you soon feel you’re getting to know your other ‘Spitbanker’s’ and that’s to be expected. We were staying with an interesting, friendly and funny group of guests and thoroughly enjoyed their company.
But…we were celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary and each guest was one of a couple. We had definitely anticipated less of a group experience, more a quiet couples weekend away, and certainly weren’t aware that both lunch and dinner would be served on tables of eight. That’s worth bearing in mind if you’re an unsociable sort.
Over and after dinner
Dinner was five set courses including a showstopper steak, all served by Kyle and Tilly who, at the end of the evening announced that the huge firepit on the upper deck was alight and sea air, blankets, Navy rum and marshmallows for toasting were waiting for us.
A warming rum under the stars, a roaring fire with a nightime view of the Solent and our day was complete. As for the night, there is nothing more restful than sleeping to the sound of waves and the scent of the sea.
We were lucky enough to have fairly good weather on an August Bank Holiday weekend, but bad weather does involve cancellation, (and a free replacement booking of course,) and even the day before our visit in late August, guests had made it to No Man’s Fort only to have to return to the mainland because they couldn’t dock.
But this is a unique experience and as such, it’s worth a little risk.
And our recommendation?
Solent Forts offers a host of other experiences, from afternoon tea to corporate days, yoga breaks and celebration lunches. No Man’s Fort is larger with more facilities and we wondered if that might also mean less of the personality which makes Spitbank. That said, it does have a choice of five bars, both casual and formal dining, rooftop hot tubs, a cabaret and spa treatments to compensate. You can take in a virtual tour of the forts on their website.
There are often special offers – from sites such as Secret Esapes, Booking.com, Groupon and Virgin Experience Days – so keep a watchful eye and be spontaneous if you fancy a fun escape.
A stay at Spitbank Fort is undeniably an experience, ideal for those who like a taste of the unusual. It would be a perfect destination for an exclusive use celebration, when friends or family, could indulge in its offering in all its eccentric glory.
Would I recommend a stay at Spitbank Fort? Yes absolutely. Would I go back? Probably not. But I do plan a stay in the lighthouse on No Man’s Fort so that’s sufficient proof of the pudding!
W: Solent Forts
Our aerial photos are taken by the awesome team at Pathfinder Drone who are available for leisure, tourism, marketing and PR shots. www.pathfinderdrone.co.uk