They appear against the horizon as the boat slowly sweeps closer into the estuary, inky shadows on spindly legs rising up from the sea. Arranged in a circular formation around a central hub, they slide in and out of view as the angle of perception changes, almost as if they are moving, shuffling. There are two distinct groups, one with six structures, the other with seven, known as Shivering Sands and Red Sands.
From far away, the towers look black, but close to, they are the ruddy colour of metal long abandoned to the sea. For me, these ugly, squatting towers out in the water have always been an eagerly anticipated waypoint. Sighting them huddled together atop their sandbank means that no matter where I have been, I am almost home.
I grew up sailing on the Thames estuary, a vast area of watery flatness on England’s east coast where the North Sea rushes in to meet the last of London’s river. All of my early memories have the same watery quality: time not spent on the turbulent, muddy waves of the estuary is blurry compared to the sharpness with which I can remember our weekend sailing trips. The colour palette is all grey, brown, ochre, rust.
My parents had emigrated from South Africa before I was born in a boat they had built themselves, sailing for three months north through the Atlantic to reach Britain. Their first home on land was on the Isle of Sheppey, a small marshy island off the north Kent coast. It was from the bubbly fibreglass deck of that same boat that I first saw the towering shapes of the Maunsell forts.
These towers were built into the Thames estuary during the Second World War in an effort to prevent enemy aircraft from reaching crucial inland targets. German bombers had worked out early in their campaign that if they followed its twists and turns in from the coast, the Thames would lead them right to the heart of the city. This meant that no matter how well British blackout regulations were observed, the river would guide planes right up to the docks in east London that were earmarked for destruction.
In response, the civil engineer Guy Maunsell proposed building a platform for anti-aircraft guns right out in the estuary to bring down bombers as they gathered to follow the Thames inland. The cost was enormous – the three groups of seven towers eventually built in the estuary together cost around £36.8 million in today’s money, excluding the price of the military equipment they contained – because constructing solid structures on shifting sandbanks out to sea was very difficult. Even with all of Maunsell’s skill with concrete, it took a couple of years to work out a design that could stand up to the wind and tide miles off the shore.
Maunsell’s forts were towed out to sea and lowered into place over several months in 1943. For each of the twenty-one towers, a concrete square was sunk down to the seabed, four angled legs were attached, and the structure was then braced and topped with an armoured steel box. Each tower is 117 feet tall from base to top, standing about 60 feet above the water at high tide. From above, the fort formations look like constellations, the stars connected by narrow metal walkways so that the hundreds of men who lived in this strange metal colony out at sea for weeks at a time could get from tower to tower. At night, teams of men kept watch on the asphalted roofs and operated the huge guns mounted there. The Thames forts had brought down twenty-two aircraft and thirty flying bombs by the time the war ended in 1945.
In H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a book I first read in my early teens, the narrator speaks with horror of military devices he calls ‘fighting-machines’. These are armoured capsules on tripod legs that the invading Martians use to wage war for the control of Earth. At first glance artificial, the machines have a ‘living quality’ that is utterly eerie, moving with great agility and malice across the landscape of southern England, striding across land and sea with equal facility.
Artillery fire brings one down in the Thames in the first part of the story, and later as the narrator and his companions try to escape out to sea in a paddle steamer, a warship named Thunder Child fells two more out in the estuary near the Essex shore. Wells describes the line of machines advancing towards the battle across the mudflats, emphasising the contrast between the fluid, liquid mud and the hard alien metal cutting through it. ‘Far away beyond the Crouch, came another, striding over some stunted trees, and then yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway up between sea and sky,’ the horrified narrator recalls. Nothing I’ve ever read has chilled me like this did. Wells’ novel predates the Maunsell forts by forty years. Still, the fighting-machines to me looked exactly like the military towers I knew were already out there in the estuary; Wells had given them sinister life. The next time we sailed past the forts, I watched them carefully, fully expecting one to lift a leg and walk across the seabed.
Abandoned, decaying structures are ripe for narrative co-option. Their original purpose removed, they can be appreciated as detached entities by newcomers. Rose Macaulay documented what it means to think deeply about such ruins in her 1953 book The Pleasure of Ruins, which covers responses to wreckage and architectural decay from the spectral romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich to the rawness of WWII bomb damage. Towards the end of the book, she begins to rage against the impulse to neaten and compartmentalise ruins. ‘Our ruined abbeys and churches are, as a rule, only too well tided up and cleared, losing in the process who can say how much of mystery and nostalgic awe,’ she writes in a chapter titled ‘The Haunting Gods’. The act of preservation, the attempt to conserve or even restore an abandoned edifice, is to detract from its value as a ruin, which is to experience the melancholy of survival and the frisson of bearing witness to redundancy. This sensation is all the more potent when the destruction is recent, Macaulay argues. ‘New ruins are for a time stark and bare . . . blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality.’ The Maunsell forts carry this scent too, a grim stench that makes me think of the black-and-white photographs I’ve seen of buildings tumbled to rubble during the Blitz.
In 2013, I was invited by the Museum of London Docklands to join a boat trip out to the Red Sands towers, the inner of the two remaining formations. A selection of artists and writers were taken by bus to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, where we boarded a boat that chugged us out to the base of the towers. The journey took about an hour, the sun sparkling vividly off the waves, darkened patches shifting on the water with the clouds above. It was the first time I had been back on the estuary in several years, and my visceral reaction took me by surprise. Every decaying wooden post and towering pylon was familiar; even the rocking, crossways motion of the boat felt reassuring. This, combined with the polite bafflement most other people on the trip expressed about the estuary landscape, gave me the initial idea for what became my first book. It felt good to be home, even if I had only just realised that was what the estuary was to me.
The return leg of that trip took much longer because the tide was against us. I sat in the cabin with the captain, Alan Harmer, and listened to him talk about the Red Sands towers. He told of about his work with something called ‘Project Redsand’, a volunteer group that was campaigning to raise awareness of the forts and fundraise to preserve them. Harmer is a very skilled seaman. On this trip, he had taken his boat around and between the towers over and over again, so that passengers could see and photograph them right up close. It was the nearest I’d ever been to these structures. I had previously known them best as silhouettes against the sky. He talked about the different commissions he had received to take people on tours of the forts, from film crews to advertising executives to stunt skateboarders. There was even a rumour, he said, that Google wanted to repurpose the forts as an offshore headquarters – a plan that didn’t get far because they are not, in fact, today in international waters.
At the time of that visit, it was not safe to land a boat full of visitors at the Red Sands towers. The Project had been building a jetty at the base of one of the forts, replacing an original landing point that the waves had damaged beyond repair, but progress was slow because of a lack of funds. After WWII, the military maintained the forts and there was even some refurbishment in the early 1950s as the Cold War hotted up, but in 1956 they were decommissioned and abandoned to the elements. The westernmost group of structures, at the Nore, was removed by the Port of London Authority in 1959 as there was concern they might prove a hazard to shipping, and indeed in 1963 the MV Ribersborg hit one of the Shivering Sands forts during a heavy fog and knocked it down. The rest have survived, gradually rusting and crumbling away.
By the end of the war, each fort was crewed by 265 men. They inhabited an isolated, artificial hamlet out on the estuary, held in stasis above the water with their weapons. After the Ministry of Defence abandoned the towers in the 1950s, they didn’t stay empty for long. In the early 1960s the pirate radio movement found them an ideal base for broadcasting from the fringes of the UK. Whereas Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta used ships out in the North Sea to get around licensing restrictions, in 1964 Screaming Lord Sutch occupied the Shivering Sands fort and set up Radio Sutch. He used an extremely unsafe cascade of car batteries to power a fairly weak transmitter, broadcasting pop music and a reading of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Sutch, who twenty years later would found the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, soon grew tired of shivering on the Shivering Sands and sold his station on. When his successor at the forts Reg Calvert died in 1966 in suspicious and violent circumstances, it helped to spur the government into passing the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in 1967, which made it illegal for UK subjects to operate pirate stations.
One of the Radio Caroline ships was sometimes anchored off the Isle of Sheppey when I was a child. I used to like to tell people that I was named after it, because that seemed to me like a fitting and quirky origin story, although my parents always denied that this was the case. Pirate radio always felt like a natural fit for the estuary landscape, with its pre-existing sense of a place overlooked and the hum of the electricity pylons everywhere. The Maunsell forts, too, seemed appropriate as a base for such a zany and precarious enterprise conducted on the fringes of legality. They look like something from another dystopian world dropped a few dozen miles downriver from London. Naturally, they have always attracted outsiders.
I spoke to Harmer again recently to find out how Project Redsand was faring. He was cheerfully optimistic about the progress of their restoration, explaining how the jetty and fendering had been completed, and that some work had been done on the interior – new insulation, general maintenance and some replacement windows. The Project doesn’t own the towers but instead acts as their official custodian on behalf of the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed they rest on. They make some money from facilitating filming and apply for any charitable funding they can. The aim is eventually to be able to open the forts to the public, the hope being that the same curiosity about recent military history that creates long queues for WWII sites like the Churchill War Rooms in London and the tunnels beneath Dover Castle will raise the profile of the Maunsell forts too. But although I admire the intrepid efforts of Project Redsand, I have my doubts about the forts’ future as a major tourist attraction. They are only safely accessible at certain times of the tide and in calm weather; the ladder up to the cabins will never be completely friendly to most kinds of visitor.
I have returned to the estuary often over the past few years as I’ve been researching and writing about it. Like anyone going back to a fondly remembered place from childhood, I’ve occasionally been outraged to find that aspects of it have changed while I was elsewhere. Two of the big power stations on the Hoo peninsula have been demolished, and I watched videos of their vast cylindrical towers crumpling into nothing before they descended into dust over and over again. Their replacements are cleaner, more efficient and less intrusive. Wind turbines now whirr in their hundreds out on estuary sandbanks. And yet I miss the way I could navigate a boat into the river Medway using just those chimneys as marks. Their absence makes my internal sense of place feel unmoored, adrift.
The surviving Maunsell forts have so far remained in place in the estuary because it has been deemed too expensive to remove them. Their abandoned, rusting edifices fit the grey emptiness of the landscape – I’ve often felt that if they weren’t there, a painter of the scene would add them from imagination to complete the picture. Even when brand new in 1943 their purpose was closely tied to the fire and mortality that Macaulay identified in new ruins; as ruins now they exist on the extremity of what seems plausible. And yet they are beautiful in their decay. That’s what the estuary has taught me, over and over again. On the edges, where it is least expected, the light creeps in.
Caroline Crampton is the author of The Way to the Sea – read an extract here.