Thomas Hodgkinson reports on his week-long visit to the tiny nation of Sealand:
Seven miles off the coast of Suffolk, there is a country. It isn’t a very big country. In fact, its surface area extends to no more than 6,000 square feet, which is about twice the size of a tennis court. You won’t find it on Google Maps and it isn’t a member of Nato or, indeed, the EU. But it exists. And I know, because I’ve been there.
[. . .]
The reason for this suspicion of strangers in general lies in the violent, picaresque nature of its past. Sealand was built in 1943 by the Royal Navy as an anti-aircraft fortress designed to shoot down Luftwaffe planes. In those days it was equipped with two 94mm Vickers heavy anti-aircraft guns and two 40mm Bofors light anti-aircraft guns, and manned by 120 seamen crammed into accommodation in the hollow concrete towers. It was known as HM Fort Roughs, or Roughs Tower for short. Abandoned after the War, it gathered rust and guano, a gloomy relic of conflict, until the era of pirate radio in the 1960s.
Then two rival entrepreneurs competed for possession, regarding the fort as the perfect place (since it was outside the three-mile zone that then constituted British territorial waters) from which to broadcast pop music to a grateful generation of teenagers. The piratical pair were the long-haired Irish chancer Ronan O’Rahilly, of Radio Caroline fame, and one Roy Bates, a cravat-wearing former Army major.
Each time one of them put men on Roughs Tower, the other would send people to eject them, sometimes forcibly. It was a question of who was prepared to go further, and the answer turned out to be the Englishman. For Bates, the solitary fortress became far more than a radio project. It became an obsession that would absorb not only his life, but also the lives of his wife and children.
The key thing, he knew, was to maintain a presence. With even one occupant, Roughs Tower was tough to take. But Roy couldn’t afford a guard, so instead he plucked his 14-year-old son Michael out of school and put him up there, sometimes with his daughter Penny, sometimes with his wife Joan. For Michael, this was a welcome escape from the dreary rigours of a public-school education, but as he confided to me during a long lunch on-shore after my visit, “I expected it to last six months, not 40-something years”.