A little bit of luxury
PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 May 2014
From Hong Kong to Saltash, the China Fleet Club has come a long way, writes Chrissy Harris
They are worlds apart but for Alex Sharpe, Hong Kong and Saltash share a special link. They are the past and present homes of the China Fleet Club – a welcome refuge for sailors coping with life at sea.
Retired Naval police officer Mr Sharpe spent many an hour enjoying precious time off ship at the club when it was based in Hong Kong until the Chinese handover in 1997.
Today, the grandfather of eight brings his family to China Fleet in Saltash, near Plymouth, where it was reopened in 1991 as a country club, complete with swimming pool and golf course.
Mr Sharpe says although the club is still a haven for Navy personnel, China Fleet’s rich history has helped transform it into one of Devon and Cornwall’s top leisure destinations for people from all walks of life.
The venue has recently opened a new spa, boasting a sauna with a contrasting ice room, spa pool, steam room, salt inhalation facility, multi-jet showers, a relaxation space, a dry heat room and a foot spa.
“It’s been a pleasure to see how far it’s come,” says Mr Sharpe, who is chief executive of the China Fleet Trust. “When I was in the Navy, China Fleet always represented that little bit of luxury and that’s still true.”
Mr Sharpe remembers visiting the club at its grand, Hong Kong home, where there were seven floors of shopping, eating, drinking and pampering.
“It was a really special place,” he says. “Life on board a ship was pretty rough. There were 40 or 50 people around you at any time and there were no single bedrooms. Being off the ship for a weekend, getting away from something that moved around all the time and on to dry land to a place where you had a bit of freedom and space was so special.
“China Fleet was a real break from life at sea and it was ours. There was no formality, no ranks. Officers could only come in if they were invited. It was a real break from everything.”
With the agreement to hand back Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 looming, the search began for a suitable successor to the China Fleet Club in the UK in the 1980s. The 180-acre Saltash site was perfect, overlooking the River Tamar and close to Plymouth with its deep Naval heritage. Work began in 1989 and the club was officially opened two years later, just a few months before the Hong Kong venue closed its doors for the last time.
“It was a sad day when it closed,” says Alex. “Many people had enjoyed the club in Hong Kong over the years but we knew we had to move on. It was the right time.”
Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese on July 1 1997. Alex witnessed the historic event from his position aboard HMS Beaver, which was waiting just off the coast.
“There was such a mixture of emotions that day but it felt like you were a part of history,” says Alex. “We all had a lot of memories there but we knew we had a place to come back to. Seeing the China Fleet Club now, with all the young families who use it, all the events we’ve had going on, it just brings home to me the fact that it’s going from strength to strength. I know it will be enjoyed for generations to come.”Lisa Nash is proof of that. She and her husband, Ben, a submariner, got married at the club last February and their daughter Hayley, three, has learnt to swim in the pool there.
“We had a beautiful wedding day– we couldn’t fault it,’ says Lisa, 42. “We only got engaged in the December and we wanted to get married before Ben went off to sea again.”
For more information, visit china-fleet.co.uk
A rich history:
The China Fleet Country Club was born in Hong Kong, to benefit the serving ratings, the junior ranks of the Royal Navy. Other ranks could also use the club, which went from being a Royal Navy Canteen on the Wanchai waterfront to a prestigious country club in the UK’s West Country.
1901 - The mud flats of Victoria Harbour were bought for $2.50 per square foot by a Hong Kong businessman who began charging for tipping rubble from the growing colony.
1903 - The land began selling for $25.00 per square foot. Short of buyers for the land, the businessman joined with the personnel of the Royal Navy’s China Fleet to raise funds for a Royal Naval Canteen.
1929 - The canteen proved to be extremely successful and was soon demolished to make way for a new building.
1933 - Using the club funds and with a generous loan from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank; Admiral Kelly, Commander in Chief, China Station, laid the foundation stone for the seven-storey China Fleet Club building. For the men who served on the China Station “The Old Blue” as it was known provided a
place for refreshment and decent accommodation away from their crowded ships.
1941 - During the battle for Hong Kong, the Japanese occupied the Club using it as the naval HQ.
1945 - The Club was extensively refurbished and returned to its former use after the Royal Marines and Royal Navy liberated the colony.
1950-53 - During the Korean War, the Club became a major rest and recreation centre for UK and allied sailors.
1959-73 - During the Vietnam War, allied and American sailors used the club between tours of duty.
1980 - Land values escalated and the trustees sold the air space over the club. A developer paid for temporary facilities while building a new luxury club on the first nine floors with 14 more floors of office space above.
1985 - Fleet House opened but because of the agreement to hand back Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, the search began for a suitable successor to the China Fleet Club in the UK.
1986 - A proposal to build the China Fleet Country Club at Saltash in Cornwall was put to the Hong Kong sailors committee and trustees.
1987 - The land was purchased and design of the complex began.
1989 - Building work began on the 180-acre Saltash site.
1991 - The new China Fleet Country Club was officially opened on 1st June.
1992 - On 30 November, the Hong Kong China Fleet Club closed its doors, ready for the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997