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  • 4DHeritage team

A design invincible to British warships is on the verge of being lost to the sea

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Aldeburgh’s Martello tower is now one of the most exposed to England’s changing shoreline. This blog explores its history as well as the measures put in place to protect it from the erosion of the coast. It also provides a link through to an immersive experience of the site and the building. Navigating this immersive site, it is possible to explore the site as it was captured over the last 150 years, see fresh perspectives from the sea and air, and understand the consultations taking place to conserve it for another generation.

A coastal heritage site is hugely influenced by season, tide, time of day and perspective. Many coastal features such as the Orfordness spit may change from year to year. Multiple layers in an immersive experience can allow this dynamic quality to be captured in ways traditional documentation cannot.

Martello Towers, or 'Martellos', were small defensive forts first built in the South East of England during the Napoleonic War between 1805 and 1808. The design was inspired by a round fortress at Mortella Point in Corsica (completed 1565).

The tower as it is today. By COLLE M. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1794 two British warships for two days unsuccessfully attacked the tower at Mortella Point.

This impressed the British who copied the design for the British Martello Towers.

It still stands today. These are two drawings made at the time.

Elevation of the tower.

Elevation: The artist was probably a British army officer. c. 1794.

Plan: The artist was probably a British army officer. c. 1794.

Inspired by this design, 140 Martellos were built around Britain, over half of which can be found in the South East of England, where 74 punctuate the Kent and East Sussex coast between Seaford and Folkestone. Ironically none were ever used in combat during the Napoleonic War. However during the Second World War some were modified and used as look out points.

One third still stand to this day, either empty or derelict, whilst some have been converted into museums, or homes. Many have now been lost to the sea, or demolished due to being unsafe or to reuse the masonry, some were deliberately destroyed in training practice.

The tower at the foot of the Orford Ness peninsula, between the River Alde and the sea is of the largest and most northerly of this chain of towers built to keep Napoleon out.

An immersive perspective helps provide a much greater appreciation of the threat to this monument from both coastal erosion and estuarine flooding. It also highlights the challenge and complexity of protecting the natural ecosystem, as well as long term cost of mechanical engineering interventions to reduce the speed of coastal erosion.

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