NOSTALGIA: Martello Towers have a colourful and vivid history

In April 2004 the unrenovated and privately owned Martello Tower no 55 at Norman's Bay went up for auction with a reserve price of £150,000, writes Elizabeth Wright.

Sunday, 19th March 2017, 6:00 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:56 am
Reader Suzie Knapman took this photograph of the Martello Tower at Langney Point in Sovereign Harbour

In the 1820s it had been fitted out with a semaphore machine to send messages, and later was used for experiments with a system of wireless telegraphy.

In World War Two, Canadian and British troops were stationed there and afterwards it was left empty for 60 years. Along the way extra doors and windows had been added, plus a concrete roof, creating three floors.

As a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade II Listed Building it was considered historically valuable, therefore any prospective purchaser could not proceed with any major building work until planning permission was granted by the local council and approved by English Heritage.

Paul Roberts, the inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage in 2004, stated, “If someone wants to do a sympathetic conversion, it would be possible. We want someone with a proposal that can still conserve the structure of the building and its austere, military character.”

Tower No 66 at Sovereign Harbour had been used by the Royal Engineers in 1940 and utilised by coastguards from just after World War Two until April 1989. Apart from housing harbour navigation equipment on its roof, the tower was unwanted and slowly slid into disrepair. Doors and windows had been replaced by metal bars and pigeons took over the interior.

In 2009 enthusiast Paul Stratford came up with the idea of trying to preserve the tower by turning it into a shipwreck and maritime museum alongside an education centre. He envisaged it as being “equipped as a viewing tower where visitors could look out to the ocean, hear stories of shipwrecks and history before moving on to learn about maritime life”.

Finally, Tower 73, the Wish Tower, a Grade II listed building is set within a dry moat on elevated ground overlooking the beach, was used by the coastguards during the 19th and 20th centuries and restoration work was done during the 1960s and 70s.

Owned by Eastbourne council since 1873, it was once a museum, then leased to a puppet museum but once again was left empty and neglected and started to deteriorate due to water damage.

A community group, the Wish Tower Friends, concerned about the future of the building, secured a lease from the council in 2013 and set about trying to restore it to its former glory. Funding of at least £200,000 was needed.

Friend’s project manager Liz Crew, said, “We took over the tower with the aim of restoring public access to it, find out more about the tower’s colourful history, raise funds to put towards repairs and to work with the council with the long term aim of restoration of the building, thus securing its future.”

The Friends had to clear out a large amount of rubbish and do a great deal of necessary work until the building was in a fit state to start providing informative tours for visitors.

Liz said, “Securing the long term future of the tower is no mean feat since the building itself is very unlikely to be financially self-sustaining as a stand-alone attraction in the short term, relying, as it does, on purely volunteer effort to arrange tours and other events.

“With the plans to build an iconic café/restaurant next to the tower, it does not seem sensible to leave it in its current state to detract from the other improvements.

“There is definitely appetite for visitors and local residents to visit the tower, appreciate its story and enjoy the view from the top.”

Although the costly erection of Martello Towers around the south east was of great financial help to the Sussex brick industry, their subsequent losses are a sad end to a unique piece of English history.

What practical good they may have been in warfare will never be known.