I was planning to write a post about Newhaven Fort sometime in the near future, but then I saw this: http://www.sussexexpress.co.uk/news/local/plans-to-lease-newhaven-fort-are-approved-1-4051772 and I had to change my plans.
I had two reasons for my delay.
When I visited Newhaven recently it was with a fellow Twitterstorian Jack Shoulder (@jackshoulder – follow him!) and my dear friend Will (@wrmspeed) for our #epicfortday. Jack writes a wonderful blog about his museum visits and posted about it by the time I’d got home, or so it seemed! You can read it here: http://jacksadventuresinmuseumland.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/epicfortday-a-day-exploring-forts/ and so it seemed rather silly to do a standard review on my own blog when I could just point people towards Jack.
I decided to approach the subject in a way I feel more comfortable with, comparing it to a fort I worked in for a couple of years and had grown to love like a family member.
A bit of back story is perhaps required.
I began working as a warden guide at Fort Nelson in Hampshire a few years before I got married and moved to Berkshire. Fort Nelson is a branch of the Royal Armouries which has a main museum in Leeds and also a section of the Tower of London. Fort Nelson is the ‘heavy artillery’ site, housing things that go ‘bang’ and are too heavy to pick up.
Over the space of two years I spent 5 days a week at that Fort. It started out as a fascinating building to work in and ended up being a dear friend. Only people who live and breathe one historical site will know what I’m talking about. The building has its own quirks and tales to tell. When you spend that amount of time with a site you don’t have a choice, it starts to take a hold of you emotionally until you love it passionately.
I knew how much it had rained the previous night from the scent of the grass that covered the chalk and flint ramparts. I knew what the red bricks felt like to the touch and knew the exact location of each one that had a chip or crack. I could probably navigate the subterranean tunnels blindfolded quite happily and knew the pickaxe patterns in the chalk walls by heart. I knew which of the floorboards in the redan creaked and which of the windows had wonky latches. I spoke to the cannons on display as I wandered past them and hummed the music that played in the artillery gallery long after I got home.
I winced at vandalism as if someone had hurt me physically and I spent my tours showing the fort off like a proud mum enthuses about her beloved toddlers ballet recital.
When I went home each night I’d frequently dream about the place. Large swathes of my life were played out with the Fort as a backdrop, I’ve laughed, cried, flirted, laughed and passionately debated there. So it’s not really a surprise that I’ve grown so attached to the place and it’s also not a surprise that I care very much about what happens to it.
When the time came for me to marry and start a new life away from the coast, plans had been approved to add an extension to the fort. It wouldn’t the first time in its history. Buildings had been added to the parade ground for the storage of anti aircraft ammunition during the second world war. That, I can stomach, but a pointless new ‘visitor centre’ was not my cup of tea.
Originally the ticket desk was housed in a small gift shop in what used to be the coal store and the cafe was situated in one of the barrack rooms. Original architecture, no faffing needed. When plans were first shunted around to build a separate structure, I was sceptical. Especially when I had witnessed an incompetent middle manager reduce to shop to a pile of cheap nick-nacks and slashed the long suffering chef’s menu down from carveries to limp sandwiches kept in cheap plastic containers. Having lost our cafe ‘regulars’ as soon as hot meals and the fabulously popular weekend carvery was abolished, the cafe was deserted. Why on earth build a larger, new structure to accomodate 0 visitors?
The design itself was modern and intrusive, blocking the beautiful view of the rear of the fort. It is covered by grass which apparently is supposed to echo the ramparts, but it instead looks as if someone has plonked the Teletubby house by the fort accidentally. Additionally, a new gallery was to be added to better house the exhibits, the design for which resembled a giant greenhouse bolted on to what had been a perfectly good wall. Even the beautiful two storey high doors at the gate have been replaced by glass. Glass! Lord Palmerston is rolling in his grave.
Thankfully I left before I saw my beloved fort mutilated by garish modern architecture executed by money grabbing w***ers who couldn’t give a toss about the integrity of the original building. I can’t go back because even thinking about what those c***s have done to my beautiful fort makes me uncontrollably angry and tears spring forth like a burst dam. If I meet the architect in the street I will end up doing time, and I’m not exaggerating. In my mind they have raped the building and left it irreparably scarred.
I had already decided that to compare the quaint, old fashioned museum style of Newhaven Fort to the barbarity of the fashionable modern tat that had been installed at Fort Nelson, I’d have to bite the bullet and go back and witness it first hand. I dreaded it, like the family members of murder victims dread having to identify their loved ones on a mortuary table.
Sadly, the news that Newhaven Fort is to be leased out to unnamed third parties came to me before I had to make the journey.
I had been planning to praise Newhaven to the skies. The grass was well manicured, which towards the end even Fort Nelson couldn’t claim. The exhibitions, whilst decidedly low-tech, have an old fashioned charm that was endlessly endearing. At Newhaven, there is no trace of posters and information boards designed and made by a soulless contractor company with no passion for the subject. The hand-made feel of the displays at Newhaven are the result of a love affair between man and building, a dedication to preservation and the sharing of its history, lovingly crafted with affection. It’s so heart warming to wander around the exhibitions at Newhaven. No futuristic special effects wizardry, no identikit modern museum fads. The love that the designer/s had for their fort shines through in their creation until you can’t help but catch the Newhaven bug.
I am terrified that a lease would mean that in a desperate attempt to attract visitors who have become used to high tech flashing buttons and bells, Newhaven will be forced to ‘modernise.’ It will be, to quote a colleague, ‘Disney-fied.’ All of the charm will be ripped out and Newhaven will be left a soulless shell, devoid of any character. Because modern developers are terrified of character. Nothing must be unique, or special, because that would be too dangerously challenging for the public, supposedly. You see, modern developers think that you, the visitor, are stupid and easily startled. Far better to spoon feed you like an infant chimp than to let you discover a place by yourself.
I’m not exaggerating, either. My love of Fort Nelson has caused me to obsessively visit and explore other forts, and I know all too well what happens when ‘leases’ and ‘contractors’ start showing up.
Fort Wallington was torn to shreds and is now an industrial park. Drive past it and you will see one of the saddest ends to a great building imaginable. Fort Fareham is slowly rotting to pieces in the ‘care’ of another industrial estate.
This is the undignified end of a building that should have been preserved and loved. Instead it languishes like a sickly animal, already being eaten by scavengers. This is what happens when historic buildings are handed over to people who couldn’t give a toss about them. I’m sure that the council responsible for Newhaven have good intentions, but seeing what I’ve seen and knowing what I know, you can forgive me for my pessimism.
Don’t let Newhaven be sacrificed simply because it is need of TLC. Fort Brockhurst is an excellent example of a fort that is cared for by people who love it.
Newhaven doesn’t need whistles and bells and flashy lights. It just needs a bit of help from people with passion and experience. There are so many way that the 200 grand it loses annually could be made up. It’ll be interesting to watch the events that unfold for the future of Newhaven Fort, but I have a familiar sinking feeling that I’ll end up nursig a broken heart and mourning a friend.