Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pevensey Bay, Sussex

Window on the waves

A couple of months back, en route to a friend’s birthday party in Hastings and running early, I pulled in at Pevensey Bay because the map told me that there were Martello towers there. I’d also read something about plotland developments in the area and was wondering whether I would come across any interesting old wooden buildings or railway carriages made into bungalows. I didn’t find any railway carriages, but one of the Martello towers proved well worth the stop.

Martello towers are named after the Torre di Mortella in Corsica and were built along England’s southern and eastern coasts between 1804 and 1812, as part of the country’s defences against a possible French invasion. They are extremely solid brick buildings, with outer walls up to 13 feet thick and roofs at least 10 feet in thickness. They are elliptical on the outside with round interiors, meaning that the outer walls vary in thickness, and the thickest walls, in the narrow ends of the ellipse, face the sea. There were very few windows and the entrance was on an upper level, reached either by a retractable ladder or a drawbridge. Inside, a garrison of up to 24 men and officers lived and waited to train their cannon on approaching enemy shipping. In the event, the towers were not tested by a French invasion, but some 47 of them remain, rendered obsolete by advances in both armour and artillery, as reminders of an age gone by.

Each Martello tower was built with a flat top, on which was mounted a single 24-pound gun on a rotating platform that allowed it to be turned through 360 degrees. But this Martello tower at Pevensey Bay is unusual in that it is topped with a later superstructure of glass and concrete. I looked at this and assumed, since the tower had obviously been converted for domestic use, that some architect of the 1960s or 1970s had added this rather purposeful construction on top, to provide some rooms reached by natural light, life in an otherwise almost windowless Martello tower being a rather dingy business. The addition looked for all the world as if the 1960s architect, in love with the “white heat of technology”, had wanted the upper part of the building to look like the top of an airport control tower.

But when I got home and looked up the listing for the tower, I found that the reality was rather more interesting. The modern-looking top was actually added during World War II to house range-finding equipment serving a gun battery on the shore in front of the tower. Wartime functionalism looks, not for the first time, like post-war architecture, and the resemblance to a control tower was not accidental, for the wartime users of the tower needed to look out just as much as the occupants of a control tower need to keep an eye on the runway. Now that the tower is used as a home, this two-storey addition, with its rows of windows facing the sea, contains light rooms that must be assets to the owners, as they look across the shingle to the sea.


John Gray said...

just caught your blog through a fellow blogger
love it.. a good, factual read

Peter Ashley said...

Fascinating post. One of the best preserved Martello Towers sits virtually on the beach at Slaughden, just south of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. No additions to its exterior appearance, it is nevertheless a Landmark Trust holiday home under threat from the encroaching sea.

ChrisP said...

The wartime additions not only provide a great viewing platform but also allow the residents to get away with those TV aerials, which look vaguely appropriate on a high tech structure.

Philip Wilkinson said...

John: Thank you. Please keep returning - I usually post around two buildings per week.

Peter: The Aldeburgh tower sounds like a good one. It seems amazing, in view of the number of bricks involved, but some Martello towers have succumbed to the sea over the years.

Chris: Yes! There are not many historic buildings on which aerials look as if they belong, but this tower is perhaps an exception.

bazza said...

They also had Martello Towers in Ireland. In fact I seem to recall that a part of James Joyce's Ulysses is set in one.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: You are right. Ulysses begins in a Martello tower, which in the novel is the home of Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan. In real life I think the tower was lived in by the writer Oliver St John Gogarty, and Joyce lived there briefly.

James Russell said...

Philip, have you seen the railway carriage at Rye Harbour? There's a Martello Tower there too, come to think of it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: No. Although I've been to Rye, I didn't get to Rye Harbour - too many distractions in Rye itself. So thanks for mentioning this. I must return, next time I visit my Sussex friends.

Jon Dudley said...

Lovely post Philip. We have one close by at Seaford which has been turned into a small museum by the local history society. Shame about the upper additions at Pevensey but they must make interesting homes...sort of squat windmill living. The Landmark Trust property at Aldeburgh would be an enormous temptation save for the cost!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jon: Thank you. They must make great homes, albeit rather dark inside I should imagine. Agree about the Aldeburgh one – the Landmark Trust do wonderful work, and I suppose they have to charge the amount they do in order to carry on with that work. But I wish they could find a way to charge lower prices.