Semaphore Tower

Chatley Heath, Surrey

Overview

Bookings for stays from spring 2021 will open this autumn

For Landmark Patrons bookings open on 22 September at 9am, for Landmark Friends bookings open on 26 September at 9am and bookings open for everyone on 3 October at 12 noon.

This restoration project featured in BBC1's Countryfile. Catch up on the episode here.

The only remaining semaphore tower in Britain

A unique remnant from the Napoleonic era, the Grade II* listed brick structure is the only surviving semaphore tower in Britain. It was once a cutting-edge building at the forefront of technology and design, a vital link in a signalling chain that transmitted messages from Admiralty House in London to Portsmouth Docks in just a few minutes. But in recent years water ingress had been threatening the structural integrity of the tower to an alarming degree, and its future had been uncertain until Landmark took on the project.

Thanks to the generosity of over 1,000 supporters to our public appeal, experienced contractors Valley Builders began work in spring 2020 and are now are well underway sympathetically and sensitively restoring the structure. We believe it will make a magical Landmark for up to four guests, the renewed roof a wonderful spot to enjoy 360 degree views across to London and the Home Counties, the refurbished machinery a living lesson in technological and engineering history. The five-storey tower will have a kitchen, sitting room, double bedroom and twin bedroom, plus a bathroom and a shower room.

In the heart of a nature reserve

Chatley Heath itself is a nationally important site for dragonflies and damselflies, with twenty species recorded. It also attracts many rare birds. The tower is surrounded by 800 acres of woodland and heathland that can be explored by the many footpaths and cycle paths. The basement will provide a bike store for those keen on exploring the area by bike. We look forward to welcoming guests from near and far for holidays and free open days on completion.

Semaphore Tower proposed floor plans 2018

Photographs taken prior to restoration works commencing. Floor plan remains subject to change

History

A mid-19th century tower

The Semaphore Tower stands deep in ancient heathland near Wisley in Surrey. This unique remnant from the Napoleonic era was once a vital link in a signalling chain that transmitted messages from Admiralty House in London to Portsmouth Docks in a matter of minutes. The construction of the line was ordered in 1816 in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, when foreign invasion still seemed a real possibility.

For over 20 years the urgent affairs of the Royal Navy passed back and forth along this line, relaying orders to the fleet and reporting the movements of friend and foe alike. If things had turned out differently – if there had been another war with France, if England had been invaded – this Tower in Chatley Heath might have played a key role in a great naval conflict.

The Royal Navy’s most advanced signalling system before the electric telegraph

Historically, long-range military communication was a real challenge: simple hilltop beacons signalled the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588. As naval warfare developed across the centuries, more sophisticated signalling systems were invented using flags or moving balls, but these were slow and unreliable. Semaphore was the solution; moveable arms on a mast that signalled letters of the alphabet.

The French invented the first semaphore system in 1794, but the British preferred to find their own solution. The first British coastal naval signal stations in the 1790s used either flags and balls or a system of shutters in a frame, but none were efficient in bad weather.

'England expects that every man will do his duty.'

Rear Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham was fascinated by signalling. In 1800, Popham created the first flag system for individual letters, famously used by Nelson to declare ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Later, he devised a semaphore with wooden arms for ship-to-ship signalling. Much easier to operate than the shutter system, it was soon adopted on land.

Yet in 1814, with Napoleon apparently safely confined on Elba, the Admiralty decommissioned all their signal stations. Napoleon’s escape and the ‘damn nearest run thing’ at the Battle of Waterloo made the Admiralty realise that such optimism has been misplaced. Eleven days after Waterloo, an Act was passed to acquire land for a new chain of signal systems, this time using Popham’s semaphore.

The only five-storey Semaphore tower

The Chatley Heath mast was the only station on the Portsmouth line that required a five-storey tower for visibility across the seven miles to its two neighbours. In 1822, on its completion, it was chosen to be the junction for another line to Plymouth. The stations were operated by Royal Naval lieutenants who were close to retirement. They worked with an assistant, possibly a former petty officer or wounded seaman.

Early reports of water ingress

Each station housed a lieutenant and his family. From the beginning, water ingress was a problem at Chatley Heath and many letters were sent by the first station superintendent there, Lieutenant Harries, to the Admiralty on the subject. In one such letter dated December 1826 he complained:

“Water still finds its way through centre of the mast even to the lower room.... great difficulty in getting any workman in neighbourhood to do any small jobs by the distance we are from their abode... my family and myself are almost poor hermits.”

New technology and new residential use

For over 20 years, orders and reports clacked up and down the line from Admiralty House to Portsmouth. But the railways were coming and with them the electric telegraph: in 1847, the semaphore lines were decommissioned.

After its decommission, needy retired naval officers and then local civilians lived in the tower until 1963. Left empty, it suffered vandalism and then a major fire in 1984. Surrey County Council and Surrey Historic Buildings Trust restored it well, and again let it residentially.

Thanks to the generosity of over 1,000 supporters to our public appeal, experienced contractors Valley Builders are now well underway sympathetically and sensitively restore the structure. We are transforming the site into self-catering holiday accommodation for up to four people, and look forward to welcoming visitors from near and far for holidays and free open days on completion.

 

Project progress

Here we share some insights into our ongoing restoration of Semaphore Tower, which will complete in the winter of 2020/21 ready for holidays starting in the spring.

 

Planning

Nestled in the Chatley Heath nature reserve in scenic Surrey, we know that the Semaphore Tower has always faced water ingress challenges. We know also that the wooden mast and its mechanisms, while they had remarkably remained in place, needed significant care in order to work once more. Much of the woodwork and brickwork required an overhaul, and new services plus electrics were necessary throughout. This was the context for our restoration and across 2018-19, while our fundraising appeal was underway, we were also busy planning the programme of works.

 

Work begins

In the winter of 2019/20 the project team, led by our surveyor Richard Burton, with architects Louise Bainbridge and Sarah Harlow from Seymour & Bainbridge, quantity surveyor Karl Riechers of Huntley Cartwright and services engineer Neil Prowse of Martin Thomas Associates, put our finalised plans into motion. Thanks to the generosity of over 1000 supporters to our appeal, in late in 2019 we were able to formally sign a contract with the highly experienced contractor Valley Builders, who had won the competitive tendering process.

Onsite work began in earnest in the cold of February 2020. It took weeks of work for the external scaffolding to be stitched together securely, slowly lacing up and around the tower’s five storeys. As the scaffolding was underway, so too was work to clear and prepare the interiors, plus investigate the mast.

 

A global health pandemic

Within weeks of starting work, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK. While the country adjusted to life under lockdown – juggling working from kitchen tables, home schooling and much more besides - the Government announced that, in England, work could continue on building sites.

In response, the Valley Builders team rapidly developed Covid-secure procedures, following all the latest advice and guidance at every stage. Although something we could never have anticipated, in some ways the project lends itself to social distancing – each level of the tower has limited floor space, so limited workspace too. Although some delays inevitably crept in, principally due to supply chain challenges, work slowed but, remarkably, continued throughout lockdown.

 

Restoring the mast

Through April and May, engineering and heritage conservation specialist Ian Clark worked onsite to restore the all-important semaphore mast structure and its mechanism. With careful and sympathetic conservation carpentry, the wooden mast was overhauled and then painted the original deep red. The mechanism, which runs from the rooftop down into what will become the kitchen, was examined and repaired. Against the odds, we inherited a weighty handle that controls the mechanisms which Ian could use to test and fine-tune this work.

 

Countryfile visit

On a sunny day in late July, we were delighted to host a visit from the BBC’s Countryfile TV series. Presenter Margarita Taylor interviewed our historian Caroline Stanford, learning about the history of the building and its early occupants. The resulting 5-minute piece aired on Sunday 2 August to a five million viewers, and remains available to watch here.

With thanks

Thank you to our supporters

We are hugely grateful to all those who have supported the appeal for Semaphore Tower, including:

Guardians of Semaphore Tower and other lead supporters:

Mrs S Andrew, Mr A Baker, Dr J Bull, Dr P Corry, Ms S Darling, Dr C Guettler and Ms J Graham, Mr S and Mrs R Jordan, Dr and Mrs B Moxley, Mr M Seale, Mr D Simon, Ms M Swann, Mr J Thompson, Mrs P Thompson, Mr W Tsutsui

Patrons and other generous individuals:

Mr R Baker, Mr D Brine, Mrs M Clark, Mr G Clayton, Mrs D Ford, Dr R Gurd and Ms M Black, Mr D Haunton, Mr D Holberton, Mr A Jardine, Mr N and Mrs W Kingon, Ms V Knapp, Mrs P Maitland Dougall, Mr S Martin, Professor R Mayou, Mr N Merry, Mrs P Nasr, Mr B Preston, Mr M Simms, Dr P Strangeway

Gifts in Wills and in memory:

In memory of Mr P Harris

Charitable Trusts and Statutory Grants:

The H B Allen Charitable Trust, Felix Foundation, , Martha David Fund, Mintaka Trust, The Sargent Charitable Trust, RV and RH Simons Charitable Trust, Peter Stormonth Darling Charitable Trust

We thank all who have supported the appeal, including other Guardians, Patrons and trusts who have chosen to remain anonymous.

All photographs taken prior to restoration work commencing