Visit Report – Fort Luton

AddressMagpie Hall Road, Chatham, Kent, ME4 5XJ
Google MapsFort Luton on Google Maps
Websitewww.fortluton.co.uk
FacebookFort Luton Facebook Page
Opening TimesWork days for volunteers every Saturday between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. Public open days advertised on social media.
Date of Visit29 September 2018
FacilitiesFree parking, toilets, cafe, children's play area, event space, disabled access
ParkingThere is a car park off Magpie Hall Road at the entrance to the Fort you can park in for free. Failing that, park on the street along Kitchener Avenue.

Constructed as one of five forts surrounding the historic Naval dockyard of Chatham, construction of Fort Luton commenced in 1876. But as the end of the 19th century saw advances in artillery and ships, and as the threat from Napoleons forces dwindled, the new forts soon fell into military obsolescence. However, they were still formidable defences, providing a good position for new mobile artillery and having being constructed with considerable underground accommodation would soon find themselves in use once again.

Rising tensions with Germany in the early twentieth century caused the Fort to be refurbished providing barrack accommodation for soldiers on their way to France and the Forts modification as a defensive position covering the approach roads to Chatham. The site remained in War Department (WD) ownership between the wars, and in 1938 the site was developed into the Gun Operations Room (GOR) for the Thames and Medway Gun Defended Area (GDA). The original Napoleonic era features were modified, with some additional blast protection being added due to the risk from air attack.

Following WW2, as with many sites, the Fort was retained for use by Territorial and Cadet units, when, in the late 1950s, the fort and surrounding lands were sold for the construction of a new school. The Fort lay abandoned until 1988 when it was bought, cleared and opened as a model museum. This lasted until 2012, when it fell into the hands of new owners who, along with a brigade of volunteers, have been clearing and restoring the fort as well as curating the museum within the tunnels. The casemates are now home to some local small businesses, and there is a cafe and function room on site that also plays host to evening entertainment functions.

Visit Report

I first saw the Fort open day advertised via a local history group on Facebook as the last public open day of the season. I am a fan of heritage sites that have been restored through the help and assistance of volunteers; they lack the corporate atmosphere of some larger sites (Dover Castle for example) and often reflect a more personal and local history of the site. They also tend to be a little more open to off-piste wandering and photography; I spent over an hour wandering the site in my own time enjoying the mix of sympathetic restoration and dilapidation along with the impressive collection of military artefacts in the museum.

You enter the Fort through a pair of imposing metal gates with the name FORT LUTON proudly emblazoned above. As you cross the defensive ditch you are actually walking across the original 19th Century drawbridge, in itself a special feature that could easily be missed as you head towards the fort interior.

When you enter the Fort itself, you find yourself in front of the casemates and a restored Fort Luton painted sign above the central casemate. The majority of the central vaulted rooms are home to the small businesses, but this is also where the cafe and function room is as well as the exit to both museum tunnels. I started my visit by turning right and making my way around the rear of the Fort.

As I mentioned earlier, one draw of places like this is the mix of restoration and dilapidation. As you wander around the Fort there are locations that are untouched since they were abandoned, some in the process of being restored and others that look as good as the day they were first constructed. While it is always difficult to get a balance of this right, the exterior areas of the Fort are perhaps a little less glamorous than would be expected, but for me this only adds to the magic of places like this – but I also need to remember the site is still undergoing work, mostly by volunteers, to tidy and uncover areas that have suffered decades of neglect and vandalism. I look forward to what the site will become in the future, appreciating that it must be a constant battle against nature, crumbling concrete and local youths!

After walking along the upper platform originally intended to site wheeled artillery, you can descend into the Parade, off which there are two entrances to the museum tunnels; north and south. In the centre of the Parade on my visit was a peculiar artefact, a home-made field artillery piece, seemingly constructed between the wars judging by the tyres fitted to it.

At either end of the Parade are the entrances to the tunnels, housing the 3 museums on site.

Museums

Fort Luton boasts 3 museums in the underground tunnels within the Fort. Descriptions are from the Fort Luton website.

Museum 1

The only museum in the UK which is dedicated to the entire story of Dunkirk. The museum presents the events of Dunkirk in their correct context and has everything from original artefacts, many being unique one-off examples, to personal stories of those who served and were affected by the events of 1939-40.

This is an impressive collection of artefacts well displayed covering the evacuation of the British and Allied forces from Dunkirk. Items recovered form the beaches, brought back by soldiers along with weapons and uniforms of the era are all represented. The quality of these exhibits really surpasses what is expected of a local, privately funded museum. Descriptions are connected with each item, and they are well researched and appear factually correct from what I read. Walking through this museum tunnel brings you back to the casemates at the front of the museum. I think they are keen for people to keep to a one way system through the tunnels but as there only a couple of other people viewing the museum at the time I wandered around in either direction without confusing things to keep much; however remember the exhibits follow a timeline and are laid out in chronological order.

Museum 2

The Home Front. Another unique educational experience, where our visitors can learn about life for the civilian population in World Ward Two. Unlike many other museums, here we present examples of everyday items associated with civilian wartime life from all the main combative nations involved in the European theatre of 1929-1945.

A nice collection of gas masks and respirators, and having had a personal collection in the past, it was nice to see such a variety of masks on display in such good condition. Also on display in this small section of other home front items from Britain and also the Continent. Nicely presented and very interesting.

Museum 3

The Fort Luton Story. The Fort has a rich heritage and we have created a special museum for our visitors to discover its story. Beginning with the original planning and construction, you will be guided through the Siege Trials, two World Wars and rediscover our previous life as a family attraction before arriving at the present day.

This museum is housed in the North tunnel and has a large amount of general military artefacts on display spanning the last couple of hundred years. While this feels like a random collection of items that don’t really fit elsewhere, the narrative spans the history of the Fort and the varied uses that it seen throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Fort Luton is a special museum. The Fort has played an important part in the last 150 years of British history, and retains many original features from all of those. The collections in the museums are well presented and very relevant to the sections of history that they portray, and if indeed this is the sole museum dedicated to the events surrounding Dunkirk, then that in itself makes the museum worth a visit. The volunteers that were staffing the open day when I attended were keen to chat and knowledgable about the Fort’s history, and I would recommend a trip to Fort Luton if you ever get the chance.

8/10

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