In the early 1800s a string of Martello towers were built along England’s east and south east coasts in response to a widespread belief that Napoleon was threatening to invade this vulnerable coastline, writes Elizabeth Wright.
Some 103 of these compact, manned circular fortifications, costing £3,000 each, formed part of the country’s defence system with massive bomb-proof stone walls, consisting of half a million bricks, which were eight feet thick and 40 feet high; there was a single entrance door high up on the side, accessible only by rope ladder and topped with a flat roof, each housing a rotating gun. The powder magazine and stores were kept at the bottom of the tower; above were two vaulted chambers accommodating a garrison of 10-20 men, overseen by one officer.
However, the invasion never materialised. Napoleon was defeated by the Duke of Wellington in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to the island of St. Helena; not one shot was fired in anger from any of these Martello towers.
Over the years many of these sturdy buildings fell victim to coastal erosion, neglect or were demolished to make way for newer buildings. By 1948 around 48 were left standing in varying degrees of decay. Although listed by English Heritage as ‘At Risk,’ there appeared to be few solutions to save them.
In the Eastbourne area just a handful survive today: Towers 55, 61 and 62 were converted to residential use. Towers 64 and 66 stand empty at Sovereign Harbour. Tower 73 (Wish Tower) on Eastbourne’s seafront is owned by the council and leased to the Wish Tower Friends and is being restored.
Another survivor is No 60 at Pevensey Bay, which looks like an upturned flower-pot sitting defiantly on the beach between rows of modern bungalows. In 1986 it was advertised for sale and prospective purchasers Allan and Claire Lucas went to have a look at it on a dismal and rainy afternoon.
They said, “The tower was just a mere shell with no floors, doors or services. There were travellers camped in the front garden, weeds on the roof and jagged holes in the walls where a previous owner had tried to blast out the brickwork to put in extra windows.”
Faced with resurrecting this building from its Napoleonic state, most people would have walked away but Allan and Claire didn’t.
“As soon as we saw inside this tower we knew it would make a wonderful family home,” said Claire.
Gambling on obtaining planning permission to convert the tower into a residential building, they bought it and were not even dissuaded when a friendly building inspector said, “You’re mad.” Having been given the go-ahead they moved into a 42ft mobile home in the front garden with their three children, plus cats, dogs and a chattering cockatiel.
Working almost single-handedly it took Allan, a DIY enthusiast, two years to turn the empty, crumbling shell into a sumptuous and unique family home, full of character and atmosphere.
He re-rendered twenty-five thousand exterior bricks and set about clearing the way for mains services to be installed.
When finally finished Allan had fitted in three ground floor bedrooms and a bathroom and turned the 26ft circular second floor into a sitting-room, while retaining the chunky central pillar, which originally supported a heavy gun on the roof.
A curving staircase led up to a spacious kitchen/diner on the top with panoramic views of Eastbourne and Beachy Head. In keeping with the character of the building, they decorated it throughout with nick-knacks from markets and second-hand shops. They brought home, cleaned up and restored road signs, coloured bottles, old photographs, lamps, busts and figurines.
In 1997 the Lucas’ decided to move on and Martello tower no 60 was up for sale for £280,000, freehold.