As an island, mainland Britain has had to defend itself against possible invasion by sea throughout its history. With continental Europe lying predominantly along our southern shores, most coastal defences are situated in an area stretching from Cornwall in the south-west to Suffolk in the east. The most recent threats have come from Germany, but it was the activities of the French in the mid-19th century that provoked a strengthening of coastal defences, of which Newhaven Fort was one.
A young Lieutenant by the name of J C Ardagh designed Newhaven Fort and, at the tender age of 22, showed considerable skill for the task. As with many Victorian Engineers, Ardagh wanted a building that was not only functional, but also stylish. The lovely symmetrical lines of the arched Casemates, along with their decorative two-tone brickwork, beautifully demonstrate his 19th century flair. Ardagh commenced work in 1862 and continued to oversee construction until he left Newhaven Fort in 1868. His lasting legacy at Newhaven Fort was the unique design of the entrance drawbridge, which allowed the archway to be completely covered by the roadway section when the bridge was raised. Building work was finally completed in 1871.
In the event, the threatened invasion never materialised, and life at Newhaven Fort remained quiet. During the early part of the 20th century the guns were replaced with the more modern breech loading type. In 1907 an observation post was built equipped with a range-finder, aided by the greatest invention of the day, the 'telephone'. With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the regular garrison was mobilised for more pressing duties, being replaced by a territorial unit. Although fully manned, Newhaven Fort was at low risk of invasion, and day-to-day life remained uneventful. As peace prevailed Newhaven Fort was virtually abandoned, albeit for a handful of men who were tasked with ongoing maintenance work.
In 1940 the situation changed dramatically with the fall of France and Belgium to an invading German Army. Suddenly, Britain's southern coastline once again became the front-line. Much work was done to strengthen defences in the region, and Newhaven's port was no exception. Despite attracting the attention of the German Luftwaffe throughout the war, the threat came to nothing.
In 1956 a decision was finally taken to abolish coastal artillery, bringing an end some 400 years of defensive tradition, first instigated by Henry VIII. The army continued to occupy Newhaven Fort until 1962, at which time the future of the buildings looked in doubt. In 1967 plans were put in place to convert the site into a holiday village but this venture eventually failed and Newhaven Fort was left to the mercy of the elements and local vandals. In 1981 Lewes District Council accepted an offer from the private sector to restore Newhaven Fort and open it to the public as a tourist attraction. Careful restoration followed and Newhaven Fort opened its doors to the public for the first time in 1982. This venture failed to be commercially viable, and guardianship of Newhaven Fort returned to Lewes District Council, where it remains to this day.
A visit to Newhaven Fort is certainly something a little different, and much care has been taken to provide many interesting displays in the casement buildings - the exhibitions covering the two Great Wars being particularly notable. Great views, a cafe, and a children's adventure playground all add up to a entertaining day out for young and old alike.