St Catherine's Fort

St Catherine’s Island, off Tenby’s Castle Sands, is a small rocky island with one of Palmerston’s Follies on the top.

The fort, built in 1868-70 to defend this coast and the approaches to Milford Haven Harbour from the perceived threat from the French under Napoleon 111, is one of a chain of such forts, most of which are inside the Haven, from Dale and Thorn Island at its mouth to Scoveston and Pembroke Dock in the upper reaches. 

Accessible from the sands at low tide, it was the only fort built of the proposed outermost line from Tenby to Trewent and its isolated position made it virtually useless from the military standpoint. Thankfully. however, it was never required to fire a shot in anger.

The site was originally occupied by a small chapel dedicated to St Catherine, a legacy of the significant early Christian community which existed in the Tenby-Penally area in the Dark Ages. St Catherine is the Patron Saint of spinners, a flourishing trade in Tenby until the 16th century. The Victorian fort is rectangular with three batteries forming rounded bastions on the most vulnerable side to the east, It is constructed with substantial limestone ashlar, probably quarried on St Margaret’s Island between Caldey and the mainland, with detail of Lundy granite. The entrance, facing west towards Tenby was accessed by a drawbridge over the moat-like chasm in the rocks, and to each side there were matching caponiers pierced by rifle loops in each of the three storeys. There are three levels on the west side over bomb-proof brick barrel-vaulted chambers in the basement of the caponiers, with six casemates at the main level, further barrel-vaulted chambers each side of a corridor. Vaulted tunnels lead to the magazines below.

The fort was disarmed in 1906 and lay empty until it was sold to a wealthy family named Windsor from Caerleon in 1914, who turned it into an unusual dwelling on a beautiful site overlooking Caldey Roads and Carmarthen Bay. After they left it was briefly a small zoo, but access depended on the tide and the enterprise did not last long. In the early sixties it was thought it would be occupied again by an American pop star, P. J. Proby, who indicated the intention of turning it into a retreat, with a heli-pad to ease swift access. But nothing came of that except a lot of international publicity and since then it has lain derelict for decades. A few years before the fort was built, the 19th century marine biologist Gosse explored the caves and rockpools around St Catherines Island and found them a rich source of specimens of sea anemone and shellfish. Between 1858 and 1860 he wrote an elaborate work called Actinologia Britannica describing the various finds he made there.They included dog winkle, smooth anemone, snowy-disked anemone, acorn shells, stag’s-horn sponge and crumb-of-bread sponge, scarlet and yellow sponges and starfish.

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