Command of the Heights, Fort Amherst, Chatham

Restoration of the historic Fort Amherst, Medway Council, Kent

Located directly to the north east of Chathams town centre, Fort Amherst is one of the countries best preserved Napoloeonic Fortresses. It was built to defend Chatham and the historic Dockyard in the 17th Century at the height of the threat of invasion from the French and Spanish. 

The ambition for the ‘Command of the Heights’ project was to restore and enhance Fort Amherst, as a space of historic significance, with a strong vision for the future, and to inject new lifeblood into the area, by engaging people from all walks of life to help shape the future of the site. 

The landscape strategy included the removal of the Riverside One building to open up the lower end of the barrier ditch as it would have been historically, and creation of a new waterside public realm space in this location to provide a strong physical connection to the Chatham town centre.

To fully comprehend this site and understand what this place means - for the past, present and the future, and what it means for people and the environment, was crucial. 

In order to do this we needed to take a journey back through time, not just back to Dickensian Chatham, or to the Napoleonic fortress, built with military might and feats of engineering to protect the strong military might of Britains Royal navy. It was back in time to the Saxon village that once stood on the site and the formation of Chatham itself as a village. 

This place challenges many perceptions.  It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument,  previously on Historic Englands ‘at risk’ register, with numerous listed structures and sites. It is a site of great historic significance, in the context of its’ military defence history, from a time when the British Empire was all about exploring and conquering.

This history, whilst important to acknowledge and recognise, comes from a by-gone era, and the project needed to challenge modern perceptions of white military History.  Old thinking does not align with the current cultural context of human rights, and the present political dialogue around Black Lives Matter.  As well as shaping the landscape, this project also had to be about educating, acknowledging the past, and creating a new story for the future so that the site can move forward with positivity.

Fort Amherst is steeped in Napoleonic military and Dickensian history. It is embedded in the fabric of the site which was originally designed and built to keep people out. It is built on a steep hill-side with precipitous embankments, high revetments, and guarded entrances. There are draw-bridges designed to completely cut the site off and to prevent entry.  All barriers to people entering, hence the names ‘Barrier Road and Barrier Ditch!’

Our brief was to open up these barriers and make the site accessible again, but to do so with sensitivity, and recognition of the importance of heritage and at the same time acknowledging that without a breath of new life, this place would fall further into disrepair.  Our job was to get people in!  Not only to enter the site but to enrich the lives of all visitors and engage new users in the space.

We have achieved this with the landscape, creating theatre, community gardens, market spaces and public realm: Contemporary, accessible new spaces have been designed within a historic site, which literally and metaphorically break down barriers.  We removed the building at Riverside One, re-establishing an important link between the town centre and the Fort, and re-opened the unrestored areas of the site for new community use, reconnecting Fort Amherst with its town and its people.