Trip duration: 1 day | Approx cost: £80 | When: April – September
Doinit factor: Sun, sea and abandoned places – the doinit hat-trick!
If you find yourself walking along the coastline of the Thames Estuary you may on a clear day, far on the horizon, just about see some unusual structures. These are the Maunsell Forts; abandoned military defences which once protected London from enemy aircraft, and later became home to a community of radio pirates. That’s all I need to hear to get me out on a boat to take a look for myself.
We board the fifty-year-old 72 tonne ex-pilot vessel, aptly named X-Pilot. Later Captain Allen would tell me that when they bought the boat it was called ‘Pilot’ but a condition of sale was that they’d rename her, so X-Pilot she became. It’s one of those rare sunny days so the upper deck is where we head to as we leave Queenbough on the Isle of Sheppey to cruise today’s calm waters to our first destination, the SS Montgomery.
Above: Our vessel for the day, the X-Pilot
The SS Richard Montgomery was an American cargo vessel built during the Second World War. She ran aground near the Nore sandbank in 1944 and subsequently sank, with all her cargo; approximately 3,000 tons of explosives. About half of the explosives have been removed and regular surveys take place to assess the current risk. All that remains visible are the ships three masts, sounded by an exclusion zone marked by buoys warning maritime traffic not to get too close in fear that any slight disturbance will set it all off. It’s probably one of the most dangerous parts of Britain, and it’s thought if the remaining ordnance exploded a large part of the Isle of Sheppey would go up with it
Above: The three masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, with a buoy marking the exclusion zone
With all this fear of a huge explosion, I am happy to be moving on. We sail eastwards further out towards open waters and Knock John Fort. The sailing gives us enough time to catch up on our history with the help of David, a trustee of Project Redsand, a charity with the aim of restoring and preserving the the Maunsell Forts as cultural landmarks.
The forts were built during the second world war, their purpose being to shoot down enemy aircraft heading for London. Back then bombers could easily follow the River Thames towards London so the army and navy built these to intercept potential threats and sound the alarms giving the city fair warning. After their use by the military they were left abandoned until the 60’s, when pirates of the airways moved in. One of these pirates was David, he told us stories about the years of pirate radio and how stations such as Radio Caroline, Radio Sutch and Radio City came to be. I find it incredible that miles out at sea was a community of broadcasters living and going about their passion, out of sight of ‘mainstream’ populous.
On the horizon, Knock John Fort, a navy installation gets larger and larger when eventually we sail right up to one of the structures twin legs. We are almost 10 nautical miles from the nearest bit of coastline and yet it was once home to 120 men stationed here, and decade’s later home to Radio Essex.
Above: The navy’s Knock John Fort and later the home of Radio Essex
After enough time to take our photos we’re bound for the Shivering Sands Fort, the first of the army’s forts. The design is very different from the navy installations. Rather than one structure these forts comprise of seven interconnected structures each supported by four legs. Here however one of the towers is missing, this being the result of a collision from a vessel in thick fog in 1963.
It’s a surreal sight as we sail around the forts, 70 years of being battered by the elements, the weather has taken its toll. The catwalks and artillery guns are long gone but the main steel structures remain, gracefully and stubbornly refusing to be confined to the depths of history. Again, more stories of pirate radio, interestingly here is where Screaming Lord Sutch (founder of the Monster Raving Loony Party) set up Sutch Radio.
Above: The army’s Shivering Sands Fort towering over us
Our final stop takes us past the Kentish Flats Windfarm to Red Sands Fort, this is of the same design as the previous fort we have just arrived from and it is just as surreal and eerie. Noticeably more rusting has taken its toll here but Red Sands Fort remain the only fort where all seven towers remain. After threats that this fort could be demolished Project Redsands was born, and how we come to be here today. The charity is doing all that they can to restore these towers to their former glory. It’s an ambitious project, it’s complex and very costly work but for the group of people involved, with whom we’ve sailed today, it’s a real labour of love.
Above: Red Sands Fort | There is a plan to restore each tower one at a time | All seven towers at Red Sands Fort, the wind farm on the horizon.