Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Forts And Foreshores: The Other Side

My recent explorations of the Hoo Peninsula have led me to visit, among other sites, two abandoned Forts dating from the 1860's. The derelict hulks of Cliffe and Shornemead brood on the Kentish foreshore, stranded on a desolate marshland between pockets of heavy estuarine industry, staring out over a kilometre-wide section of the River Thames.

These Forts were built by the Palmerston government during a period of unsettled relations with the French. Cliffe occupied a virgin site, and Shornemead occupied the site of an earlier polygonal battery. However, in order to provide a triangulation of artillery fire across this 'hook' in the Thames, where river traffic would be obliged to slow down, it was also necessary to build another Palmerston Fort on the opposite shore - at Coalhouse Point in Essex, where previous defences had existed since at least Tudor times.

The earliest known defence at Coalhouse was a Blockhouse built by Henry VIII, who was concerned (quite rightly) about the possibility of an invasion by our escargot-munching friends across the Channel. It was one of several blockhouses in the area, and fell out of use before the end of the century. It was recorded in 1735 as being in a ruinous state, and now it is unsure whether the remains have completely disappeared or sunk into the mud of the foreshore. A ruined jetty, a mass of decayed wooden uprights and cracked concrete slabs, now occupy the site.

The site of the Tudor blockhouse

A battery was constructed at Coalhouse in 1799 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, corresponding with the same across the river at Shornemead. It was strengthened to become a Fort between 1847-55, but this only saw a few years of service before its replacement by the Palmerston Fort which stands on the site today.

Coalhouse Fort ©CFMBC

Like Cliffe and Shornemead, it was designed by Captain Siborne of the Royal Engineers. Like Cliffe and Shornemead, it suffered serious problems with subsidence during its construction. However, unlike Cliffe and Shornemead, it was situated on the outskirts of a village, East Tilbury, rather than being stranded on an inhospitable saltmarsh. Coalhouse Fort, its last construction stages being supervised by General Gordon who would later become the martyr-hero of the Siege of Khartoum, was finally completed at a cost of £130,000. Unfortunately, due to the speed of the arms race at the time, its original purpose became obsolete rather quickly and it was necessary to support the Fort with the construction of a battery half a mile away, in the village itself.
Of which more later.

Barrack Block

Coalhouse Fort is considerably easier to reach than its Kentish neighbours, and on a showery Monday afternoon I pulled up in its carpark with my Eldest son by my side, ready to explore the historic and natural environment of this noble relic. As the building was closed to the public on this occasion, we satisfied ourselves with a perambulation of its exterior, taking note of various features as we strolled.

Casements. And my thumb.

During the First World War, a minefield was laid in the river. The mines were controlled remotely, which meant that friendly ships could pass safely, but enemy ships were in a whole lot of trouble. A building between the Fort and its moat was the Control Centre for the mining operation.

Mine Control Tower

Between the Fort and the foreshore stands another structure, the Quick Fire Battery. This was created in 1893 - not long after the construction ofbthe Battery in East Tilbury - to counter the threat from a new generation of torpedo boats. The QFB is easily accessible and, naturally, we explored it.

Quick Fire Battery

Coalhouse Fort remained garrisoned until 1946, when it was used by Sea Cadets and other nautical groups until being decommissioned in 1949. After this it went through a variety of uses, such as being used as a store by the nearby Bata shoe factory, a hostel for demobilised soldiers and their families, and even a coal store during a Miners' Strike. It was purchased by Thurrock Council in 1962 but, although they landscaped its environs to create a riverside park, the building itself was left to the mercy of time and vandals. Finally, in 1985, a heritage charity group called the Coalhouse Fort Project took over. They have been renovating the Fort ever since, hold regular Open Days and Events, and carry out routine maintenance. It featured on the BBC programme 'Restoration', which was watched by film director Christopher Nolan, who filmed some of the opening scenes of 'Batman Begins' at the Fort, doubling as a Bhutanese prison. Yes, when you see Christian Bale fighting fellow prisoners, it's not happening in some exotic Asian location, but at East Tilbury. Sorry to spoil the illusion.

The Dark Knight of East Tilbury

Following our exploration of the area immediately around the Fort, we ventured west into the village to look for the East Tilbury Battery. We located it, not far from the High Street, in dense scrub and bramble undergrowth beyond a small playground.

East Tilbury Battery gun emplacement © Essexghosthunters

The earth was soft underfoot and the brambles caught and snagged. Eldest tore his jeans scrambling over a rail but, much of our surroundings concealed by arboreal foliage, we managed to make some sense of what we were looking at. First port of call seemed to be an amenities block, where we tentatively identified barracks, latrines, and possible Mess Hall and kitchen.

Possible Mess Hall, with invasive vulpines

Next, we explored two of the Battery's three magazines, dark forbidding tunnels leading to winch machinery and ammunition store rooms. Our single torch being just about adequate, we lacked the light to take photographs, but others beat us to it - see the Links at the end of this article.

Overgrown magazine

The tunnels were dark, capacious and atmospheric. Stencilled directions to various stores could still be discerned upon the walls, even the shadows of coat hooks in what was presumably a cloakroom.

Entrance to a magazine. Be not of faint heart, should you wish to enter without adequate illumination.

After grappling with the East Tilbury Battery, we return to the village street and dodge a rain shower by popping into 'The Ship' for light refreshment, the establishment describing itself as 'the first, the last, and the cheapest pub in the village'. Following this, we amble back down toward the Fort.

Before reaching it, we pass the village church and I notice something odd about the old building. It has a squat western tower which seemed to have been built of the same material as the barrack block of the Fort. Closer inspection revealed a plaque:

A tower built as a war memorial

The plaque reveals that the Tower, begun in 1917 by the garrison of Coalhouse Fort, was to commemorate comrades lost in the Great War, as well as commemorating General Gordon, by then long dead in the Sudan.

We continue, bypassing thw Fort and heading for the foreshore. Along a track which was once the bed of an abandoned railway, Eldest is delighted to notice a tiny bird bouncing around in the hedgerow.

Female Firecrest ©gryllosblog

We reach the foreshore, which is dominated by a structure adjacent to the site of the Tudor blockhouse. It is a Radar Tower, in use from 1941-43, disguised as a Water Tower to fool passing Luftwaffe aircraft. Although its lower level, where a power plant, accomodation and radar screen used to be is accessible, it would take a brave soul to use the metal steps to the upper level. They look as though they are about to fall off at any minute.

Radar Tower on the foreshore

We set off on the coastal path for a quick stroll along the foreshore. Flocks of waders speckle the mudflats, predominant among them this specimen:

A black-tailed godwit

Soon, we encounter another foreshore feature. It appears to be the remnants of an old jetty.

Later investigation revealed that a series of jetties have occupied this spot since Tudor times, the original servicing the Henrician Blockhouse. The most recent incarnation was used to unload materials and artillery brought down the river by barge from Woolwich Arsenal. It would be unloaded here then taken to the Fort by a now vanished railway line.

A rainbow smears itself across the leaden, broken sky as we turn back to return to the Fort. Although only mid-afternoon, the gloom has created a crepuscular atmosphere, which might explain the unexpected aerial display we encountered on our return stroll. The bird, originally spotted hovering above the foreshore, swooped and swung around us as its large yellow eyes scoured the ground for prey. We stood watching it, entranced, for several minutes, until it shrank into the distance with the Power Station as its backdrop.

Short Eared Owl

The treat was yet to end; in the area between the Fort and the Quick Fire Battery, we were treated to a flying display by a second short eared owl, slightly smaller, which even allowed us to get quite close for a better admiring view as it perched in a gnarled tree.

An unexpected delight, and a wonderful finalé to my explorations of the Forts and Foreshores of the Thames Estuary. One thing I know, however. Now that I'm aware of their existence, their atmosphere and their stark beauty, I don't intend to be a stranger. Come the warmer months, when I fancy a spot of exploration, I'll be back among the lumps and bumps of the Hoo Peninsula like a wraith in the primeval landscape...

Links: Inside the East Tilbury Battery
Forts And Foreshores
Forts And Foreshores: The Return

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