The Device Forts - part 4
Updated: Nov 20
Number 8: West Cowes Castle
West Cowes Castle was one of the castles built on the Isle of Wight, located on the Western side of the harbour entrance of Cowes, still used today by the Red Funnel ferries. The castle was built in 1539 at the Western side of the river Medina in a location that was then known as "The Cowes". West Cowes Castle was smaller than many others and was built with a D-shaped bastion in the front and a 2-story keep in the rear, and it was pretty heavily armed as well. At the time there was no village in the area but settlements started to grow around both castles, eventually becoming what is now known as Cowes. The castle remained in military use and was used to house important visitors to the Isle of Wight but also as a prison. In the English Civil War it was initially held for the King but later captured and held by Parliament. In 1716 the castle was rebuilt with heavy modifications like the demolishing of the front side of the keep, the addition of 2 residential wings and the creation of a garden over the landward defenses. It remained in use during the Napoleonic Wars but was more or less useless as a strictly military defensive structure. Eventually in 1854 it was decommissioned as a military fort and between 1856 and 1858 it was again heavily rebuilt, not really resembling a military castle or fort anymore. It was then occupied and later bought outright by the Royal Yacht Squadron of Cowes. In the Second World War it saw some kind of military service again as an HQ and was even damaged by a German bombing raid. Even after the war work was being done and between 1962 and 1968 it was again rebuilt, again changed were made in 1988 and even in 2000! Today it is still the HQ of the Royal Yacht Squadron and a grade II listed building, however not much is left of the original castle and today you can walk around the original D-shaped bastion wall on the waterside of the castle.
I have been there a number of times and usually walk around this bastion on my way to Cowes center from the coastal parking spaces.
Number 9: Sandgate Castle
Sandgate Castle was one of the original Device forts, built between 1539 and 1540. Built in a triangle configuration with a central keep, surrounded by 3 towers and a central gatehouse between the 2 rear towers. It was built right on the edge of the beach and this is basically the reason why the fort lost a large part of its original construction. Between 1805 and 1808 it the caste was rebuilt with the height reduced and the central keep being turned into a Martello tower. By this time the castle already suffered from damage by the sea and the water was now at the base of the wall. In 1888 the castle was decommissioned and sold off, eventually ending up in private ownership. It was severely damaged by coastal erosion and the southern part was completely destroyed. By 1975 a total renovation started to turn it into a private residence as it still is today, however it is also a grade I listed building.
In December 2022 on a short trip to Dover, I briefly walked around the castle to see what is left of the original design, the southern part is completely lost to the sea, revealing the inner keep to be viewed from the beach.
Follow-up of the forts in later times
England wasn't yet the strong and mighty empire it would become in later times and although the initial Device Forts and the ones of the so-called second wave were built to defend against a possible invasion by France, that threat passed pretty quickly and no less than 2 civil wars broke out before the country was stabilized again in some way, all this time the forts were mostly manned but neglected and most of them were in a poor state. By the 17th century it was clear that the now "Kingdom of Britain" needed better protection from foreign invaders as there was yet another war with France. Several of the early forts were rebuilt or repaired, some of these rebuilds resulted in the initial fort being almost completely gone and emerging as a brand new defensive fort, I personally visited some of these results.
Number 10: Tilbury
West Tilbury Blockhouse was originally built as part of the Device plan, however, nothing remains visible today as the place has been heavily modified throughout time. The location on the North bank of the Thames has always been of high strategic importance and the early blockhouse was not the only defensive position, however for this article we will focus only on this specific location. After the initial invasion threat passed all blockhouses along the Thames were disarmed in 1553 and 2 of the blockhouses were demolished, however by 1588 a new threat arrived and emergency modifications were made on the Tilbury blockhouse. Changes continued to be made over time but in peacetime the coastal defenses received little attention. In the English Civil War, Tilbury was held by Parliament and saw no military action, it wasn't until after the restoration of the King that coastal defenses were reviewed and improved. In 1667 the Dutch fleet attacked but didn't go far enough up the Thames in fear of Tilbury and Gravesend forts, however, these forts were not exactly in a good working condition with Tilbury only having 2 operational guns at the time, the Dutch didn't know this though.
In 1670, work began on the complete redesign of the fort, it lasted until 1685 and the result was just stunning, what started out as a simple blockhouse, later being in poor condition due to lack of maintenance, and now being transformed into one of the most powerful forts in Britain. The new fort was a 5-sided star-shaped fort with double moats, 2 gatehouses and totaling at a certain moment 161 guns, the original blockhouse was now part of the center of the side facing the river and the middle of the fort was raised up to prevent flooding. During more rebuilds trough time, eventually the original blockhouse was removed to make space for new guns but by the late 1800's the fort was largely outdated and was no longer upgraded, however it remained in military use as a mobilization center and was further improved for this role even throughout World War 1. Anti-aircraft guns were installed to counter the threat of German Zeppelins and Tilbury supposedly shot down the German L15. In the Second World War, Tilbury was used for anti-aircraft operations and was damaged by bombing raids. By the 1950's the fort was finally taken out of military service and restored to eventually be opened to the public. It is now managed by English Heritage and open to the public. The site has a parking, toilets, shop and picnic area, drinks and snacks are available.
I had not been inside this fort yet when visiting Tilbury to board a cruise ship, just next to the fort there is a wonderful pub called Worlds End and just down the road is the Tilbury Cruise Terminal, nowadays used primarily by Ambassador Cruise Line, in the past I passed trough here on CMV cruises. I did manage to take a drone shot of the fort though as you can see below.
But then in October 2023 I visited the fort and did a full photographic tour of this vast fort with the magnificent water gate, photos can be seen here.
Number 11: Landguard
Langar Point was another one of Henry VIII's defensive works, 2 earthwork forts were built, one on the shore and one on higher ground, plans were made to build a blockhouse out of stone but it was never built and by 1552 both forts were decommissioned and got lost in time. It was clear however that Langar Point as it was known in these times was an important defensive position. It wasn't until 1621 that the first square fort was built on the site, this fort successfully repulsed a Dutch attack in 1667. In the 18th and 19th centuries the fort became known as Landguard Fort and in 1717 it was completely rebuilt and in 1745 just next doors work was started on a completely new fort, this new fort was also rebuilt several times throughout history, eventually resulting in a star-shaped fort with a rounded wall on the side facing the water. In 1939 changes were made to the fort to make it ready for a role in anti-aircraft warfare and as a base for air-operations and special projects like the hydrogen balloons to attack Germany. In 1944 the fort opened up its guns on a supposed German raid on the coast, however this was never confirmed. In 1957 the fort was decommissioned and today it is open to the public, being managed by English Heritage. Around the fort the landscape changed dramatically throughout the years with the port of Felixtowe opened in 1875 and Harwich in 1883, in 1841 a light had been installed on the fort but this was replaced by a permanent lighthouse just outside of the fort on the Landguard Point in 1861, this lighthouse was sadly lost by a fire in 1925 and was not replaced. On the site of the former lighthouse stands a tall radar tower now. Just opposite the road from the fort is a small cafe at the beach that you can reach by small ferry from Harwich and just beyond the cafe is the impressive container terminal of Felixtowe.
I visited the fort and the area around it in 2021 and was impressed by the size and firepower, this was another heavily armed fort in the British arsenal.