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

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