Newhaven Fort

Following previous columns stemming from trips out and about with the Godfather, the military theme continues with a visit to the largest work of defence ever constructed in Sussex.

Two great men can be credited with the building of Newhaven Fort – Lord Palmerston (the then Prime Minister) and Lieutenant John Charles Ardagh. Following the Royal Commission of 1860, Palmerston, with support from Queen Victoria, put into action a strong defence policy against the French, resulting in a vast scheme of construction along the south coast and Thames Estuary. These works, the largest fortification project ever undertaken in this country during peacetime, became known as "Palmerston’s Folly". But, Newhaven Fort itself was designed by Lieutenant Ardagh who was just 22 years old at the time.

Ardagh’s work began on the Fort in 1862 and it should be pointed out that his beautiful drawings went far beyond what was required for such a project. 250 men, many horses and three steam engines began the mammoth task in 1864 and completed it in 1871. Shingle from below the cliffs was hoisted up to make the concrete, and clay from nearby was used to make most of the Fort’s six million bricks. There are also many tunnels including one long and dark staircase (my favourite bit!) that stretches down to where guns once guarded the beach.

When Newhaven Fort was bought by the Town Council in 1962, its condition was excellent but a greedy developer soon changed that by attempting to turn it into a holiday camp. Various structures were demolished; the tunnels were filled in; and poor quality houses were built by the main entrance. The project failed abysmally. In 1979, the Fort was declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument; one of the reasons being that it was the first military structure where concrete was used. Soon afterwards, two sympathetic developers began transforming it into a leisure centre but sadly, the venture failed. Lewes District Council then took on the project and the rest is history.

Due to Ardagh’s ingenuity in embracing the natural contours of the land, Newhaven Fort is not as visible as it could be – a victim of its own success! Extra publicity should, therefore, be afforded to combined tours and workshop sessions taking place on 28th and 31st May in conjunction with Architecture 08 (organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects). See www.newhavenfort.org.uk or call 01273 517622 for details.