We’ve been talking about heading out to the Maunsell seaforts for as long as I can remember. Sitting alone 5-10 nautical miles off the south east coast, these constellations of rusting megasheds are some of the few remaining structures that perfectly embody the image of WW2 Britain. Even now, 60 years on, we’re still a ‘keep calm and %THING’ nation defined by the events of 1939-1945, and there’s probably a smidgen of that forties nostalgia in everyone from these isles old enough to have grandparents who fought in that period.
The Maunsell Forts, were designed by their namesake, Guy Maunsell, to be Britain’s first line of anti-aircraft defence in the early forties to stop jerry from sneaking bombers up the Thames. They came in two flavours, the 4 legged grouped ones being run by the army and the concrete platform type being operated by the navy. The forts were moderately successful, and by the end of the war they’d sent no less than 22 aircraft and 30 flying bombs for an early bath, and were occupied until the 50s, presumably just to make sure Europe wasn’t going to do the dirty on them. It wasn’t till the mid 60s when they became reoccupied, when the pirate radio heads, fed up with the limited range you could get from a mast nailed to converted fishing trawler started taking over the gunning platforms to try and get some extended range. With the added stability, you could get a proper mast up, and at one point, the Red Sands group boasted a 250 foot antenna on the central tower guyed to the surrounding towers.
This mast and the pirates have long since gone, but the allure of the forts has been enough to tempt a few companies and trusts to try and have a go at using them for something useful. Even The Prodigy wanted in on the action, but really, I think all the potential investors realised that while immensely cool, they’re insanely impractical and essentially useless WW2 relics that should probably be left to the seagulls. We’d decided the army forts looked like a good place to start, and with Nore Fort destroyed and Shivering sands twice the distance from the shore (and apparently really really knackered), the most sensible target for our little sea-fort experience was the forts at Redsands.
While the most obvious course of action would have been to ‘get boat and go’, getting enough enthusiastic and well funded individuals together to buy a boat is harder than you’d think. In this day and age, people are having a hard enough time affording cigs and petrol, so splashing out on a yacht was sort of out of the question. It’s not really one for the Lidl dingys either, so an other option we did consider was to get someone to take us out and drop us off.
Unsurprisingly, there are a few people who have taken interest in preserving these unique structures, and they’ve formed themselves into a charity to push the case for getting them listed and doing them up. Now don’t get me wrong, giving up your free time to shelp out to the Thames estuary to pull a set of unique historical relic back from the brink of collapse is an extremely noble cause, but it does present people like me with a problem. Because they’ve started to fix it up, they now impart ownership over it and have locked up the ‘nicest’ and most easily accessible tower. Their boat man, ‘x pilot’ has essentially set up a monopoly on trips to the seaforts that allow you to board them with ‘permission’, and for the princely sum of 100 quid a head, he’ll take you out for a look around, but I don’t think you even get to kip there for that. I’m sorry, but a grand for a day trip, even if you’ve got ten mates, is a bit steep.
From their point of view, I’d understand not wanting to leave your welders, generators and tools at the mercy of any sea-faring pikie who fancied nipping up for a rummage, but from my point of view, you’ve essentially made a school boys megaden on what was previously the property of the seagulls. Challenge accepted I guess..
Cue the school of cheeky-bastards rope access technique and two 16ft sea kayaks.
Sea kayaking is a bit different to river or lake kayaking. If you’ve not done your homework with regard to the wind or tides you can very easily get yourself swept into the path of a heavy shipping lane, out to the ocean and eventually drown and it happens all the time, so you better get your shit together and use your head if you want to stay alive.
You can’t just point in the direction and go. If you don’t correct your course to take into account the moving tides and wind, you’ll end up too far down from your target, and you’ll have to work extra hard to make up the discrepancy in your course as you’ll be against the tide when you try and correct for it. Some basic GCSE maths is all you really need, but you have to get it right, but once we knew what we were doing, spurred on by a few practice runs out and around Anglesey and Barrow-in-furness, all we had to do was wait for the right wind.
You do the math
The day came, we packed our kit, got in the car, drove to Kent, and put in at Warden point just down from the Seaside resort of Leysdown-on-sea.
Nope, I can’t see them either
While the wind was favourable, the visibility wasn’t too hot and within 20 minutes we’d lost sight of the land. In every direction, all you could see, was nothing but more sea. It’s a strange feeling, being on such a small craft with no engine and no sight of any dry land with only the occasional visit of a curious seal for company, although we remained confident in our heading and pressed on.
We’d be paddling like nutters for 2 hours through the light mist, when all of a sudden I clocked the looming black silhouettes coming out of the fog about 45 degrees off my bow. I shouted like a excitable kid. JOBS! JOBS! There they are!!!!
We’d found them, and so we properly stuck the oars in and got moving.
On approach to the forts, the Redsands sandbank makes manoeuvring any vessel in close proximity to the towers pretty sketchy. When the wash from the pacing supertankers and container ships in the near by Thames shipping lane hits the shallow water around the forts, huge swell is pushed up and you get thrown all over the shop. It took a lot of messing about, but within half an hour we were stood on the landing stage and getting ready to haul our kayaks out of the water.
Now, it was here we had to get creative. The rumours we’d heard about the fort being locked up were very true. The first couple of hatches and barbed wire are easily bypassed if you don’t mind a climb, but unless you’re a close relation of Flat Stanley, you’re not going to be getting through the final hatch in any way, shape or form.
Locked hatch (from the other side)
It was a good job we packed all that rope tackle after all.
Swish-swoosh, clippy-clip up we go.
It took the best part of an hour to ascend, rerig and haul up the food, water, beer, fishing tackle and god knows what else, and by the time we were up top, a thick thick fog had set in, dropping visibility down to less than 50m.
The main tower is pretty well looked after. The guys at Project Redsand have had a good tidy round, and everything looks rather neat. They’ve started replacing some of the windows to keep the draught out and have been doing spot of painting here and there to fight the rust. I’m not very good at derping to be honest, so my ‘explore’ of the place mainly consisted of sticking my head in a room, going ‘oh right’, and snapping a hand held picture on a wideangle lens, but if you’re curious what the main tower looks like on the inside, the answer is, well, this:
We had a good poke round the main fort, and popped over the wire bridge to the next one, which is in appalling condition. Good luck fixing that one up, I nearly went through the bloody floor.
We spent the rest of the day fishing, eating crisps, drinking and talking nonsense.
As night descended, the temperature dropped pretty severely, and we got the stove going and sunk a bottle of port with the crackle of the fire and the sounds of bells of the navigation buoys and fog horns of the tankers steaming past in the main shipping channel less than a mile away.
There was an artist who went to live on one of the shivering sands towers for 36 days in 2005 to experience true isolation from the world. Stood here, in the pitch black, surrounded by sounds of the boats and the buoys, I didn’t feel isolated at all. We’d just moved into to a different world.
I slept like a baby, but to make it back to land with the incoming tide, we had to wake at 4am to be able to put in at the right time. We packed up, dropped our kit down the ropes to the lower stage and put in back to land (but not before I’d had one last run up the mast).
There was a storm forecast for that evening, and the winds were picking up a bit. With the wind behind us though, we made it back on land in about an hour and a half though some more fog, our perfect heading dropping us out at the carpark we put in from the previous day.