The Martello Tower, Aldeburgh
In the early nineteenth century, the windswept coast of Suffolk was home to a number of unusual construction projects.
Although the combined fleets of France and Spain had been defeated at The Battle of Trafalgar, the threat of a French invasion was a very real one to Suffolk’s inhabitants. Napoleon was lord of all Europe and the burghers of Aldeburgh lay quaking in their beds at night.
Although the Royal Navy retained mastery of the world’s oceans, the fear of invasion was unswayable and so builders were summoned and the Martellos were born.
The Martellos were the projects supported by those members of parliament who doubted the Duke of Wellington and the ability of the British to wage a land war against the French. With the British holding on desperately to tiny continental footholds in Gibraltar and Portugal many thought it best to bring home the troops and defend our nation as it had always had been defended, by sea.
Inspired by similar forts at Genoa that the British had destroyed a couple of years earlier the Martellos were round structures about forty feet high with thick walls and wide roofs.
The towers would support one or two maneuverable guns along with quarters for around thirty men and officers, an ample magazine, a ration store and a water supply.
Altogether eighteen towers were built along the Suffolk coastline and together with those in Essex and Sussex they formed an unbroken defence against the threat of filthy French republicanism. The towers were never to be tested by the French however and new uses had to be found for these imposing coastal icons.
Many were pulled down for their masonry, and many, particularly in Suffolk, were used by the coastguard in their desperate and divisive battle against smuggling.
As artillery technology advanced some towers were destroyed to test the efficacy of the new rifled cannons. Slowly and surely the towers were built over or swept into the sea. Some towers saw service again during the Battle of Britain when they housed anti-aircraft batteries that defended against new continental would-be invaders.
More and more are being converted into stunning if unusual houses.
Perhaps the best known of these is the remarkable extra large example just south of Aldeburgh. This Martello (tower CC) is essentially four towers joined together and dominates a narrow spit of land just a short walk along the coast between the sea and the river Alde. Two Martellos used to flank the Deben estuary but the tower on the north bank has been destroyed; the south bank tower remains in fantastic condition however and has been converted into a house.
Another splendidly converted Martello Tower stands on the Bawdsey cliffs, a little way north of the river, sleeping 5 you can rent Martello Tower Y for holidays at any time of the year.
For some time it seemed that this tower would soon be washed into the sea but it has recently been saved for the foreseeable future thanks to prompt action by the local community.
The Martello towers are part of our collective heritage, monuments to our shared history that have become one with Suffolk’s beautiful coastline. So if you find yourself wandering along the Suffolk coast and are confronted by a cylinder of grey stone, take a moment to think of the men who stood upon its summit once and watched for approaching doom.