Tuesday, 12 February 2019


The tumbled beech nuts form a scatter,
Lay strewn across their Autumnal bed.
Amid the trees, the Wiccan wanders -
We watch like sentries as she muses and ponders -
Framed by whispering leaves of amber and red.

Her coven emerges, like faeries and sprites,
Post-modern shadows of dryads and wights,
They gather, in circle, upon the old tomb -
This ancient reflection of Earth Mother's womb -
On a day that brings balance between dark and light.

A brief flow of mizzle causes beech leaves to quiver,
The Equinox breeze causes Druids to shiver,
A sputtering flame, on charcoal to feed -
A rich slice of apple, a fine horn of mead -
A plea to the Old Gods, to hark and come hither!

A gift to the compass points, earth air and fire
And West brings us water, on the old chieftain's byre,
As above, so below, the Mysteries are kept -
In our magical circle, on which heavens have wept,
The breeze lifts our voices, raising them higher.

A blessing upon those who call themselves Bard,
A blessing on those whom the old ways keep guard,
Upon the old tump, o'er which centuries have groaned -
For which Watches are held, and elements atoned -
Through sunfire's glare, and earth torn and marred.

Now spent, we disperse, through the light playful rain,
And next time at Yule, the chance may come again,
To rebuild the circle at Coldrum's sharp frost -
To revive the Mysteries and the old Chieftain's ghost -
And take up the Old Lore for spiritual gain.

(...for NRE, the girl with the darkest eyes and the brightest soul.)

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Lissom Reeds

Lunch was nice. Lunch was extremely nice, but I'm not surprised by this. If there's one thing the National Trust seem to do very well, it's soup. Carrot and coriander, on this occasion.


We're in the middle of a heatwave, so I'm enjoying my lunch on a picnic table outside the café, gazing across a road at the banks of the Thames in Surrey. The mighty watercourse is attractive here, its 'lissom reeds' disturbed only by the rummagings of waterfowl and the ripples from occasionally passing riverboats. It is a quintessential English scene, its serenity somewhat belying the fact that this area holds a remarkable and resilient place in the national psyche. I glance to my left, across a huge meadow. Somewhere in this vicinity, over eight centuries ago, a document was signed. Initially unsuccessful, it was re-issued many times and has since come to be regarded globally as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

Magna Carta.

King John signing the Great Charter

My appetite for soup has been sated, so now I need to do something about my appetite for history. I actually made a start on that before lunch, by paying a visit to the peaceful churchyard a short distance west at Old Windsor, and tracing the resting places of a few historical persons... the Regency courtesan, actress and author Mary Robinson, a wife of the playwright/politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the artist Thomas Sandby.

Tomb of Mary Robinson, the Regency celebrity known as 'Perdita'

I cross the road and glance back at the pavilion which hosts the National Trust café, and the two Portland Stone plinths that mark the entrance to this historic area. These were all designed in the 1930's by Edwin Lutyens, the celebrated sculptor responsible for the Whitehall Cenotaph and the fountains in Trafalgar Square (his godfather, after whom he was named, was Edwin Landseer, who sculpted the lions at the base of the Nelson Column). They were created to commemorate both Magna Carta and a local gentleman named Urban Broughton.

The Lutyen plinths

Urban Broughton, quite aside from his wonderful name, was an interesting chap. He was a civil engineer who emigrated to America in 1887, made a fortune, then returned to England in 1912 with a wife and two sons. He became MP for Preston, and used his wealth and connections for various acts of philanthropy. Nominated for a peerage, he sadly passed away in 1929 before he could take up his position in the House Of Lords.

In the meantime, trouble was brewing regarding the future of these historic watermeadows. In the aftermath of the First World War, there was a considerable public debt and the coalition government were eager to reduce it. One proposal was to privatise these watermeadows, as even the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, thought they would be an excellent venue for a fairground. In 1921, they were put up for auction.

This did not sit well with some people, including a remarkable woman called Helena Normanton. She was an ardent campaigner for women's rights, and became the first female barrister in England. She wrote to newspapers in protest, and gathered a group of supporters including the Marquess of Lincolnshire and local vicar Albert Tranter, who declared that he would 'throw into the Thames any auctioneer' who would attempt to sell the meadows.

The Government withdrew the sale, but Helena knew that the future of the meadows was far from secure. She continued to keep up the pressure, maintaining the high profile of Magna Carta's birthplace in the public eye. In 1929, Urban Broughton died, and his widow joined the cause. Now styled as Lady Fairchild, she and her sons purchased the meadows in 1929 and, two years later, donated them to the NT. Their future was secure..

I stroll along the riverbank, observing willows bowing and brushing the running water, watching waterfowl dabble and dragonflies dart. I glimpse the remains of Ankerwycke Priory, in the grounds of which stands a yew tree said to be 2,500 years old - making it the only structure in the landscape that was standing when Magna Carta was signed.

Ankerwycke Priory

The track is part of the Thames Path, which runs from Lechlade in Gloucestershire to within a few miles of my home in SouthEast Essex. Kipling, whose evocative home in Sussex is another NT property, wrote poetry about this stretch.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede!
     What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
      With tales of John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:-
'You mustn't sell, delay,deny,
A freeman's right or liberty.
It makes the stubborn Englishry -
      We saw 'em roused at Runnymede!

'When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
      They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine -
The curt, uncompromising "Sign!"
      That settled John at Runnymede.

'At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
      Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers!
Forget not, after all these years,
      The Charter signed at Runnymede.'

I reach a point where the road and the river begin to diverge. I cross, pass through a gate and stand at the edge of the watermeadows. To my left, the floodplain known as Runnymede. To my right, the floodplain known as Longmede. Ahead, the wooded slopes of Cooper's Hill. I stand at a crossroads of history.

The watermeadows

As I stroll toward Cooper's Hill, I consider the vissicitudes of Magna Carta, and its meaning across the centuries.

The discontent of the Barons began in the reign of the King's older brother, Richard the Lionheart. He spent a mere six months of his ten-year reign in England, the rest of his time being spent with the Third Crusade, fighting for his lands in France, or being held prisoner in Austria. This cost plenty of money, which Richard raised with a merciless series of taxes. When John came to the throne, he continued to hammer his Barons for money, mostly to defend his territories. He also developed a clique of favourites, many of them French, to whom he granted land and castles in England, and his court became infamous for intrigue and cruelty. He turned against one of his close allies, Baron de Braose, forcing him into exile, then imprisoning his wife and eldest son and starving them to death. The Barons reached a point where they had had enough, and began to discuss ways to curtail the monarch's almost limitless powers. John responded by capturing some baronial castles, but then the powerful City of London declared support for the Barons' cause. John found himself with no choice but to negotiate a settlement.

Magna Carta, as a bastion of freedom and democracy, is mostly symbolic. In reality it is mostly reactionary, seeking a return to older forms of governance and a balance between the various elements of the feudal system. The points with the most relevance today are those that deal with the right to a fair trial and the right not to be imprisoned unlawfully... elements that later formed the basis of Habeus Corpus.

One of the survivng copies of Magna Carta

John and the Barons met here at Runnymede, and on the 15th June 1215, the beleaguered King reluctantly capitulated to their demands and signed the Great Charter. By September, full of resentment, he reneged on the deal.

John announced that he rejected Magna Carta, and had the Pope annul it. This led, unsurprisingly, to the First Baron's War. John and his allies marched around the country, laying seige to rebellious castles such as Rochester (which was undermined and had one of its towers destroyed), while the Barons allied with Prince Louis of France, who crossed the Channel and laid seige to the loyalist Dover Castle.

Looking chuffed to bits, John signs the Charter

In October 1216, in the midst of this crisis, King John took ill at Newark and died of dysentery, although many have speculated that he was poisoned. The crown passed to his nine year old son Henry III, with the very able William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, acting as Regent. Marshall kicked out Prince Louis after the Battle of Lincoln and the naval Battle of Sandwich, and reissued Magna Carta in 1217. Some of its clauses were reissued in a separate document known as the Charter of the Forest, and to distinguish the two, the older document was called magna carta libertatum. It was reissued several times during Henry's reign to placate the Barons at rocky times, and also reissued by his son Edward I. It has been invoked ever since during periods of political uncertainty, and was considered an exemplar of democratic process by later politicians such as America's Founding Fathers.

John's tomb at Worcester Cathedral. The historian Dr Ben Robinson on the left, the historian Prince Vulpine in the background
I cross the meadow, pass the biodiverse Langham Ponds, and clamber through the woods to the peak of Cooper's Hill, the trees bristling with robins, corvids and nuthatches. I follow the road at the top of the hill until it takes me to the second and more solemn of the Runnymede memorials to be visited.

View of Windsor and Runnymede from Cooper's Hill, after EJ Niemann

The Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and unveiled in October 1953 by our new Queen. It commemorates over twenty thousand pilots who died in the Second World War.

The quote from the Queen, spoken at the opening ceremony, reflects the siting of the Memorial above Runnymede with its reference to 'free men'.

I descend through the woods, reaching the point where the trees give way to the meadow, and stroll along the treeline. Pretty soon, I encounter one of Runnymede's more recent memorials, the remarkable 'Writ in Water'.

Writ in Water

This was created by the artist Mark Wallinger in collaboration with  Studio Octopi. A plain circle, situated at the liminal point where the incline of Cooper's Hill meets the even ground of Longmede, its entrance takes you into a circular corridor which leads to an inner sanctum.

A round pool sits in its centre, light provided by an oculus that reflects the shape of the pool. Laser-cut into the steel rim of the pool are the words of Magna Carta's Clause 39:

'No man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land'.

They are in reverse lettering, and can only be read properly in the reflection. Writ in water indeed. The phrase comes from the epitaph on the poet John Keat's gravestone, still extant in Rome's Protestant Cemetery: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. It reflects Keat's mistaken belief that both he and his poetry would become forgotten after his death.

The pool and the quote

Wallinger explained,' I wanted to suggest fragility. The use of reflection to make the text legible plays against the idea of a law written in stone. Keat's words live anew when learned and repeated by the next generation. Similarly, although Magna Carta established the law and the nascent principles of human rights, the United Kingdom has no written constitution. What seems like birthright has to be learned over and over and made sense of. Whether the words are ephemeral or everlasting is up to us.'

I follow the edge of the field until I encounter another monument, the American Bar Association Memorial, more commonly called the Magna Carta Memorial. It was commisioned in 1957 as a Greek Temple in Portland Stone and, like the Air Force Memorial at the top of the hill, was designed by Sir Edward Maufe. Its central pillar reads 'To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law.' It stands, an Arcadian echo in the Surrey countryside. One almost expects to see nymphs and satyrs peeping from behind the trees.

A Greek Temple in Surrey

Still further along the treeline is a patch of land gifted to the United States, and a flight of steps leads to the Kennedy Memorial.

American property, also in Surrey

Designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and unveiled by the Queen in 1965, in the presence of the late President's wife Jacqueline and his doomed brother Robert. It is a large Portland rectangle containing a quote from JFK's inaugural address: 'Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price,bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty.'

Kennedy Memorial

Nearby stands the Jamestown Oak, planted in 1987 with soil from the first permanent English settlement in North America. It commemorates the bicentenary of the US Constitution. Other trees in the area are fronted by plaques revealing their planting by various dignitaries over the years, including one in the grounds of the Bar Association Memorial that was planted by the Prime Minister of India.

Across the meadow, I can see the Lutyen building where I had my lunch. After my explorations I'm feeling somewhat peckish again, and my thoughts drift to the Thameside pub restaurant I passed earlier while driving here from Old Windsor, a nicely sited Harvester. I strike diagonally across the meadow to return to my car, passing the final art installation of the day: The Jurors.

The Jurors

Created by the artist Hew Locke, the installation consists of a dozen bronze chairs surrounding an invisible table. The chairs are richly decorated with 'images and struggles relating to past and ongoing struggles for freedom, rule of law and equal rights'. These images include allusions to suffragism, environmentalism, slavery and religion. Each explores the principles of freedom that the Magna Carta was meant to enshrine.

Back to the car, and a few minutes later I am safely ensconced in the Harvester that overlooks the river between Runnymede and Old Windsor. It is Ladies' Day at Ascot, and the Queen is in attendance; the local traffic is a little busier than usual. I order a refillable drink and a meal that originated in the maritime, and choose a window seat to await its delivery. The Thames rolls past, carrying egrets and canal boats, whispering through the lissom reeds as it rolls indefatigably toward the lively chaos of the capital. Its journey remains overlooked by an ancient Ankerwycke tree, a mighty yew with branches that shiver and whisper as they remember ages past, recalling times of flowing waters, of kings and pageantry and documents. As constant as the principles of liberty.

Saturday, 20 October 2018


I am a fan of the cinematic phenomenon that is the MCU - the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a movie series that has gifted us twenty interconnected films in ten years, quality ranging from mediocre to excellent. The MCU juggernaut continues to thunder on, with three more films arriving in the next year. It is easy to get confused now over which order the films were released, so I have decided to list them here for your easy reference, with a brief synopsis covering each film's salient qualities.

A corporate drama in which a smug arms dealer is blown up by his own weapons, leading to a mid-life crisis during which he battles The Dude from Big Lebowski, and cops off with that Coldplay singer's ex.


Brilliant scientist with anger-management issues fails to keep them under control, leading to a street brawl with a Reservoir Dog, when he isn't making eyes at Aragorn's girlfriend.

3. IRON MAN 2.

Smug arms dealer has tussle at a racetrack with Marv from Sin City, and Marv spends the rest of the film feeding his pet cockatiel. The Girl With The Pearl Earring turns up, now with a degree in kung fu.

4. THOR.

Viking God shows us the splendour of his homeworld before spending the rest of the film in the bloody desert. Luke and Leia's mum gets the hots for him, to the consternation of Bootstrap Bill Turner.


Square-jawed, patriotic, one-dimensional wimp experiments with steroids and takes on a Nazi with a dodgy complexion. An Infinity Stone turns up, and nobody knows what it actually is. Men In Black's K stands around looking bemused.


A bunch of people in colourful costumes gather to swap colourful insults, before Morgan Freeman Samuel L Motherfuckin' Jackson bangs their heads together and sends them out to fight an army of giant fishbots. Another Infinity Stone turns up. Nobody knows what it is.


Gandhi turns up as a bearded terrorist. After spending most of the film not being Iron Man, our once smug arms dealer learns that Gandhi is, in fact, a really bad Ricky Gervais impersonator. Coldplay singer's ex glows in the dark.


An Infinity Stone turns up, and nobody... you get the picture. Our hero tears himself away from his hairdresser long enough to battle Evil Doctor Who across the Galaxy, winding up in... Greenwich. His brother owns the film.


Our steroid-pumped Main Man finds himself stuck with The Girl With The Pearl Earring in a 70's spy thriller. Morgan Free Samuel L Motherfuckin' Jackson pretends to die, and our hero takes on the Sundance Kid.


An Earthling with parent issues teams up with an alien with parent issues, an Aspergers alien with dead family issues, a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. Somehow, this works. An Infinity Stone turns up, and they actually find out what it is.


Anger management scientist and smug arms dealer cock up big time when they cross an AI experiment with an Infinity Stone (but they don't know what it is). Two new Avengers turn up as brother and sister, a bit weird as they were married to each other in Godzilla. Even weirder - one of them is Kick-Ass.d


Criminal tries to go straight by working as a thief for Gordon Gecko. Movie runs out of budget and utilises unused footage from Honey I Shrunk The Kids. A trippy sequence turns up, to prepare us for Doctor Strange.


The Avengers run short of enemies, and decide to beat each other up instead. Spiderman, getting younger every time the actor changes, makes an appearance, as does an African King who likes to disguise himself as a cat.


Sherlock - no, not Iron Man, the OTHER Sherlock - decides to follow the Dumbledore career path after meeting the White Witch from Narnia. Film runs out of budget and utilises unused footage from Inception. And Infinity Stone turns up, and is recognised.


Motley crew of space outlaws are stunned to find that their captain's father is Snake Plissken. Stallone also appears but, despite that this movie has both Tango and Cash in it, nobody makes a joke about it. Instead, we get a Mary Poppins gag.


Peter Parker ignores the years he spent with Sony, and smug arms dealer flirts with his aunt. That probably wouldn't have happened in the Sam Raimi trilogy. Batman turns up as the Vulture. Coldplay singer's girlfriend makes a pointless cameo.


Film plays it for comedy by killing off much-loved characters with a complete lack of gravitas, replacing them with Galadriel and a big wolf. Jeff Goldblum appears, to remind us that there truly is only one Jeff Goldblum.


African King who likes to dress up as a cat faces leadership challenges. Gollum turns up as the bad guy, only to get whacked so someone else can be the bad guy. Dr Watson arrives to assist, quite belated compared to the Sherlocks.


The Avengers crap themselves when they realise that one of the Goonies is trying to gather the Infinity Stones. Awesome fight scenes are coupled with smaller, quieter moments as the cast bicker over who should get top billing. By the end, everything is done and dusted.


Ant Man and Gordon Gecko's daughter team up to rescue her mother, who turns out to be Catwoman. Meanwhile, they fight a nemesis who actually generates considerably more sympathy than they do.

The MCU continues to grind on relentlessly, and all power to it. Something has to keep Star Wars on its toes as well as continuously showing up the DCEU. Hope this guide was helpful.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Forts And Foreshores: The Estuary

The defences of the Thames Estuary, dating from Tudor times up to the Second World War, occupied much of my time a couple of years ago and led to four articles. Although I supposed that some of my field trips would be repeated as return visits*, I never expected to write a fifth entry in my Forts And Foreshores series... not until an opportunity arose for one further exploration. This one, however, would be a little different. Instead of seeking out military remains on the foreshores of the Thames, Team Vulpine and I would go out on the water and explore the The Estuary itself.

Our day of discovery began on a late August Day in Southend On Sea. The weather was sunny with light cloud, a very gentle breeze and only a 1% chance of precipitation, so -  with much optimism - I set off with my offspring to casually stroll the length of the town's most famous landmark, the Longest Pier In The World.

Southend Pier

The original Pier was a wooden structure, opened in 1830 and extending 180m. However, the Thames at low tide recedes for over a mile, so in order for the Pier to provide docking facilities, it was gradually extended until, by 1848, it was 2,100m and the longest Pier in Europe. The growing popularity of the resort led to the wooden pier eventually wearing out, and it was replaced in 1887-9 by the iron Pier that stands today. It was designed by James Brunlees and was extended yet again in the 1920's. Today the Pier is 2,158 metres long and a Grade II listed building.

Like many of the crumbling Victorian fortifications that dot the Thames foreshore, the Pier was put to military use in the Second World War. It was closed to the public in September 1939 and named HMS Leigh, with the surrounding area given the designation of HMS Westcliff. It was Naval Control for the Thames Estuary and a mustering point for convoys, of which 3,367 departed from the area over the course of the conflict. It re-opened to the public upon cessation of hostilities in 1945.

Other changes occurred in the Estuary during the War, new military structures were provided, and we would be getting up close and personal with some of those structures later in the day...

RV Jacob Marley

The boat upon which we were destined to travel was the RV Jacob Marley, operated by Jetstream Tours and based at Rochester. That ancient Kent town can be reached by crossing the Estuary and heading south along the River Medway. The confluence of the two rivers can clearly be seen from the Pierhead, and was the major subject of my last article about the area. Rochester has many associations with Charles Dickens, hence the reason the boat is named after Ebenezer Scrooge's deceased partner.

...named after a Dickens character

We sat within the body of the vessel and it departed the Pierhead at 1145, heading east toward the limits of the Estuary. We did not remain inside for very long. The day was bright and clear, the surface of the water almost glacial in its calmness. The heads of curious seals bobbed occasionally ahead of us, and great cargo ships outran us as they ploughed through the Thames shipping channel on their way to the North Sea.

Heading east...

...and heading west. Note the calmness of the water.

Before long, we encounter our first crumbling relic of the War, its back broken on a sandbank, looking like a gargantuan beached whale. This is a Phoenix Cassion, one of several types of structure known as Mulberry Harbours. Its overall length is 61m, it is 9.75m wide, 6m high, weighs 2,500 tons, and it forms an unmissable landmark (seamark?) a mile and a half from the beaches of Thorpe Bay.

Mulberry Harbour
It was constructed in 1944 as part of the preparations for the Allied invasion of Europe. Planners knew that not only would they have to capture beachheads, but maintain the traffic of personnel and materials. The Channel ports were unreliable as they would be heavily fortified by the enemy, so these mobile  pre-fab 'harbours' were created, built in sections and towed across the Channel for assembly close to the invasion points.

This example was being towed from Immingham (on the Humber) to Southsea (on the South Coast) in June 1944 when it sprang a leak. The pilots signalled the Naval Control at Southend Pier (HMS Leigh), and it was towed to its present position and allowed to flounder on the West Knock sandbank.

Our vessel continues to move farther into the Estuary. We begin to spot examples of our smallest cetacean, the Harbour Porpoise, as they duck and dive through the calm waters around us. And on the horizon, more structures are looming...

A collection of structures...

...collectively known as...

...Red Sands Fort
There are about 50 people on the vessel, and now many of them cluster around the prow with cameras and filming equipment at the ready, as we draw ever closer and the silent sentinels begin to tower over us.

Red Sands Fort is one of a specific type of fort designed by the engineer Guy Anson Maunsell (1884-1961) to defend the Mersey and Thames Estuaries from enemy aircraft dropping magnetic mines. Three of these Forts - Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Nore, were constructed in the Thames Estuary and were controlled by the Army, while the Navy had control of four other forts further away from the coast. They were erected in 1943, could hold up to 265 soldiers, and, during their two years of active service, they shot down 22 enemy planes, 30 flying bombs and even managed to destroy a U-boat.

RV Jacob Marley circles the haunting structure. Gulls watch us disinterestedly from their roosts on lofty girders, while alert peregrines fly between the rusting towers, their falcon screams punctuating the hushed chatter of the human intruders. Cameras click and whirr, punctuating the daunting, historic atmosphere with the music of modern technology.

When the war drew to a close, the Forts were maintained until 1956, when their artillery was removed and they were abandoned to the elements. However, the Nore Fort had already proved to be a hazard to maritime traffic, due to its close proximity to shipping lanes. In 1953, a Swedish vessel called Baalbeck collided with one of its towers and knocked it over. Four civilians were killed and six of the Fort's occupants required hospital treatment on the mainland. The following year, there was a further collision with the vessel Mairoula, and the rest of the Fort was dismantled in 1959-60. Part of its concrete base can be seen stranded on the foreshore several miles west, next to the derelict Cliffe Fort and the shipwreck Hans Egede**. Another collision in 1963 took down one of the towers at the Shivering Sands Fort, which can be seen on the eastern horizon from our current position. As a result of these vicissitudes, the Red Sands Fort is the only one of the three Army forts that remains intact.

In 1964, a ship moored outside UK territorial waters began broadcasting as Radio Caroline. Its success prompted other broadcasters to descend upon the area, and they used the abandoned Forts as their studios. The pop star David 'Screaming Lord' Sutch set up Radio Sutch (later Radio City) at the Shivering Sands, while Radio 390 established itself at Red Sands. Two of the Navy forts beyond the Estuary also hosted pirate radio stations, but they were all abandoned by 1967 following a series of prosecutions.

Today, the Fort has come under the auspices of Project Redsand, a charity which wishes to restore the structure as a museum to the ingenuity of Guy Maunsell. The site has been surveyed and access to two of the towers restored. The renovations will take place on a tower-by-tower basis as funding becomes available. It is expected to take years.

After a final circling of the impressive monument, our vessel turns and moves west, deawing closer to the Kentish coast, staying near the Medway shipping lane that leads into the confluence. It seemed sad to leave these imposing towers behind, but at least the peregrines could stop stressing.

With Sheerness to our port side, we pass the sandbank known as the Nore. Somewhere in this area stood the demolished Nore Fort, but the sandbank itself has an older history than the conflicts of the 20th Century. It was, in the days of tall ships, a major anchorage for the English fleet, and in 1797 - in tandem with another major anchorage at Spithead in the Solent - was the scene of a Mutiny.

Spithead occurred first, and was more in the nature of a strike against poor pay and conditions. The Admiralty, alarmed at these events at a time when we were dealing with the Napoleonic threat, negotiated better pay and conditions as well as pardons for all involved. The mariners at the Nore, inspired by these capitulations, launched their own action but also included political demands, such as the dissolutin of Parliament and an immediate cessation of hostilities with France. The Admiralty could not countenance these demands, and offered only pardons. They also blockaded London with 50 ships to prevent the mutineers moving toward the City, only for the mutineers to counter this action by preventing merchant ships from slipping past the Nore and reaching the capital. However, lack of victuals eventually led to the mutiny coming apart and most ships deserted the cause. The Admiralty's reprisals were harsher than at Spithead. 29 men were hanged, including the ringleader Richard Parker, 29 were imprisoned, 9 were flogged and more were transported.

Parker demanding terms at the Nore

Our vessel, full of thoroughly contented people, continues toward the confluence. We can see the Grain Sea Fort, a Victorian structure with the amusing address of No.1, Thames, and the traffic at the Sheerness docks... and now we approach one of the most infamous relics in the Estuary.


The approach is slow and rather suspenseful, since we are nearing a wide ring of warning buoys, their messages mercifully stopping short of promising instant doom if we venture beyond. In the centre of this forbidding circle, three masts protrude from the water. We have arrived at the infamous wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery.

She was a type of cargo ship of the US Navy that were classed as Liberty ships, and was named after a hero of the Revolutionary War. Built in 1943, she was waiting at the Great Nore Anchorage to join a convoy to Cherbourg when she ran aground on the sandbank and subsequently broke her back. This was on August 1944. Salvage was carried out until September, when efforts were called off.

Unfortunately, she still had 1,500 tons of explosive munitions on board. It has been estimated that if all these munitions would detonate, debris would be thrown 3,000m into the air and a 5m wave would hit the shores of Sheerness and Southend. There is no consensus on the condition of the sunken munitions.

Hence the need for an exclusion zone.

In better days


The scene in August 2018

Now our vessel turns away from this potential time-bomb, and begins to cross the Estuary, back toward our docking place at Southend Pier. The pilot, through his tannoy, regales us with the story of another wreck, an older one, also in the water below us, and only rediscovered a few years ago... The London. Built in 1656, she floundered here in 1665, an event noted by the Secretary to the Navy... yes, my old mate Samuel Pepys:

"This morning is brought me to the office the sad newes of The London, in which Sir J Lawson's men were all bringing her from Chatham to the Hope, and thence he was to go to sea in her; but a little a'this side the buoy of the Nower, she suddenly blew up. About 24 and a woman that were in the round-house and coach were saved; the rest, being above 300, drowned: the ship breaking all in pieces, with 80 pieces of brass ordnance. She lies sunk, with her round-house above water. Sir J Lawson hath a great loss in this of so many good chosen men, and many relations among them. I went to the 'Change, where the news taken very much to heart."

The London as it looked in 1656

The ship was rediscovered in 2005, leading the Port of London to shift some buoys about in order to move the shipping lane to protect it from further peril. A charity, the London Shipwreck Trust, now organises groups of divers to chart and investigate the wreck. In 2015 a gun-carriage was recovered in very good condition.

So a ship that everyone worries about blowing up lies only a short distance from a ship that did blow up. We have time to consider history's little ironies as our own boat crosses the Estuary. Today we revisited our old Forts And Foreshores quests, saw terns and turnstones, porpoises and peregrines, seals and sentinels. The calm waters, the deceptively glassy surface of the Thames as its mighty strength rushes into the North Sea, conceals the centuries of turmoil that lie on the sea bed... the hulk of The London, the humpback of the Mulberry Harbour, the submerged menace of the Montgomery, the hundred vessels that were sunk by mines here before the guns of the Maunsell Towers brought planes screaming down to destruction in the roiling maritime.

The Estuary is a world apart, a place of violence and serenity, of memory and anticipation, of hidden depths and shallow features. Across all that time, the waters have rolled on, occasionally giving up their secrets, and continuing to shield countless more...

*It has happened twice. The Forts at Cliffe and Coalhouse have been revisited since my original articles.

**Covered in the original F&F article, links below.

Forts And Foreshores
Forts And Foreshores: The Return
Forts And Foreshores: The Other Side
Forts And Foreshores: The Confluence

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Longest Day

On 21st June, the Summer Solstice, I was involved in an unexpected 'incident', while exploring a historic site in Surrey.

I had dropped off my Eldest at his friend's flat in Reading, as they were venturing to Exmoor for a camping trip. I decided to dawdle on my way home, in order to explore a historic site. What happened next, I will relate by repeating the subsequent text messages that were exchanged between me and my Eldest, and between me and a woman who I will call Susan.

Warning in advance: This is darker and more upsetting than my usual posts. That day haunts me still. I'm writing this, hopefully, as a form of catharsis. I have provided, in brackets, the times of the text messages.

Me (1919): Well, my afternoon was one of mixed fortunes. I explored and photographed enough of Runnymede for a blog post, and discovered a Harvester in Old Windsor. I also ended up covered in blood and hugging a hysterical woman. This year has had far too much trauma.

Eldest (1938): What happened?

Me (1953): After lunch I walked along the bank of the Thames, following a National Trust path. After half a mile, the path crosses the road and passes through a gate in the hedgerow, to enter the meadows where Magna Carta was signed. I was waiting to cross when a small dog squeezed under the gate, sprinted into the road and went straight under the wheels of a passing car (which didn't stop). It had run away from its owner, a young woman called Susan, who lives on a local riverboat and comes from Cornwall. I scooped it up and laid it on the verge. It was alive but obviously dying. I phoned the number on its collar but the dog, Lily, died in my arms just before Susan arrived. You can imagine the next few minutes. Once Susan was calmer, I carried the dog back to the houseboat, then returned to my car to wash my hands and arms in the river and to change my very bloody shirt. Guess it was good that I brought my backpack after all. Continued my quest, but it felt a bit robotic after that. Guess I was in shock. Burst into tears sitting alone at the Magna Carta Memorial.

Eldest: That's horrible...

Me: One of the few walks I'm glad you missed

Eldest: Devastating... I don't really know what to say that could console

Me: Just finished dinner at the Harvester in Old Windsor. Heading home now. Pets need feeding x

Eldest: I'm sorry it happened. For both the woman and you.

Me: Be out of contact til I get home. I'll let you know when I'm there.

Eldest: Take care


Me (2130): Home. Passed three accidents on M25. At the first, paramedics were giving someone CPR on the roadside. This has been my strangest Solstice ever.

Eldest: Jfc. What a day


Susan (1827): Hello, I think this is the number of the gentleman who tried to help Lily today? I just wanted to say thank you so much for trying to help her and for carrying her home for me. I really appreciate that you were there for her and that you tried to help. Susan x

Me (1904): Thank you Susan. I'm afraid my stoicism didn't last long after I left you. I buried my Nan last week, and her middle name was Lily. I found myself in a bit of a state. Delayed shock and repressed grief at the same time. Now I'm calmer, I believe it was good that I was there, that I could comfort your little dog in her last moments, that she knew she was not alone. I hope that gives you some comfort at this sad time. Thanks again x

Susan (1916): Oh no, I'm so sorry to hear about your Nan and then to have to experience this so soon afterwards. But I agree, I'm really glad that you were there for her before she went, she was  alovely affectionate dog who loved to be with people so I'm sure she appreciated that someone was there with her. And I'm deeply grateful that you were there to help, I don't know what I would have done if I'd had to find her by myself and not known exactly how it went at the end. It definitely gives me some comfort to know that a compassionate person was there with her at the end and it helped me a lot, having someone with me to help take her home. Thank you so much, Susan x

Thus ended the Longest Day.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Imbolc Sky

An Imbolc sky, a relentless mass of swirling grey
Hangs above the Estuary, a mockery of clammy day.
Pale droplets gather, to sting and to assail
The traveller's pale face, turned against the gale,
To breathe the buffeting air, and scent of moist clay.

The Kentish shore, a distant leaden hump
Its broken contours rise, fall, re-emerge and clump.
The stentorian howl of a wind-ripped force
Gives a banshee voice to where the Medway pours
Its broiling waters, into the raging Thames to dump.

The dark falls gratefully, surrounding a view
That the dimlit daytime already withdrew.
A glaring Moon, both blue and super
Aloft like a lantern, a glow in the stupor,
Amid reeling cloud, and brazen stars few.

A morning emerges, a thief on the prowl
A sudden stillness, where wind is wont to howl
A chilling softness, fall of ivory flakes
A new direction, the wanton weather takes
Yet Sun will thaw, before the White turns foul.

Below this Imbolc sky, a season of hiding,
Of watching and waiting, of bundling and biding.
Some few brave buds striving to flower
To probe the dampness, to test their power,
To seek out the Spring on which hope is riding.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Last Days Of Tropical Wings

Tropical Wings opened as a Butterfly House with a couple of bird cages out the back, but it was enough to entrance my offspring back at the turn of the millenium. Our many visits since have allowed us to watch it gradually swell into a proper zoo, with displays and events that encouraged visitors to interact with the furred and feathered residents.

Due to ill-health, the zoo's owners - who live at the site - made the difficult decision to close the zoo at the start of December. Consequently, we paid it a final visit.

Tropical Wings Zoo
August 2000 - December 2017
Thanks for the memories x