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Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Thursday, 17 June 2010 12:53 UK
Friends' bid to restore Fort Belan watchtower
Tower at Fort Belan
Relics from the fort ended up in Merseyside Maritime Museum

A Napoleonic fort on the shores of the Menai Strait is hosting a series of fundraising events to save its old watchtower.

"So much of the fort needs doing," said Jean Blundell of the Friends of Belan Association. "But we thought it would be nice to sort the tower out because the views are so lovely from the top and it's great for birdwatching."

Fort Belan began life as a barracks in the late 1780s to ward off American privateers who had already raided two mail ships in the Irish Sea.

A French invasion via Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars was also a real prospect, so placing cannons at this narrow point of the Menai Strait was seen as a good strategy for defending nearby Caernarfon.

Historian Michael Stammers, author of A Maritime Fortress: Collections of the Wynn Family at Belan Fort, 1750-1950, gave a talk at the fort earlier this month.

"It was never actually used in anger, so in the 1820s the Wynn family, who were major landowners in north Wales, turned it into the elaborate fort for their own pleasure," he explained.

The main gun battery at Belan Fort about 1850-60
Despite its military roots, no shots have been fired in anger from the fort

"They added the little harbour because Spencer Wynn had a steam yacht only five years after Brunel's pioneering work.

"It was very much a status symbol and he took it to the Crimean War to watch the Brits and French bombarding the Russians - 'to watch all the fun', as they put it."

The fort stayed in the Wynn family until the 1980s. Michael has fond memories of visiting it on a family holiday and exploring the vast collection of maritime relics in the old boat sheds.

Little did he know that, when the fort was sold, all this would come into his hands as director of the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool.

"We took the whole collection," he recalled. "It was very diverse, from military equipment the volunteers would have used in the 18th century to a full-sized steam launch and 150-year old tinned food from the Vesta [the Wynn's steam yacht]."

The fort was returned to military use during World War II, when it became the base for the Home Guard and two rescue launches.

"There was a training base for bombers next to it," said Michael.

Spencer Wynn's steam yacht, the Vesta
The Faenol's Assherton-Smiths also had steam yachts on the Menai

"All the airfields on the east side of England were either fighter bases to defend, or bomber bases to attack, so all the trainee pilots could keep out of trouble on the west coast of Wales."

Michael is very glad to see restoration work progressing, especially the bid to open up the late 19th century watchtower.

"Freddie Wynn, who lived in their main family home of Glynllifon, used to drive out to the fort every day because he loved the spot so much," said Michael.

"He built the watchtower in the 1890s and kept a big telescope there. It's said he only had it to watch courting couples on the other side of the Menai which, knowing Freddie, is highly likely!"

Jean Blundell and her husband bought the property in the 1980s as a base for marine biology exploration, but soon realised they could do much more with the Grade I listed buildings.

"The rest of the fort was getting so decrepit that we began doing up the houses to rent them out and to help with the up-keep," said Jean, chief organiser of the fundraising events.

"It's great working with the Friends of Fort Belan who help us do all the things which would be difficult to get round to doing, like restoring several of the old cannons on their wooden carriages," she said.

Forthcoming events at the fort include a concert, an art lecture and a drama school.

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