Great Victorian coastal defences
Although the Channel forts had formed the backbone of our great Victorian coastal defences, most of them were at that time abandoned and falling into ruin. It was a far-sighted action on the part of John Smith, the Trust’s founder, to take on one of them and set about its repair. The Trust’s first tasks after taking over the fort were to survey the buildings down to the last stone, and then to number and mark every piece of stonework that needed to be moved back to its original position.
The bunker was full of rubbish, only one original window had survived in ‘Officers’, roofs were sagging, and cast iron girders were rusting away. The old bricks had been made in the local brickworks from island clay and were of poor quality. All the stone and wood used in the repairs was salvaged: the oak floorboards in the living room of ‘Soldiers’ came from Fort Tourgis, for example, while the ‘Officers’ fireplaces came from Fort Albert. New doors were made, with handles produced specially by a Guernsey blacksmith.
The main task that faced the Trust, and its architect Philip Jebb, was the undoing of the extensive damage done to the fort by the Germans, in their indiscriminate use of concrete, asphalt and barbed wire. In addition to this, the aim was to reinstate the exterior of the fort to its original Victorian appearance – except for the bunker, which was anyway pretty well indestructible, and which now serves as a bedroom. The light and pleasant rooms inside the two barrack buildings were also to be restored, but modernised as necessary.
The difficulties of managing such a project, on what is virtually an island off an island, were formidable. All materials and equipment had to be specially transported to the fort by sea. Moreover, what could be done on any given day depended entirely on the weather, and especially on the wind which in Alderney can rise in an hour or two to a force to which it is impossible to stand up. Even the provision of basic services presented quite a problem. For many years water came from a spring on the shore, to be stored in a large tank. And only in 1990 was the fort connected to the island’s electricity supply, candles and gas having previously supplied all light and heat.
Some of the work had to be done by a regular contractor, but much else could be done – and would best be done – in a more gradual way. For instance, it was essential that all concrete be removed without causing damage to the blocks of granite that had been set carelessly in it, so that they could be reused. By the greatest good fortune, just at the point in 1967 when Landmark was considering how to achieve this, Arthur Markell retired from his post as supervisor of the Admiralty Breakwater.
Arthur Markell – ‘a man who really knows what life means, and who shows it in the work he is doing’ – had exactly the experience and skills the Trust needed, and he was employed at once. In 1984, after having worked for the Trust for some sixteen years or more, he was described as ‘an incredible good 79 years .. and having been a civil engineer can turn his hand to most things... his woodwork is of cabinet-maker standard.’ (He was nothing if not versatile: he also taught piano and had played in good hotels in London as part of dinnertime entertainment, as well as in the local cinema.) He was also said ‘always to have a smile on his face’ and to be ‘a perfectionist in everything that he did – the material for every job was carefully chosen and nothing but the right material would do, and the position of every screw and nail was precisely measured before insertion’, ‘you couldn’t imagine a better man for the job’. Throughout the restoration of the Fort he kept a diary in which he recorded every day the weather, the comings and goings of visitors and the maintenance and restoration tasks he had carried out on the Fort that day. With the help of an assistant, Mr. Markell was largely responsible for all the long and arduous work of clearing up the fort, rebuilding parapets and repointing walls, renewing windows and doors, fitting new bathrooms and kitchens, and painting walls. A team of builders, a maximum of five at any one time, was brought in only when it was necessary: to clear the unwanted concrete with pneumatic hammers, to renew the drawbridge, the ramp and the roofs of the barrack buildings (for which the original formula of lime cement poured over brick vaults to form a flat surface was reproduced) or to repair some of the vertiginous outer walls. Unfortunately, after Mr. Markell had carried out substantial repairs to the walls of Battery no. 3, the natural bridge that connected it to the rest of the rock collapsed during a storm in 1967, and that battery is no longer accessible. The collapse came as a shock to Mr. Duplain and caused him considerable anxiety, as he was afraid that the Trust might have suspected him of knowing the weakness of the arch, and concealing his knowledge.
Working with Victorian buildings of any sort teaches two main lessons: first, not to be afraid, indeed to be sure, of using a large scale, because they loved to – and in military buildings more than most; and, secondly, to be thorough about detail, because theirs was perhaps the supreme age of detailing, and a repair will look right only if done correspondingly well. This has been true at each of the buildings of this type that Landmark has restored – Crownhill Fort at Plymouth, the West Blockhouse at Dale in Dyfed, and especially here, at Fort Clonque.