Fort emerges from a forest of trees thanks to work of charity and small army of volunteers
A forest of casuarinas and hundreds of pounds of debris have been cleared from Bermuda’s largest fortification as part of a clean-up of the historic Fort Victoria.
The fortification once watched over the town of St George but sections were destroyed or modified for the Club Med resort and allowed to fall into disrepair in the decades since the hotel closed.
But the St George’s Foundation and a small army of volunteers have worked to clear out the overgrowth and rubble with the goal of reopening the fort to tours early this year.
Peter Barrett, president of the St George’s Foundation, said: “It’s important to preserve these historic monuments so that it is easy for people to bring history alive.
“We can sit in a classroom and I can lecture you about the fort or we could do the same while walking around these historic monuments. That is why we want to preserve them.
“Once they are destroyed, we will never be able to replace them and that is why it is such a crime that the keep was torn away for a pool. A pool. It would have made a fantastic museum had it not been destroyed.
“In a way, we have already lost a big chunk of this site, but what we have left is worth preserving so we have something to show our children about what life was like in the past.”
Fort Victoria was originally completed in 1842 and was refitted several times until 1897, when it was decided to replace the original cannons with modern steel guns.
Mr Barrett said the fort was large enough to boast citadel status, meaning that if a military force threatened the island it could be used to house the residents of St George.
“This was the only fort in Bermuda to have that status because of the incredible amount of infrastructure that was here,” he said.
Britain left the fort in 1935 and it remained vacant until 1940 when the US Navy moved into the site, building a command and control centre and installing its own guns.
“It took them two years to build and in 1944, when it was clear that Germany was on borrowed time, this place was abandoned,” he said.
When work on the Club Med Resort began. The decision was made to use the fort to house some amenities such as a cycle livery and garage.
A keep, which had stood in the centre of the fort, was torn down and a swimming pool was built in its place.
Mr Barrett said: “Imagine if in the 1950s people turned the end of Dockyard into a hotel extravaganza and the Commissioner’s House was destroyed to make room for a hotel pool.
“That’s what happened here with the destruction of the keep.”
Mr Barrett said that after the hotel shut its doors in 1989, the structure was left to fall into disrepair. It was eventually demolished in 2008.
“This moat was more like a forest than a Unesco World Heritage site,” Mr Barrett added.
“People were living in here. They were bringing in groceries and mattresses and living in the musketeer rooms throughout the area.
“When you leave a place vacant for a period of time, you attract that. Cleaning up after them was part of the exercise here.”
He said that one section appeared to have been quarried for sand and then became an illegal dumping ground.
But Mr Barrett said that the dedicated work of a number of volunteers had resulted in large swathes of invasive plants being torn out, stairways cleared of debris and numerous trash bags full of empty bottles removed.
During the work, volunteers had to tear down an ageing and deteriorating bridge over the outer moat. Mr Barrett said they intended to replace it with a portion of catwalk that had been removed from Ordnance Island as part of the St George’s Marina project.
“One of my friends saw the catwalks and realised they would be perfect as we also have to replace the bridges at Fort Cunningham and Fort Albert,” he said.
“We offered to buy the bridges off the Corporation of St George’s and they were delighted to sell them.”
Mr Barrett said the St George’s Foundation hoped to have the fort ready for tours early this year but reopening some areas of the site would take much more work.
The basement of the structure has been completely flooded but the foundation hopes to be able to drain it and reopen it to the public.
“There are rooms for keeping charge and shells. There were fresh water tanks and in the middle of the keep was the deepest well in Bermuda,” said Mr Barrett.
“It’s over 200ft deep. What they used to pump that water up, I don’t know, but it must have been a pretty heavy duty machine.”
And Fort Victoria is far from the last site to be tackled by the foundation.
The organisation intends to turn its focus to the nearby Fort Albert and then the St David’s Battery as it continues its work to restore the island’s fortifications.
Mr Barrett said the work might be critical to maintaining St George’s Unesco World Heritage status, noting that Unesco sites were supposed to be open and accessible to the public.
“We know from exit surveys and marketing research that some visitors are particularly attracted to the Town of St George because of its Unesco site status,” he said.
“Income can be earned by using historical sites as museums and galleries, where people pay an entry fee – we see this at Fort St Catherine and the National Museum.
“Large sites can also be used as rental venues to host restaurants and small businesses without jeopardising the value of the historic site.”