It's been quite the quest. I have sidled through undergrowth to find hidden gun emplacements at East Tilbury, dragged a daughter to a derelict gunpowder factory at the kink in the Thames known as Lower Hope Point, almost tumbled into the Medway while locating a Restoration-era ruin, outrun porpoises and seen a shipwreck containing enough ordnance to blow a large hole in the Estuary, and
I could not reach all of them. Fort Darnet and Fort Hoo are stranded on islets in the Medway, and unfortunately I don't possess a boat. Garrison Point is sitting in the middle of Sheerness Docks, and the tunnels below the demolished Grain Fort can only be accessed by squeezing into a hole in a ditch that a rabbit would balk at. With these, I had to content myself with observing from a comfortable but slightly frustrating distance.
After all of this, after four years, only two forts remained to explore... the forts that formed the last line of defence before the Tower Of London. My quest began with a fort on a marsh, and will end with a fort on a marsh.
|The Stuart Gatehouse|
We arrive at the rough, pitted carpark of a pub called The World's End, three hundred years old and listed Grade II. Although the pub seems to have a good reputation for dining, its surroundings are somewhat bleak. To the west is a good deal of ugly industrialisation, to the north a scrappy-looking marsh dotted with stray ponies, and to the east our destination... Tilbury Fort.
|Tilbury Fort from above (c) Mervyn Rands|
The present Fort stands on the site of a Tudor blockhouse, one of five erected on the orders of Henry VIII following his break with Rome, as he feared invasion from the Catholic countries of France and Spain. The remains of only one of these blockhouses can be seen today, and more on that later.
The West Tilbury blockhouse may have been the rallying point for the militia of Elizabeth I during the Armada crisis of 1588, when she rode among her troops in full armour and gave what is arguably her most famous speech:
'...I am come among you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King... and of a King of England, too!... and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms.'
Ultimately, Elizabeth and her militia had no need to take up arms; the weather in the English Channel and the North Sea was ample enough to do for the Armada!
|Liz rallies the troops|
Eldest and I abandon the car and walk a short distance along the riverfront until we arrive at the marvellous Portland stone gatehouse that welcomes visitors to Tilbury Fort. Known as the Water Gate (as it faces the river), it dates to 1682 and carries an inscription commemorating Charles II. An empty niche, directly below the royal coat of arms, may have once held his statue, and the façade is embellished with carvings of cannons.
|Rear of Water Gate and Guard House, seen from across the parade ground|
Through the Water Gate, the visitor enters the parade ground. Although it seems spacious today, the ground was more cluttered in the past, with storage buildings erected during the 1880's. The ground was originally grassed, not being paved until the movement of heavy vehicles during the First World War made it necessary.
The Tudor blockhouse served, often through periods of neglect, until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. He ordered a review of the coastal defences under the guidance of an engineer named Sir Bernard de Gomme, who had originally been Engineer and Quartermaster General for the King's late father.
|Sir Bernard de Gomme|
De Gomme originally drew up his designs for Tilbury Fort in 1661, but no work was carried out until the Dutch Raid on the Medway in 1667 ( which I covered in Forts And Foreshores: The Confluence ). A new design for the Fort was drawn up by De Gomme, and it was built between 1670 and 1685, the year during which both de Gomme and Charles II passed away. The result has been described by the Fort's current custodians, English Heritage, as '...de Gomme's most accomplished design, and is the most complete example in Britain of a 17th-century bastioned artillery fort with elaborate outer defences.' The Tudor blockhouse, at the time, was incorporated into the Fort's defences.
Of de Gomme's original work, plenty remains... the 'elaborate outer defences', consisting of an inner moat with a fortified islet called a ravelin, and an outer moat with a fortified islet known as a redan. The West Gun Line and East Gun Line, between the Fort and the Thames, is Stuart, as are the Guard House and the Officer's Quarters. The Fort's walls are from the same period, although they were removed on the south-eastern side by later Victorian works.
|View across the eastern defences. The area between the moat and the low wall beyond is known as a 'place of arms', where soldiers would muster to repel attackers.|
|The Officers' Quarters|
On the opposite side of the parade ground from the Officers' Quarters can be seen the foundations of the Soldiers' Barracks and an adjoining ball court, also Stuart and not demolished until the 1950's.
|Soldiers' Barracks. Judging by their condition, shortly before demolition.|
Early in the 18th century, the Board of Ordnance decided to use Tilbury Fort as a storage facility for gunpowder, and in 1716 two large powder magazines were constructed on the north of the parade ground, between the ground and the Landport Gate which led to the outer defences. The Tudor Blockhouse, a short distance to the east of the Water Gate, was also used as a magazine.
|Foundations of the ball court on the left (next to the gun), Powder magazines upper left, Officers' Barracks upper right|
|Gunpowder barrels in the magazine. At the time the magazines were constructed in 1716, a Cooperage was also established.|
In 1746, the Fort briefly became a Prisoner Of War camp. On 11th August, a ship containing 268 Jacobite prisoners, captured after the Battle of Culloden, docked at Tilbury, and the unfortunate supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie were imprisoned in the Gunpowder Magazines. Conditions were appalling, and 45 of them died of typhus in the first month of their incarceration. Those who survived were tried in London early in 1747, and most of them were transported to the West Indies.
Following the departure of the Jacobites, the Fort led a peaceful exisence for a few decades, until another invasion scare in 1778. However, the Engineer responsible for the defences, Thomas Hyde Page, seemed to think that Tilbury was adequately defended, and his only change was to re-organise a section of the outer defences facing directly downstream. Page's real interests lay on the other side of the Thames, and we shall explore that later!
The Napoleonic Wars saw only a few updates to the Fort's artillery, while small batteries were established downstream at Coalhouse, Shornemead and Lower Hope Point. After Waterloo, more decades of peace ensued until the 1850's, when an arms race began, sparked off by the new generation of ironclad warships being constructed by Britain and France. Yet another defence review was held, and this led - during the 1860's - to the construction along the Estuary of the so-called 'Palmerston Follies', named after the Prime Minister of the day, a series of new Forts that never saw combat. Shornemead, Coalhouse, Cliffe, Slough, Grain, Garrison Point, Hoo and Darnet all came into being during this arms race.
Tilbury underwent conversion. The NW bastion was ignored ( French warships were unlikely to attack from the marsh!), but the bastions on the NE, E, SE and W were heavily re-modelled and provided with underground magazines for the storage of shells and cartridges.
|Entrance to the underground magazine in the NE bastion|
|A magazine lamp, sealed within its recess by a glass pane|
|Shells in the NE magazine|
|Inside the NE magazine|
The last major addition to the Fort was the addition of a new generation of very large guns to the East Bastion and the SouthEast Curtain, and this took place in the opening years of the 20th century. However, it was soon decided that the Thames no longer needed landborne defences, as the Royal Navy was deemed powerful enough to deal with any threats to the estuarine approach to London.
|Very Large Guns on the SE curtain|
When the First World War broke out, Tilbury became barracks for soldiers on their way to France and, in 1915, was officially designated as an Ordnance Depot. Electric lights, motorised transport and a series of tramways were introduced. After the War, the Fort was deemed obsolete and was given over to basic care and maintenance, which was just as well as it was called back into service when the Second World War broke out, briefly being used to guide anti-aircraft activities before being superceded by a new anti-aircraft base at Vange, several miles west. The remains of this base can be found on Basildon Golf Course!
The Army transferred ownership of the Fort to the Ministry of Works in 1950. It opened to the public following restoration in 1982, and since 1983 has been in the care of English Heritage.
One down, one to go. Eldest and I treat ourselves to a couple of bottles of mead from the gift shop then depart, hiding our acquisitions in the car before walking a short distance west to the embarkation point of the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry.
The embarkation point is directly adjacent to the London International Cruise Terminal, and we are treated to a surprise visitor. Docked at the Terminal is the cruise ship 'Europa 2' which, according to the Berlitz Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, is the highest rated cruise ship in the world.
|MS Europa 2, launched in 2013, can hold 516 passengers and 370+ crew. She is 740ft long and has 7 passenger decks!|
Our own transport is a tad more modest.
|£4 for a return ticket. Bit cheaper than the boat behind us.|
The trip across the Thames is short and uneventful, although there is an interesting view downriver, where we can see the Radar Tower at Coalhouse Point as well as the remains of Shornemead Fort and the distant WW2 watchtower at Cliffe Fort... all of which were explored on previous quests.
Approaching the jetty at Gravesend, we get a good view of another moored boat.
Light Vessel 21 was constructed in 1963, and spent most of her service at various points of the Kent coast. In 1981 it was involved in a collision with another ship in the Dover Straits and, while sustaining serious damage to her superstructure, was able to be repaired and returned to service. She was retired in 2008 and found her way to Gravesend, where she is now 'a floating art space and performance facility' (lv21.co.uk).
Before commencing with the eastward walk to the last site of our four-year quest, we take a small stroll inland to the parish church of St George.
|St George's Church, Gravesend (c) Pam Connell|
In the burial register, dated March 21st 1617, is the following entry: 'Rebecca Wrolfe, wyffe of John Rolfe gent. A Virginian lady borne, was buried in ye chancell.'
It comes as a surprise to many to discover that this maritime church, in the urban trappings of a Kentish town on the Thames foreshore, is the resting place of the woman who, before she adopted a Christian name, was better known as the American Indian princess Pocahontas.
Born c.1596, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, she came to attention in 1607 when she intervened to prevent the colonist John Smith from having his brains knocked out by hostile members of her tribe. In 1613 - some years after Smith had returned to England after being injured in a gunpowder explosion - Pocahontas was captured by the colonists during a period of unrest and held for ransom. During her year of captivity, she converted to Christianity.
|A portrait from 1616|
'Rebecca' married the colonist John Rolfe in 1614, and gave him a son Thomas. The Virginia Company, which had sponsored the settlers, considered the conversion and marriage of Mrs Rolfe to be something of a propaganda coup which highlighted the success of the colonies, so the Rolfes set off for London so that Jacobean society could marvel at the 'noble savage'. They attended many social gatherings and met King James and Anne, his Queen. The travel writer Samuel Purchas made her acquaintance, and she once again met John Smith.
The Rolfes boarded a ship for their return journey in March 1617, but did not get far as Rebecca became seriously ill with an unrecorded malady. She was taken ashore at Gravesend where she died at the young age of about 21. John Rolfe returned to Virginia and, through her son Thomas, the descendants of Pocahontas thrive today.
Her statue, a replica of one that stands in Jamestown, was erected in the churchyard in 1975, a reminder to the residents of the parish of their connection to a scion of pioneer history.
|An American legend in Kent|
We return to the riverside and stroll east. Before too long, we encounter some more ruins... the remains of the Gravesend Blockhouse.
Henry VIII built five of these blockhouses. The one across the river, at Tilbury Fort, was demolished in the mid nineteenth century during the Palmerston improvements. The others, at Milton, Higham and East Tilbury, were dismantled during the Elizabethan period and nothing remains above ground.
Gravesend Blockhouse survived because it was working in conjunction with Tilbury Fort. It was repaired in 1588 during the Armada crisis and again in 1667 during the Dutch Raid. It survived until demolition in 1844, and its foundations were uncovered by archaeologists in 1975-6. The ruins are now a scheduled monument.
|The Henrician blockhouse, Gravesend|
A short distance to the east lies the last fortification to be investigated in four years of estuarine exploration, the New Tavern Fort. Of all the fortifications between the mouth of the Thames Estuary and this point, New Tavern Fort is the only one to be constructed in the 18th Century.
|An information board with a map of New Tavern Park, the Fort on the left|
The grounds have been landscaped and form part of a larger park. A bandstand has been constructed on the old parade ground, and a walk created around the ramparts and along the moat.
|The interior of New Tavern Fort|
The most striking feature of the Fort's interior is a building... one that existed before the Fort, had the Fort built around it, and is the oldest building in Gravesend. It is known as the Milton Chantry.
|Milton Chantry from the ramparts|
It was constructed in 1322 as part of the Leper Hospital of St Mary the Virgin, by the wealthy and powerful Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, an ally of Edward II and veteran of the Battle of Bannockburn among others.
This complex fell into the hands of Henry VIII during his reformation of the Church, and the Hospital disappeared. The chapel survived by becoming a family home, and then a farm, and by the end of the 17th century it was an inn called the New Tavern...
later giving its name to first the Fort and, eventually, the Park. During the active years of the Fort it became a barracks, and in 1932 a Museum.
|Like its neighbour at Tilbury, New Tavern likes to show off the Very Large Guns|
New Tavern Fort came about due to fears that the French and Spanish, supporting the Americans in their War of Independence, would launch an attack up the Thames. In 1780 the engineer Thomas Hyde Page, having made minor improvements to Tilbury Fort, crossed the river and inspected the Gravesend Blockhouse. Finding it inadequate, he decided to construct a new fortress a short distance to the east.
|Feeling lucky, punk?|
It never saw action in the War of Independence, of course, but continued to be expanded and improved throughout the 19th century, especially during the Palmerston period. General Gordon, of later Siege of Khartoum fame, oversaw those improvements while living in the grounds of the Fort between 1865-71. He has a memorial on the East Tilbury church tower next to Coalhouse Fort, as he was also overseeing the construction of that.
|Freshly painted Large Gun|
The Fort became a Royal Engineers depot during World War 1, and was later used by the Territorial Army. The Gravesend Corporation purchased the interior of the Fort and opened it as a pleasure garden in 1932, although the batteries remained until 1938. During World War 2, the underground magazines were requisitioned as Air Raid Shelters and communication masts were erected to monitor enemy transmissions. A V2 rocket took out Fort House, once the home of General Gordon, in 1944. Parts of the Milton Chantry complex also had to be demolished.
In modern times, New Tavern Fort has become part of Gravesend's Riverside Leisure Area, its great guns overlooking a children's play area and a park with an ornamental lake. Its restored magazines are open to visitors during the warmer months, and its rampart provides a view across the Thames toward the unmistakeable Water Gate of Tilbury Fort.
To which we must return, by ferry, for that's where we left the car, next to the old inn called World's End. And for us, it is Quest's End. The defences of the Estuary have been explored about as much as is practicably possible. Quests which saw us braving scything Winter gusts on lonely marshes, tearing our clothes on bramble at overgrown batteries, seeing swooping owls, undulating porpoises, howling peregrines, historic wrecks both under the water and on the foreshores.
It's been an adventure. It's been an eye-opener. It's been educational. It's been a lot of fun.
It ends, as we open our car doors next to the marsh, just as it began four years ago when I vacated a different car next to a different marsh.