Archive for August, 2006

Fort Nelson

Fort Nelson was built in its strategically advantageous position high above Portsmouth’s famous harbour nearly 150 years ago. It is today home to the Royal Armouries’ collection of canons and guns from all around the globe which was previously housed at the Tower of London.

In 1979, the Ministry of Defence sold Fort Nelson to Hampshire County Council. It was intended that the building would be preserved but this was made far easier in 1988, during the restoration process, when the Royal Armouries signed a lease and agreed to convert it into a museum. The extraordinary collection was opened to the public in 1995 by the Duke of Wellington. There are examples of artillery from most ages and countries, including lots from the Second World War. However, the most interesting exhibits are the captured sections of the 156m Iraqi Supergun.

Following the Royal Commission of 1860, Lord Palmerston, with support from Queen Victoria, put into action a strong defence policy against the French. Our great victories at Trafalgar in 1805 and Waterloo in 1815 did not put invasion fears to rest for good so a series of forts were built all along the south coast to dissuade the French from attaking. The defence of Portsmouth and its Royal Dockyard was massively important which explains the many different forms of fortification around the city.

Fort Nelson took its name from the nearby monument to Horatio Nelson. Its restored guns point inland to protect other forts and Portsmouth from attack by land. The brick structure is similar to Newhaven Fort which was built during the same period. Newhaven Fort is the largest work of defence ever constructed in Sussex and was vital during the two World Wars. Like Fort Nelson, Newhaven Fort is also an extremely popular visitor attraction. Britain was last invaded in 1066 so I’m sure that we must be doing something right! The building of the greatest works of fortification ever undertaken in this country during peacetime became known as “Palmerston’s Folly”.

There is so much to see in Portsmouth – I was only able to catch a glimpse of the harbour’s recently-opened Spinnaker Tower far in the distance. For that reason, I will avoid making comparisons with my beloved Brighton & Hove just yet as I intend on visiting again shortly. Watch this space for a verdict on which of the two historic cities has the best buildings!

Chattri Memorial

“To the memory of all the Indian soldiers who gave their lives in the service of their King-Emperor this monument, erected on the site where the Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly affection dedicated” is the touching inscription borne by the Chattri Memorial to the north of Patcham.

The Chattri sits elegantly 500ft above sea-level on Holt Hill, about one mile to the north of the A27 and may only be accessed by bridleway. Amazingly, the Royal Pavilion was used as a hospital by 4,306 wounded Indian soldiers during the First World War. The Memorial marks the site of the ‘ghat’ where many Indian soldiers who didn’t make it through were cremated. It was paid for by the Indian Government and was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales.

White Sicilian marble was the material chosen for the Chattri’s pillars and octagonal dome. The marble sits on three granite slabs which cover the concrete crematory slabs. It was designed in the Moghul style by an Indian student staying in London, E. C. Henriques, under the supervision of Sir Samuel Jacob. The Chattri is surrounded by two acres of pretty gardens which is then surrounded by endless countryside except to the south where Brighton sits calmly sparkling. A remembrance service is held there every summer.

The Chattri Memorial is not the only monument in Brighton & Hove with an Indian connection. The Pavilion’s South Gate was also a gift from India in 1921 following the First World War. It was designed by Thomas Tyrwhitt in the Gujerati style. However, the recently restored teak Moghul kiosk at the Hove Museum on New Church Road found its way to Hove under more peaceful conditions. It was made for the Maharajah of Jaipur as an exhibit in the Indian & Colonial Exhibition in South Kensington of 1886. It was dismantled and, in 1926, rebuilt in Hove.

Despite the Downs being so close to Brighton, it was shocking to discover just how little I know about the countryside. A few friends and I headed to the Chattri for a summer Sunday picnic and were quickly greeted by a field full of angry-looking cows. After much debate, we decided on the quickest route – a careful walk straight through the middle which turned into a run as soon as the nearest cow twitched!

Sackville Hotel

Where one of Hove’s finest hotels once stood, there is now just rubble and keep out signs.

The recent collapse of the Sackville Hotel at 189 Kingsway on the Hove seafront was certainly a shock to all. The owners, Sackville Hotel Ltd, were hoping to pump £5 million into restoring the once decadent hotel. It was to be turned into Hove’s only five-star hotel with plans in place for a complete refurbishment and extension with a new swimming pool, gym and sauna. The roof at the front of the building collapsed in April, however, and took out several of the floors below in the process. The building’s towers survived initially but had to be pulled down several weeks later after the rest of the building was deemed unsafe following high winds.

Brighton’s only five-star hotel, the Grand, was purpose-built as a hotel from 1862-4 as the tallest building in Brighton. The Sackville, however, was built in 1904 as four terraced mansions known as The Lawns which, due to their extortionately high prices of £7-8,000, failed to sell. There was already a Sackville Hotel at 156 Old Shoreham Road dating from the 1890s so this Sackville opened as the Sackville Gardens Private Hotel and later became the Sackville Court Hotel. Each mansion originally came fully equipped with an electric lift, electric Turkish bath, a library and eight bedrooms. As a hotel, it had around fifty bedrooms. The principle external features were its domed corners and exquisite plaster details.

The Sackville was refurbished on several occasions over the years to keep up with the latest trends. In 1977, Winston’s Bar was installed in the oak-panelled lounge with a proudly-displayed portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. In 1981, the Sackville was described by the Good Hotel Guide as ‘a hotel in a million’. From then on it changed hands several times at prices fluctuating between £1.9 million and just £1 million. Quite tragically, it deteriorated rapidly. In more recent times, Brighton & Hove City Council used the building quite controversially to house the homeless.

There has not been any suggestion of foul-play like when Hove Town Hall mysteriously went up in smoke. Conservationists remain hopeful that the owners will ensure that something of equal poise, dominance and quality will replace the much-loved Sackville Hotel. I for one can assure all readers that I will be keeping a close eye on whatever plans are submitted.

Kemp Town Commemorative Plaques

Following last summer’s piece on the plaques of Hove, I now turn my keen eye towards the plaques of Kemp Town.

Official English Heritage plaques around London are known as ‘blue plaques’ and follow a strict code. Brighton & Hove, as rebellious as ever, has over 100 plaques in many different colours, shapes and materials from organisations ranging from the Rotary Club to the British Film Institute to the Regency Society, dedicated to people and buildings. Bearing this in mind, it’s unsurprising that no-one knows if they should be saying ‘plack’ or ‘plark’.

My favourite plaque in Kemp Town is Laurence Olivier’s on Royal Crescent. It always reminds me of the story I once heard that Oliver Reed, whilst visiting and drunk, got stuck in the house’s dumb waiter! The plaque on 25 Burlington Street belongs to another entertainer, the comedian Max Miller, who loved Brighton dearly – check out his new statue in the gardens of the Prince Regent’s Royal Pavilion. The Prince’s illegal wife, Maria Fitzherbert, is commemorated on St John the Baptist RC Church at the top of Bedford Street.

George Canning, the Prime Minister in 1827, has a plaque on 101 Marine Parade. Sir Herbert Carden’s plaque is in the doorway of 103 Marine Parade. Sir Herbert bought up much of the farmland around old Brighton and sold it back to the Corporation at cost price. Interestingly, Carden was knighted by Ramsay MacDonald who was Prime Minister both before and after Canning.

On 22 Sussex Square and 13 Lewes Crescent there are blue plaques dedicated to Thomas Read Kemp and Thomas Cubitt respectively. Kemp, of course, created Kemp Town and Cubitt was one of his builders and also the builder of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight for Queen Victoria. The Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, has a stone plaque on 11 Lewes Crescent. The tunnel in the Crescent’s private gardens is said to have inspired the rabbit hole in his book, Alice in Wonderland.

Most of the research for this piece came from the Regency Society’s Eileen Hollingdale and Duncan McNeill – thank you. In fact, the plaque on 46 Sussex Square is dedicated to the Society’s founder, Antony Dale. There are way too many plaques in Kemp Town to list here so see for details of the Society’s Plaque Trail pamphlets – a perfect way to enjoy a sunny Sunday afternoon!

Clayton Tunnel Cottage

As said in my first column on the Clayton Tunnel nearly one year ago, I spotted its Grade II Listed castellated portal quite by accident whist out driving in West Sussex. What I didn’t realise then is that the cottage above the grand façade (and just metres above the track) is inhabited!

The London Bridge to Brighton railway line was constructed from 1838 to 1841 by 6,206 navvies (workers), 960 horses and 5 locomotives. Originally, just six trains per day travelled back and forth through five tunnels – Merstham, Balcombe, Haywards Heath, Clayton and Patcham. Trains have been able to travel to Victoria Station since it was opened in 1860. In 1900, a new ‘through route’ was established which avoided the old Merstham Tunnel but used instead new tunnels at Merstham and Redhill. David Mocatta was responsible for much of the finest details of the line including Brighton Station, the Ouse Valley Viaduct and Clayton Tunnel.

I recently managed to arrange a tour with a different David – the extremely knowledgeable occupant of Clayton Tunnel Cottage. The single-storey cottage was built after the rest of the portal in quite a different style and is therefore unlikely to be by Mocatta. It doesn’t sit quite in the centre and is built in a red brick instead of the yellow of the rest of the structure. It is absolutely unique and I’ve never seen another residence like it. Despite the many trains passing beneath, it is surprisingly quiet. The cottage’s study and kitchen occupy the two main turrets and it is in fact possible to access the battlements without too much trouble. It is in the kitchen that Clayton Tunnel Cottage Jam is produced, by David, from the plums and blackberries found on the glorious surrounding grounds which, as I can personally vouch, is delicious!

Clayton Tunnel was the scene of a horrific rail crash in 1861. Three trains left Brighton in quick succession; signal problems led to the second train stopping in the tunnel to avoid catching the first. The third then steamed into the tunnel with disastrous consequences. There was an awful collision which led to 25 people being killed and 176 injured.

The fact that Clayton is the longest of the six tunnels at 2,266 yards and up to 270 feet below ground makes this story particularly chilling. It’s unsurprising that the tunnel is said today to be haunted.