Holding a Fort

Back at work today after a short break at home in Scotland, I’ve had to catch up with lots of business, and this includes the current programme of conservation work at Fort Cumberland. The present fort was built from c. 1782-1812 to hold the Eastney peninsula and the entrance to Langstone Harbour. It replaced an earthwork fort of 1747 from which two buildings survive. The fort is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and contains several listed buildings.

Fort Cumberland from the air, copyright Historic England

Previous repairs have largely focused on the buildings that we occupy as offices, laboratories and for storage, but this time funding has been allocated to a major programme of conservation work on the fabric of the defences. These have been left largely untouched since the monument passed to State care after the Royal Marines moved out in 1973, and were not in a terribly good condition even then thanks to the effects of weathering, root penetration and wartime bombing. The intervening years have not been kind to the fort, in particular to the brickwork elements which are suffering from the roots of ivy and brambles, and repairs were needed to safeguard the survival of a range of historic features.

The first step, taken last year, was to demolish some derelict military structures that were not capable of being reused. In all cases these were beyond economic repair, and had been identified as being intrusive or of low significance in the site’s Conservation Plan. These had been recorded in advance of demolition, and I maintained a watching brief throughout this work.

Demolition of derelict mess buildings in the moat in 2016.

As a result of this work we have fewer military urinals and toilet blocks, and a great deal less asbestos.

The priorities for the current phase of work are the defences, mainly the bastions and curtain walls, but also including components of the extensive counterscarp defences that generally survive very well. Of particular concern is a double set of steps leading from the moat to the counterscarp. These had been badly repaired in the past, with damaged stone treads replaced in cast concrete, and extensive cement pointing that had trapped moisture inside the fabric.

Stairs to the counterscarp defences, during the removal of loose brickwork

As a result the brick facing is failing, and loose bricks are now being removed to reveal the extent of the problem. The intention is to repair the substructure using lime mortar, and to replace the concrete treads with new stone ones.

The left bastion, scaffolded to provide safe access to the brick parapet

Given the height of the main defences, scaffolding is having to be used to provide safe access to the brickwork of the parapet and the gun embrasures. The tops of the parapets have needed some reinforcement. These were built to a slope, to allow infantry to lean on them while they fired out over the defences, but as built they had no supporting structure.

Top of brick parapet, showing the lack of support for the sloping top.

The effects of root penetration have caused these to move, and they are now being rebuilt against a new sub-structure.

Rebuilding the top of the parapet

Most of the original facing bricks are being reused, only being replaced when the originals are too badly eroded or fragmentary.

The entrance to a WW2 trench, cut into the side of a gun embrasure

The general approach has been to conserve as found, with later features such as the entrances to Second World War trenches being preserved in the course of conservation work.

Scaffolding erected for the conservation of one of the main stairs to rampart level

Work is also proceeding on the conservation of the stairs to the ramparts. The stone treads are generally in reasonable condition, but have moved due to the effects of root penetration and frost. I excavated a small section to show that the brick sub-structure is sound, and the treads are now being moved back into position.

Jim of DBR pausing to let me admire the quality of his masonry work.

A conservation project of this scale requires careful liaison and management, and regular project team meetings are held to review progress and to discuss discoveries made during works and any changes to the methods or scope of the work. The conservation is being carried out by DBR Conservation supervised by the architects Consarc Design Group. Project management and curatorial oversight is being provided by English Heritage, and colleagues from Historic England Planning Group are monitoring the work which is being carried out under Scheduled Monument Consent.

The project team inspects work to the stairs

Opportunities for excavation are limited, but I did help to locate a missing stretch of Portland stone coping, blown off a stair wall by the blast of a bomb on 26th August 1940.

The coping of a stretch of stair parapet, as recovered by limited excavation

This phase of work, due to finish in late 2017 or early 2018, is a good start, but more remains to be done to open up more sections of the fort for use. We are currently trialling a waterproofing technique for the casemates, which are currently too damp for occupation, and other buildings await a new lease of life.

Lastly, the work is being carried out with due regard to the ecology of the site as well as to its archaeology and architecture. Ecological surveys have been undertaken to ensure that the fauna and flora of the fort are being protected, and our resident foxes have managed to raise a litter of four cubs while the work has proceeded around their den in a deep bomb crater. Helped, as usual, by the generosity of Pete the security guard.

George the fox, a hunter-gatherer rather than a hunter.