The friends who bought a derelict fort

By Laurence Cawley
BBC News

  • Published
Barry Sharp and Paul Valentine
Image caption,
The Beacon Hill Fort has been bought by friends Barry Sharp and Paul Valentine

Beacon Hill Fort was once a testing ground for prototype weapons designed to keep England safe from potential invaders. Long since abandoned, this sprawling five-acre complex at the end of a dirt track in Harwich has now been bought by a pair of friends who want to turn it into a major attraction.

A love story lies at the heart of how Paul Valentine and Barry Sharp came to own their very own fort.

About 45 years ago, the estate agent and his then-girlfriend would spend time together on the grounds of Beacon Hill Fort, whose giant guns once stood guard out over the sea.

More than four decades later, while visiting his former flame, he was reminded of their trips to the now-derelict site when he spotted plans for the fort there on her table.

Image caption,
The Port of Felixstowe can be seen from remains of the fort
Image caption,
The enormous gun which once sat in this circular enclosure has long since gone

Her family had inherited the site and had an offer in for it from Tendring District Council.

"I told her there and then I would double whatever they were offering," said Mr Valentine.

Image caption,
Most of the buildings in the complex are covered in graffiti. While some of it is poetic, much of it is not
Image caption,
The accommodation areas included fire places

Eventually a deal was struck and Mr Valentine and Mr Sharp, a retired car restorer, became owners of a hugely overgrown plot, peppered with 25 separate buildings, a warren of underground tunnels and debris left behind by generations of trespassers.

The plot, which dates back to the Tudor period, was the first testing ground for "invisible" defences.

Before 1889, coastal defence batteries were meant to be seen by the enemy. But their near monumental presence also made them easy targets for bombardment.

Beacon Hill is thought to be the first battery to employ guns mounted on carriages which would rise to fire and then disappear down into their pits.

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Mr Valentine and Mr Sharp, who are still discovering new buildings on the site, want to refurbish the complex - a designated scheduled ancient monument - into an adventure attraction, possibly aimed at school groups.

"We want to create something that will really put Harwich on the map, that will create new jobs and protect this part of our history," said Mr Valentine.

"It would be great to be able to open it up for people to visit, explore and enjoy. Eventually, we would like to create some kind of heritage trust and to give this site back to the people of Harwich."

Image caption,
The towers were designed to look like housing from a distance to disguise their military purpose
Image caption,
Nature has taken hold of much of the fort, which has been closed since the 1950s

A brief history of Beacon Hill Fort

  • The first fortification at Beacon Hill Fort was built in the 1530s during Henry VIII's reign
  • The original Beacon Hill battery from 1889-90 included 10in (25cm) and 6in (15cm) breech-loading guns which popped out of their encasements to fire
  • By World War One, the original guns had been replaced by mounted 6in guns and a third emplacement was built on the northern side of the fort
  • After 1945, the fort was put into "reduced" status by the War Office
  • The battery was finally abandoned in 1956, when military jet aircraft and missile systems rendered coastal defences, in the view of the War Office, obsolete
Image caption,
The artillery complex contains contains six main gun emplacements, an observation post, pill boxes and shelters
Image caption,
As well as the towers and buildings above ground, Beacon Hill boasts a labyrinth of underground rooms and tunnels
Image caption,
The dark tunnels beneath ground are peppered with the remnants of cogs and devices used in raising artillery and other supplies up to the surface
Image caption,
Large chains were used in the lowering and lifting of supplies between different levels inside the base
Image caption,
Numerical markings around one of the gun emplacements
Image caption,
The view from inside one of the former gun emplacements

Photography: Laurence Cawley

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