Saturday, 12 November 2016

Season Of The Witch

For the last couple of years I have managed to post topical articles regarding Samhain events that I have attended in Southwark and New Forest; however, Hallowe'en passed uneventfully this year, with no dancing in urban burial grounds and no druidic rituals on forest plains.

Although Samhain went unmarked this year, earlier in the month I managed to find myself in a place that has a historical connection to witchcraft: the small town of Manningtree, sitting on the banks of the Stour Estuary on the border of Essex and Suffolk, buttressed by the villages of Mistley to the east and Lawford to the west.

Manningtree from the Stour



The circular walk that my Eldest and I intend to undertake officially begins at the railway station on the west of the town, but we have decided to start elsewhere along the loop; therefore, we leave our vehicle along the waterfront, only a stone's throw from the town's most notable landmark: the so-called Mistley Towers.

Mistley Towers

The original church on this site had been built in the classical style early in the Georgian period, reflecting the architectural trend imprinted by Wren and his colleagues on the City of London following the Great Fire. However, in 1776 an ambitious local politician named Richard Rigby, who nurtured plans to create a spa town, employed the renonwned architect Robert Adams to 'enhance' the buiding, and the Towers that stand today are the result.

Adam's church served the community for a century, before being replaced in 1870 by a new church to the southwest. This was built in the Neo-Gothic style, reflecting the change in architectural taste between the Georgian and Victorian periods. The main body of Adam's church was demolished but the Towers were allowed to remain, and today are maintained by English Heritage.

River Stour from Manningtree, with Suffolk across the water


We stride west along the waterfront, heading for the centre of the estuarine settlement which claims to be the smallest 'town' in the country, although it has rivals to this claim ( such as Fordwich in Kent and Llanwrtyd in Powys, to name but two). The mudflats to our right are peaceful, dotted with godwits and lapwings, and boats bob quietly on the water.

High Street, Manningtree

This riverside road, known as The Walls, reaches an art gallery then kinks left up an incline before swinging right into a High Street with a narrow roadway and even narrower pavements. There are plenty of hostelries and tea shops, and little to disturb the street's Georgian feel. Many of these facades conceal older structures behind, and the town contains over a hundred Grade II listed buildings. We purchase a Meal Deal from an unobtrusive Tesco Extra and sit on a bench next to a small market area to enjoy our lunch.

In the medieval period, Manningtree was known for a Whitsun Fair at which a whole ox was roasted. This event was famous enough to be known to William Shakespeare, who made reference to it in Henry IV Part 1, with Henry describing Sir John Falstaff as 'that roasted Manningtree ox, with a pudding in his belly...'  Today, a sculpture of the Ox - complete with the pudding - hangs at Market Cross.

The Manningtree Ox

With our lunch finished, we continue west along what is now called Station Road, which leads to the edge of the town and - no surprise here - its railway station. From here, we take a footpath that heads south across countryside toward the parish church of Lawford, and then we strike east, across fields and through woodland, skirting the southern edges of Manningtree as we head toward the hamlet of Mistley Heath. To our left, across the meadows of Furze Hill, we can see the landmark chimney of the EDME Maltings, and somewhere beyond that lays the site of a 'secret' nuclear bunker.

Maltings Chimney

It is peaceful, attractive North Essex countryside, and yet - during the tumultuous, Civil War-torn decade that was the 1640's - this community managed to nurture one of the most notorious and controversial figures in English history. This was the home of Matthew Hopkins, son of a Suffolk clergyman, the man who descibed himself as the Witchfinder General.

Detail from frontispiece of Hopkins' book 1647 book, The Discovery Of  Witches


Hopkins was born at Great Wenham, Suffolk, around the year 1640, but moved to Manningtree in the early '40''s. East Anglia was a stronghold of Puritanism and strongly favoured the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War. The times were rife with superstition and were ripe for unscrupulous 'gentlemen' like Hopkins and his companion, John Stearne, to enrich themselves by exploiting the gullible. Already the iconoclast William Dowsing had rampaged through the district, destroying stained glass windows and whitewashing church walls as he carried out his commission to destroy 'monuments of idolatry and superstition'.

Hopkins wrote that his career began in 1644 after he overheard a group of Mannngtree women discussing their meetings with the Devil. Stearne seems to have been the dominant figure at first, but their roles were soon reversed. Twenty-three women accused of witchcraft were tried at Chelmsford. Four died in prison, the other nineteen were hanged.

The penalty for witchcraft

With Stearne and a group of assistants named Mary Philips, Frances Mills and Edward Parsley, Hopkins now took his witch-hunting roadshow around East Anglia. The women were employed to physically examine the unfortunate accused, ordeals which included being 'pricked' to see if they would bleed. During his career, Hopkins made the acquaintance of such notable figures as the astrologer-prophet William Lilly and John Thurloe, head of Oliver Cromwell's secret service.

It was certainly a lucrative business. Hopkins demanded that the town of Stowmarket pay over £23 for his services, at a time when the prevailing wage was sixpence a day. It is not known how many victims perished at Stowmarket, but over the course of his brief career he was responsible for the deaths of over three hundred women.

'Ducking', a popular ordeal for identifying witches

Not all his victims were women. The vicar of Brandeston in Suffolk, John Lowe, despite being seventy years old, was forced to run back and forth in his cell for several days before, exhausted beyond care, he finally confessed.

Towards the end of 1646, Hopkins' brutal methods and extortionate ways began to attract negative attention. The vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire, name of John Gaule, heard that the Witchfinder planned to visit his area and denounced him from the pulpit. The tide of popular opinion now began to swing against the zealotry and venality displayed by Hopkins and his followers. Prudently, Hopkins disbanded his gang and retired to Manningtree in the Spring of 1647.

He did not enjoy his retirement for long, dying in August of the same year, of what his former partner Stearne described as 'a consumption'.

The remnants of St Mary's Church, Mistley Heath

Eldest and I stroll along a fieldside footpath and enter the hamlet of Mistley Heath, a few farms and cottages straggling along a minor rural road. The footpath reaches the road and there, right opposite, an ancient wall surrounds a parcel of open land. At one end of this field, below a canopy of trees, lay the crumbling remains of a demolished medieval church, the building that was replaced by Mistley Towers.

We cross the road and survey the site from the wall. This field was clearly the old churchyard and somewhere under this unassuming plot of Essex land lays the dust of one of the county's most notorious and despicable figures. All is peace and quiet in Mistley Heath today but, gazing at this field, I find myself recalling the final line of Emily Bronte's classic Wuthering Heights:

'I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.'

The wall around the site of Mistley Heath churchyard
And off we go, strolling back toward Manningtree, toward Mistley Towers and our parked car. We cross the Hopping Bridge, by local tradition a spot where Hopkins ducked his victims. A pond in the local park is supposed to be haunted by the Witchfinder, and the local pub is said to have been owned by him at one time. We are a couple of weeks shy of Samhain, yet today we have traversed a pocket of Essex town and country replete with legends of witchery and persecution,  and who knows what other dark secrets may rest in this 'quiet earth'...

River Stour




Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Coming Of The Corvids




What calls them hither, these feather-clad warriors,
These ebon-swathed guardians of crepuscular sky?
What drives them together in the Norfolk dusk,
A yearning, an instinct, a reason to fly?

They gather and they chatter
They assemble and they clatter
Cacophonous corvids, jackanape jackdaws
They start as just a smatter
Swell to a seething mass of matter
Waiting and watching for a single cause.

They perch on lofty wires
They fill canopies and nooks.
They are waiting for the sunset
They are waiting for the rooks.

Blood-orange sun now bows its head,
Skyline kissed and ruddied.
Dusk infuses, deepening red,
Fields and foliage bloodied.

To a crescendo, the avian chorus
Fills the Anglian evenscape
As the horizon pushes close.
Deep and relentless, the coming night
The obdurate failure of the light
A black mass held by crows.

The rooks are here!  The strident caws
Mingle with the ambient roars,
They swoop and dive, blending in the gloaming
Connect and join, mixing in their roaming,
A trembling stack of beaks and claws.

And now they rise, the corvid chorus
Swarming, blotting the indigo sky
The nocturne quakes with their communal roar
A rumble penetrates to the core
Thousands lift, and together fly.

A boiling carpet, a feathered block
Our upturned faces in awe and shock
The jackdaws joke and the dark rooks mock
As we gape below this colossal flock.
They swing, they sway, they murmurate,
They dip, they soar, they susurrate
Their instincts and their needs to sate
A heirarchy to equate.

They shrink, contract, descend en masse
Upon a clump of trees.
They jostle and they tussle
They wriggle and they bustle
They whisper and they rustle
They grow quiet in the breeze.
Settling for the night,
A few rogues left in flight
One lonely 'caw! caw! caw!'
And the corvids call no more.

The night grows deep
Now the corvids sleep
The stars, tentative, emerge.
A distant tawny's plaintive cry
Cuts into this Anglian sky
Where the rooks and the jackdaws surge.

We sleep ourselves under Swaffham's sky
Where the beech and the bramble grows.
Having seen the flight, at the onset of night
Where the army of corvids rose.

What calls them hither, these feather-clad warriors,
These ebon-swathed guardians of crepuscular sky?
What draws them together in the Norfolk dusk,
A yearning, an instinct, a reason to fly?





Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Dark Brow


On 17th April 1805, a young Manchester artist named Charles Gough went strolling out in the Lake District with his dog Foxie. He was never seen alive again.

Three months later, a shepherd found his remains at the foot of Striding Edge, near the banks of Red Tarn. His dog was still by her master's side.

This incident caught the imagination of poets and artists of the romantic movement. Wordsworth and Scott wrote about Foxie's fidelity, and Landseer and Danby visualised the scene in paint. Today, a memorial set up at the estimated site of Gough's fall tells his story.





I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn,
Lakes and mountains beneath me gleamed misty and wide;
All was still, save by fits, when the eagle was yelling,
And starting around me the echoes replied.
On the right, Striden-edge round the Red-tarn was bending,
And Catchedicam its left verge was defending,
One huge, nameless rock in the front was ascending,
When I marked the sad spot where the wanderer had died.



Dark green was that spot 'mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the pilgrim of nature lay stretched in decay,
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain-winds wasted the tenantless clay.
Nor yet quite deserted, though lonely extended,
For, faithful in death, his mute favourite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.


How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long weeks didst thou number,
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
And, oh! was it meet, that—no requiem read o'er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretched before him—
Unhonoured the pilgrim from life should depart?



When a prince to the fate of the peasant has yielded,
The tapestry waves dark round the dim-lighted hall;
With scutcheons of silver the coffin is shielded,
And pages stand mute by the canopied pall;
Through the courts, at deep midnight, the torches are gleaming;
In the proudly arched chapel the banners are beaming;
Far adown the long aisle sacred music is streaming,
Lamenting a chief of the people should fall.



But meeter for thee, gentle lover of nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the gray plover flying,
With but one faithful friend to witness thy dying
In the arms of Helvellyn and Catchedicam.




Photos © Charlie McManus
Poem Helvellyn by Sir Walter Scott

Helvellyn (pronunciation: /hɛlˈvɛ.lɪn/) (possible meaning: pale yellow moorland) is a mountain in the English Lake District.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Another Trip To The Well

We live in a nation defined by water. It surrounds our Isles, has historically helped us to repel invaders ( not always successfully!), encouraged us to create ships that forged an Empire. It rises in the Winter to wreak flood havoc on various parts of the country. It was venerated by the ancient pre-Roman tribes, who cast votive offerings into its depths - artifacts such as the Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Helmet, dredged from the murk of the Thames. The custom of throwing coins into wells originates from these older rituals.


Waterloo Helmet and Battersea Shield

Wells and springs, venerated for millenia, abound across the nation, many of them adopted as relevant to the rise of Christianity, and named after various saints. In the Celtic Fringe areas, they are particularly thick on the ground. I have stumbled across them in Cornwall, where a traveller never seems to be far from a watering hole named after a local holy man. St Guron's Well stands outside the great church at Bodmin, one of many water sources in the town. St Piran's Well guards the beginning of the track that leads to St Nectan's Glen at Trethevy, and the Madron Well down in West Penwith is always thick with clouties. The small village of St Breward, high on the Moor, boasts of two Holy Wells on its fringes.


St Guron's Well, Bodmin

In Wales, the astonishingly scenic valley road between Rhayader and Pontarfynach/ Devil's Bridge is replete with waterfalls, rising from springs high in the hills to cascade down into the meandering River Elan. A cluster of  settlements in mid-Powys - Llandrindod, Llanwrtyd and Llangammarch - all carry the suffix 'Wells', thanks to the dripdrip of chalybeate metallic aqua.

Elsewhere, the goddess Sulis holds sway over the thermal waters of Bath, where the Romans equated her with their own deity Minerva. Further along the road to London, in the depths of Wiltshire, her name echoes in Silbury Hill and the nearby Swallowhead Spring. In Somerset, the legendary Red and White springs of Glastonbury attract visitors from all over the world.

And what of my home region? Can any traces of these old wells and springs be found in the dour, over-developed, industrialised lowlands of South Essex?

They can indeed, if an explorer makes a little effort, and my Eldest and I recently managed to seek out four of them in a single afternoon.

Chadwell St Mary

We started at a town fairly local to us, the presence of its now-defunct well right there in its name. The name Chadwell is believed to be an Old English variation on 'Cold Well', and the St Mary suffix differentiates the town from the Romford suburb of Chadwell Heath, which boasts its own well (unvisited on this occasion!).

Alas, the town displays a lack of fanfare regarding the artifact after which it was named. Near a busy roundabout, by a new Academy, stands a rather forlorn, rusting, obsolete waterpump, with not even a small plaque to explain its previous relevance to the community.

The Chadwell © Charlie McManus
Despite the presence of reed warblers in the nearby scrub and a heron prowling the Academy's pond, any possible charm of this spot is destroyed by the perpetual roar of traffic and the antisocial activities of fly tippers. However, this is only the first of four that we have earmarked for this trip and we have high hopes that, as D:Ream once sang, things can only get better.

We hop into the car before anyone can nick it, and head northwest to a relatively overlooked village.

North Ockendon

A small community, mostly straggling along the B186, has managed to hide its church around the back. A church has existed here since at least 1075, when the manor was owned by Westminster Abbey, but most of the present building is the result of a mid-Victorian restoration.

At the rear of the churchyard, on the southern boundary, a small gate opens onto a small flight of steps that leads to St Cedd's Well. Now THIS is more like it!

St Cedd's Well © Charlie McManus
The lovingly maintained well sits in a picturesque spot, overlooking a pond which is the remnant of a manorial moat. Its waterpump remains in fine working order and is used to water the plants that surround the wellhouse. A baptismal channel runs from the well to the pond which, curiously, contains the second heron of the day. Unless we're being followed.

St Cedd's Well and Baptismal Channel ©Charlie McManus

Heron on the pond ©Charlie McManus

The dedication of the church is to St Mary Magdalene, biblical figure and unseen star of 'The DaVinci Code'. So who was St Cedd?

Cedd was born c.620, and was a monk originally out of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. He travelled south to convert the Middle Angles to Christianity, then east to convert Essex. He founded churches at Tilbury and Bradwell, his successes seeing him eventually being promoted to Bishop of London and Abbot of Lastingham in Northumberland. He was a major participant in the important Synod of Whitby, and died at Lastingham during a plague outbreak in 664, succeeded by his brother Ceadda. Considering his evangelising activities in this very region, perhaps it's no great stretch of the imagination to accept the possibility that Cedd converted and baptised the East Saxons at this spot.

Sandon

We head north, to the charming village of Sandon, just off the A12 a short distance from Chelmsford. A spring was noted here on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, but since then has disappeared from the charts and, until fairly recently, was considered lost.

The village pub, The Crown, provides refreshment before we continue our quest. To the rear of the Sandon School playing fields can be found an unmade road called - and here's a bit of a giveaway - Ladywell Lane, address of a local lawn tennis club. Apparently, a pair of wells once existed on around the club's premises, but of these no modern trace remains.

We stroll past the tennis club to the end of this very rural track, which terminates at a fine building called Ladywell House. Our perambulation continues along a public footpath, with a field on our left and a small wood, locally named Bluebell Wood, on our right. Finding a gap in the foliage, we enter the Wood.

A couple of meandering paths, presumably created by dogwalkers, snakes through the undergrowth. In little time at all, we notice a narrow stream traversing the wood, and trace it back to its source. We have found the damp, dark, mossy spot that was once the Lady Well, the springhead now flowing through a pipe.

The Lady Well, Sandon © Charlie McManus

A local legend claims that the Lady Well is so named because a woman was drowned here in antiquity; however, this seems physically unlikely. It is more probable that it was named for Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, a fairly common attribution for wells and springs.

Runwell

Travelling back from Sandon in the direction of home, we enter the village of Runwell, situated on the very edge of our home borough, and the home of possibly the most mysterious of our four sites for today - the Running Well.

The earliest reference to the settlement, as 'Runewelle', is found in a document of the year 939 called the Cartularium Saxonicum, although the Well itself does not appear in a historical document until 1768, when the antiquarian Philip Morant wrote in his History Of The County Of Essex that the name of the village 'undoubtedly received its name from some considerable Running Well in the parish.'

The occult writer Andrew Collins investigated the Running Well in the 1980's, and uncovered evidence that the Well was once devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, around the year 1600, had a small chapel in a neighbouring field; thus giving rise to the possibility that it was a place of pilgrimage for recusant Catholics. No trace of a chapel exists today, but Collins remarked on a rectangular 'kink' in the field that may have been its site.

Flint tools from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic have been found in the vicinity, and pottery from the Iron Age and Roman periods. The Running Well sits at the highest point in the parish yet, nowadays, is tricky to find.

It sits in a dense copse at the southwest corner of the paddock area behind the Running Well Equestrian Centre, in the countryside between Runwell and Rettendon. We achieved access by following a public footpath directly to the east of the Centre, then partaking of a little light trespassing along its boundaries.

We had to bend double to enter the thicket, and found ourselves sliding down into a small, dark dell. And there it was, sitting there patiently waiting for our arrival. Once again, the source of a village name, in a remote and hidden location.

The Running Well ©Charlie McManus
An overgrown flight of concrete steps lead down the bank to the Well, and a concrete sink tank adjoins it. These were installed by a local farmer in the 1920's, although a handrail accompanying the steps has long since rotted away. Standing on the platform, gazing into the dark water, it is strange to imagine that this remote, overgrown, virtually forgotten spot may once have been a site of secret pilgrimage.

Mission accomplished. Eldest and I have discovered, in a single afternoon, four sites of historic interest in our local area, and most of these sites are as mysterious and historic as any found in the West Country. Back to the car, and we drive south through Wickford on our way home, my incredulous glance falling across a field to our left as a heron suddenly takes flight.

A week later, we found ourselves in Fowlmere, a wetland Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire which, apart from circling hobbies, purring turtle doves and swooping marsh harriers, also has ponds which quite visibly have springs bubbling up inside them.

Perhaps Sulis is blessing our travels after all.


Monday, 11 April 2016

Forts And Foreshores: The Confluence


Van Soest, Attack On The River Medway
Much time and effort have I expended recently, exploring the triangle of Forts, the 'Palmerston Follies', that protect the kink in the Thames at Coalhouse Point. I have been buffeted by gusts at the lonely outpost of Cliffe, clambered over shattered stonework at Shornemead, and watched owls sweep across mudflats at Coalhouse. And yet, despite the time and effort that went into the construction of these Victorian military relics, none of them got to serve the purposes for which they were built. The French never sailed up the Thames, never attacked London, never exchanged fire with Palmerston's casemented guardians.

And yet, only a few miles along the shore, lies the confluence of the River Thames with Kent's mighty Medway... and here, two hundred years before the Palmerston Forts sought to ease our fears about Johnny Frenchie, took place the greatest humiliation in English naval history. However, it was not the French who were behind the 1667 raid on the Medway.

It was the Dutch.

The Medway Estuary
The raid took place in the context of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, one of four conflicts regarding mastery of the seas. A conference at Breda commenced in March 1667 but Charles II hesitated to sign a peace treaty, hoping for support from Louis XIV of France. However, the Dutch wearied of his prevarications and decided, in modern parlance, to light a fire under his backside.

On 6 June, a fog bank lifted in the Thames Estuary and revealed the approach of the Dutch fleet. They chased a fleet of merchantmen as far as Gravesend before turning their attention to the mouth of the Medway, for - only a couple of miles along the river at Chatham - the cream of the English Navy was lying up in a state of dormancy...

Slough Fort can be found at Allhallows-On-Sea...

...not at Slough, which is in Berkshire.

On the day I decided to follow the course of the Dutch Navy, I first visited the resort village of Allhallows-On-Sea, a short distance west of the confluence... my motive being that Allhallows has a small but tactically important Palmerston Fort, currently - and amusingly - being used as stables for an equestrian concern.

The small, D-shaped Slough Fort was constructed in 1867 and was designed to protect the only viable landing-place for an invasion fleet between the Coalhouse fortifications and the defensive structues at the Thames/Medway confluence. It was named after a neighbouring farmstead which has since disappeared.

Slough Fort
To reach the Fort, one has to stroll into Allhallows' unmissable caravan resort and swing a left at the site supermarket, passing under a rather obvious gateway. Stables have been built in the structure's forecourt, and most are occupied by horses and ponies, along with helpful signage pointing out which ones bite. The interior of the Fort is not open to the public, and many of its rooms are used as storage for riding equipment.

Forecourt at Slough, stable block on the right
A series of gun emplacements stretch out on both sides of the main building, large enough to house the type of artillery you might expect to find at, say, Navarone.

Emplacement at Slough for a very big gun. Above, a holidaymaker enjoys a barbecue.
The wing batteries were added to the Fort around 1890 and could accomodate two 9.2-inch and two 6-inch breech loaders, weapons capable of taking on a battleship at considerable distances. Sadly, none of these colossal weapons remain at the site today.

Slough Fort in 1870, before the wing batteries were added

The guns were never fired in anger. The Fort was used as a Battery Command Post during the First World War, monitoring shipping in the Thames. It was decommisioned in 1920 and sold off nine years later, although brought back into use for anti-aircraft purposes during the Second World War. Eventually, the local council acquired the site and the riding stables appeared during the '60's.

Layout of Slough
Slough Fort was listed as a Grade II* Scheduled Monument in 2009, and Bourne Leisure (owners of the adjacent caravan park) have funded a partial restoration, clearing tons of debris from the wing batteries and laying out a trail with information boards.


Eastern wing battery shows signs of recent clearance

Following this productive visit to a holiday resort, I head east to the village of Grain, which stands right on the confluence of the two mighty rivers. The approach to this village is via the long and winding A288 and it passes through an industrial landscape that would look at home in a Blade Runner movie.

The Forts of the Confluence, in spatial relationship to each other


The road ends at a free car park, and from there it is but a short, brisk stroll to the sea wall, where you can stand at the junction of the two estuaries and make two immediate observations, i.e. it is extremely windy here, and there are fortifications as far as the eye can see. Out in the distant mouth of the Thames can be spotted a series of Maunsell Forts, named after their designer and erected during WW2. They form two groups, the Redsands and the Shivering Sands.

Maunsell Forts in the Thames Estuary
In the mouth of the Medway stands the Grain Sea Fort, built in 1855 (thus predating Palmerston's efforts) to protect local dockyards. It was added to during the Second World War, and holds the amusing address of 'No.1, Thames'. It recently came up for sale at £500, 000, although it requires a million's worth of renovations and can only be accesses by boat or a low-tide causeway. One can only imagine what kind of nut would want to live there. A rich nut, presumably.

Grain Sea Fort
Beyond the Sea Fort, on the corner of the Isle of Sheppey, can be spotted the Sheerness Docks and, in the midst of all that modern maritime bustle, another military relic from the days of Palmerston: the Garrison Point Fort, currently inaccessible to Joe Public and being used as a radar tower.


Garrison Point Fort

Behind you at this point is a raised area of long grass and scrubland, and this is the site of the demolished Grain Fort, twin to Garrison Point, razed following its 1956 decommissioning. Its colossal defensive ditch is mostly overgrown, its worn gun emplacements now picnic spots. Plenty survives below ground, but is only accessible through a small hole located in a cleared area of the ditch. Lacking a torch and the inclination to squeeze into a subterranean gap barely larger than the entrance to a badger sett, I decided to leave it to proper Urban Explorers.

The site of Grain Fort...

...and its few upstanding remains.

A little to the south stands the Grain Dummy Battery, built in 1865 to supplement the Fort. It was decommissioned at the same time, but its remains are still impressive.

Grain Dummy Battery from the front, chimney of Grain Power Station on left

Grain Dummy Battery from the rear
It is easy to imagine, at this windswept spot, the might of the Dutch Navy bearing down from the Thames back in June 1667. The first defensive obstacle they encountered was an earlier, incomplete fort at Sheerness, the precursor to Garrison Point. Its heavily outnumbered garrison fled, and the guns of the Dutch ships hammered the fort into rubble. The raiders now moved into the Medway, navigating the bends and turns toward Gillingham Reach and, beyond, the unprepared English fleet laid up at Chatham.

The Battle Of Chatham, Willem Van Der Stoop
I do not have to navigate the meanderings of the Medway, as I have a car and can follow the river's southerly course from the A288. At a point just below the disused Kingsnorth Power Station, it is possible to gaze out over the river and notice two more Palmerston Follies, Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet, strandedon islets and acessible only by water craft.

Fort Darnet ©David Anstiss

Fort Hoo
I park by the Marina at Hoo St Werburgh. From here, at low tide, it is possible to walk along the foreshore to the next site on my list. However, as Blondie might have observed, the tide is high. And I have little intention of swimming, so my only option is to struggle through the rather dense Cookham Wood, which hugs the banks of the river between here and Upnor. Plentiful signage tells me that the woods are privately owned, which is another way of telling me to be discreet.

Struggling through the bramble and ivy of the unwelcoming undergrowth, I notice the evidence of past human activity: bumps, hollows, drainage culverts. I have come to find the scanty remains of a brick fort that long predates the Palmerston Follies, a fort built in 1669 in the wake of the Dutch attack. Its twin, Gillingham Fort, stood on the other side of the river, but nothing remains of it. I find myself sliding into a hollow and finding the remnants of a small brick building, the first sign that I have located the Cookham Wood Fort.

Landward remnants of Cookham Wood Fort
I struggle gamely through to the wooded waterfront but, alas, that tide is not going to let me get close without risking an unwelcome dip in the Medway, so for today I have to satisfy myself with a partial view.

Remnant of Cookham Wood Fort at high tide

Cookham Wood at low tide ©beno.org
The river at this point is meandering south from the stretch known as Gillingham Reach. Here, the English had set up a 'boom', a long and thick chain set across the Medway to forestall just such a raid. It failed miserably. The Dutch crashed through the boom and fell upon two ships they found in the Reach, capturing both and taking them as spoils of war. One was the HMS Unity. The other, to the everlasting humiliation of the English Navy, was their flagship, the Royal Charles.

I retrace my steps to the Marina and recover the car. Only one more site to visit for the day, and its the only one owned by English Heritage of which, happily, I am a member.

Upnor, a beautiful cobblestoned maritime village
I park outside Upnor village, a place I have visited many times, and stroll down the quaint, historic village street toward the Medway waterfront. There, I find familiarity in a site of which I am very fond: Upnor Castle.

Approaching Upnor Castle

It was constructed during the reign of the first Elizabeth, between 1559 and 1667, to a design by Sir Richard Lee. The only action it saw came in June 1667, when the raid on the Medway culminated with a thunderous confrontation on the river right below the castle walls.


Upnor Castle from the Medway © Loco Steve
The Dutch fleet swept into Upnor Reach and finally met stiff resistance. The great guns of the castle roared out, batteries from the Chatham shore kept up constant artillery fire, but despite heavy human losses, the Dutch managed to attack and destroy three of the most majestic ships in the English Navy: Loyal London, Royal James and Royal Oak, burned by fireships here in the river at Upnor.

The gatehouse at Upnor Castle

The formidable General Monck, Duke of Albemarle and veteran of the Civil War, arrived to take charge, and ordered  a line of ships to be deliberately sunk across the Reach. This had the effect of blocking further passage along the river. Chatham was saved and, still under heavy fire, the Dutch warships swung around and headed back the way they had come, a feat of seamanship that even the English admired. They took with them their captured prizes, the Unity and the flagship Royal Charles. She was auctioned for scrap in 1673, but her sternpiece survives in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Sternpiece of the HMS Royal Charles
The Dutch had finally been repelled, but the raid could not be portrayed as anything but a disaster for the English. Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Navy, wrote: "All our hearts now do ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly The Royal Charles, other particulars I know not, but most sad to be sure. And, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone..."

Upnor Castle, overlooking the Medway


The kingdom survived. The Royal Oak, Royal James and Loyal London were refloated and salvaged. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chancellor, was made the scapegoat and exiled from Court. In 1670, a ship rebuilding programme saw the Navy being restored to its former strength.

Upnor Castle continued in service, being used to store ordnance after its defensive role was rendered obsolete by the new fortifications built around the estuaries in the wake of the Dutch raid. It was decommissioned at the end of the Second World War and opened as a museum. Today, although still owned by the Crown, it is run by English Heritage.

I leave the Castle and stroll down to the foreshore. The tide is at last at an ebb, and I gaze at the emerging mudflats and remember an earlier occasion, years ago, when my children and I prowled along those same mudflats, picking fresh samphire. My exploration of the Forts and Foreshores is at an end. Doubtless, I will return to some of them in the future (perhaps Cookham Wood when the tide is out), but those initial journeys of discovery have been completed.

I turn, mount a flight of steps back to Upnor and stroll up its cobbled street. The village has two pubs, the Tudor Rose and the King's Arms, and the scents of Sunday dinner waft through the cool Spring air. Behind, the river rolls on, winding its sinuous way to the confluence, passing centuries of defence works, cutting Kent in two as it has always done.

I walk, up the cobbled gradient, away from the Medway, towards new quests...