Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Forts And Foreshores

I lift my binoculars and scan the horizon. Details of the magnified vista emerge with daunting clarity; two miles of austere and rather forbidding marshland, a half-hour walk across unfamiliar and maybe hostile terrain before I reach the North Kent foreshore. I lower the binoculars and glance at the sky. Approximately two hours until the sun starts to set, the climate is cool and calm, and I can just about pick out the distant, hulking shape of my destination as it squats in the distance, adjacent to the stark and lonely aggregate quarry and its collection of cranes and piles of waste.

Lonely indeed. As I scan the saltmarsh landscape I pick out a scattering of ponies, a few hardy haw trees and a network of dykes and channels. No sign of human activity. To walk out there is to embrace a solitude which, even surrounded by such an exposed and overt landscape, would crush like claustrophobia. This is the haunting Hoo Peninsula where the wreckage of history lies scattered, buried, forlorn and mostly at a distance. This is where musicians make their homes in ruinous castle gardens, where Pip was accosted by Magwitch in a  churchyard, where hulks full of Napoleonic prisoners once haunted the river estuaries. The remnants of explosive factories and defences going back to Elizabethan times can be found, stretching from here to the Isle of Grain and the mouth of the Medway.


This is my second visit to the area in a matter of weeks; on the previous occasion my Eldest and I had stood where the water of the Medway flows into the broader estuary of the Thames, had gazed North toward the Essex coast and the urban cluster of Southend, and surveyed the historic environment below the colossal chimney of the Grain Power Station. We had found the foundations of a Victorian fort and the rectangular remnants of a neighbouring battery. A sea fort sits forlornly offshore, apparently reachable by causeway at low tide, but we arrived late in the day and time and tide failed to wait for us. That trip did, however, spark a curiosity regarding the other military remnants that can be found along this coast, so here I am - this time on my lonesome - standing in a churchyard somewhere to the North of the village of Higham, resolving to throw myself into the wilderness and hope for the best.

I let the binoculars drop, dangling around my neck, and after casting a backward glance at the redundant medieval church in the shadow of which I stand, I remove myself from the churchyard and ensure that my car is locked. I'm not sure security is much of an issue - this is a tiny, isolated hamlet consisting of a small terrace of houses, a church and a farm - but one can never be too cautious. Armed only with the binos and a pervasive sense of curiosity, I step through a gate and start to follow the faint track onto the marshes.

I cross an industrial railway line and keep to the left of a lake, a flooded quarry, one which still displays the relics of previous, busier and presumably louder times. No such noise exists today to mask the soft thump of my footsteps across the reedbeds. The path, fortunately, is easy to follow. The RSPB look after these marshes and the footfalls of dogwalkers and birdwatchers have worn their passage into the soft earth of the landscape, delineating the safe areas to step.

Small birds flit from gnarled tree to twisted shrub on the line of brush between the path and the flooded quarry. Most of them are small and brown; reed or marsh warblers, perhaps. Despite a growing interest in ornithology, I am far from being an expert on these matters and the little blighters are not keeping still long enough for me to attempt identification. A large white bird bobs imperiously on the water beyond the treeline. I console myself with the knowledge that I can recognise a swan.

A feature of marshland is that things on the other side look a lot closer than they actually are. I suppose this has something to do with a lack of perspective, the paucity of visual stimulants between. I've experienced similar on other marshes: 'Ah, that flood barrier is only ten minutes walk away!' Ten minutes later, you are still walking and the flood barrier appears to be at its original distance.

After half an hour of lonely traipsing I encounter another lake, another flooded quarry, this one speckled with buoys. A small and lonely marina sits at the northern end, served by the same rutted road that connects the aggregate works to the village of Cliffe to the east. No boats are gliding on the lake's surface at the moment; my isolation is complete. I approach my destination, its facade gaping over the marsh as though to say 'Here I am, approach if you dare'. I have reached the abandoned outpost that is the Cliffe Fort.

On ground level it has completely flooded, the encroaching marshes gradually moving in to reclaim their dominance. I follow the path between the boundary fence and the foreshore, pausing to stare across this quiet, lonely, kilometre-wide stretch of Thames toward the East Tilbury fortification of Coalhouse Fort (twin to the desolate carbuncle I am currently visiting). At one time, I would imagine, lines of communication would have been open between these two military stations, and perhaps small boats would have shuttled back and forth trading messages and orders. These days, I would have to make a twenty mile journey and dive through the Dartford Tunnel in order to connect them.

A curious structure juts into the mudflats. This is the remains of a torpedo installation that was set up a century ago. It was designed for the launch of the 'Brennan Torpedo', a guided missile considered to be state of the art between 1887 and 1903. Only one example exists of such a weapon, and it can be found in the Royal Engineer's Museum in Chatham.


A break in the chain-link fence allows illicit ingress into the grounds of the Fort. I clamber up a defensive bank, along a winding trail through bramble and honeysuckle. A goldcrest removes itself from my path, chirruping with outrage at my blundering and unwelcome invasion of its territory. At the top of the bank I can heave myself onto the pitted concrete roof of the Fort and , stepping tentatively, explore the structure in a semi-circular pattern, staying on the higher levels, away from the flooded morass of the old parade ground and the crumbling caverns of abandoned barracks. Much of the Fort has been subject to graffiti, some of it rather alarming in its ghostly overtones. The Fort's deteriorating condition is due to its being owned not by English Heritage or some other conservation trust, but by Blue Circle Industries, who also own the neighbouring aggregate works. It has been labelled as an 'at risk' heritage asset.

Cliffe Fort was built in the 1860's during a period of tension with our French neighbours. Its construction was problematic due to the marshy ground (its current flooded condition stands testimony to that), and even during its original construction changes to its design were necessary when the unfinished structure began to subside and crack. A variety of artillery was installed to support its neighbours at Coalhouse and Shornemead, perhaps the idea being to provide a deadly crossfire onto any presumptive Frenchie trying to sneak his way up the river with the intention of improving Gravesend and Tilbury by sacking and burning them. The construction cost £163000 and was marked by unpleasant conditions for its workers, the marshy conditions leading to outbreaks of malaria and bronchitis. During this construction period, the Chief Royal Engineer visited and wrote, 'The officers' quarters at Cliffe are a mere hut, an abominable stinking place in Summer, very cold and wet in Winter. It stands by the side of a foul ditch which cannot be cleaned, for the mere disturbing of its contents would endanger the health of the officers.'

Completed in 1870, the Fort saw nearly six decades of quiet service before being disarmed in 1927. During the Second Unpleasantness it was recommissioned to serve as an anti-aircraft battery on the approaches to London, and - considering the amount of times the capital was attacked from the Thames approach - probably saw a fair bit of action. It was also a base for the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service.

After the War, the Fort was sold to the aggregate works and was, for a time, the base of their Sailing Club before being abandoned to the elements. Now it is a brooding phantom, still braving the hostile elements and bitter environment, as though waiting for the day when it will be called back into action.

Stepping away from the Fort and its haunting, daunting atmosphere, I briefly explore a curiosity on the mudflats, accessible thanks to the tide being low. It is the hull of a floundered ship, the Hans Egede.

This vessel was originally a schooner, built at Thuro, Denmark, in 1922. Sold to the Atlas Diesel Company in 1957, she settled in the Medway where she was used as a coal/grain hulk. In the late 60's, while being towed to Cubit's Town, she began to take on water and was towed to the mudflats next to Cliffe Fort, to be abandoned next to the remains of a floating jetty. There she has remained for the last half-century, and only in recent years has the stern started to collapse.

The sun is dropping to my west, casting a diffuse orange light across the marshes. Somewhere along the coast, not too far from where I stand between the Fort and the shipwreck, are the smaller remains of Shornemead Fort but my exploration of that particular relic will have to wait for another, more fortuitous occasion. Tiring of being the only human being within a Kentish radius of about two miles, I retrace my steps toward the hamlet, accosted only once by a group of curious ponies, startled on another occasion by a heron lifting from reeds next to my path. Darkness begins to embrace me as I finally arrive at the car left by the redundant church, yet another historic building abandoned to the vissicitudes of the modern world. Night will leave the marshes to the peace and quiet of pure solitude, and the Fort will stand obstinate guard over the desolate environment as it has since its Victorian heyday.

Even now the devastation is begun,
And half the business of destruction done,
Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land, 
Down where yon anchoring vessel spreads the sail.'
                                           - Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village

Further Reading:

Medway Abandoned Forts
Cliffe Fort
The Brennan Torpedo
Forts And Foreshores: The Other Side
Forts And Foreshores: The Return

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