We woke to a bright but chilly morning. It registered -8 degrees outside. Alas, it also registered 38.4 degrees on my daughter’s forehead, as she explained in a weak voice that she didn’t really feel up to doing a walk this weekend. Thus it was that I went out alone, to meet my friend Mark who was our “guest walker” by pre-arrangement.
The plan had been that Mark was going to do the same walk we had done last week, from East Tilbury to Coalhouse Fort. We were then going to join him and carry on to Tilbury. As the rest of the family weren’t coming, however, I decided to join Mark from the start, thereby duplicating last week’s walk and then adding on another few miles.
We set off and soon reached the sea wall. The tide was out, exposing the mudflats. The water was still. The air was still. A distant, barely perceptible hum came from the industry across the river. It was another gloriously peaceful morning, where we saw only three other people on our way to Coalhouse Fort.
I do not propose to describe the walk to Coalhouse Fort in detail; that has already been done in my previous post.
We left Coalhouse Fort by walking around its seaward side, turning west to walk towards Tilbury. Just after the fort, my attention was drawn to some teddies and other mementos left on a wall by a bench. There seemed to be no explanation for these, until we walked around to the front of the bench. This was “Harry’s Bench”, dedicated to a young boy who died in 2003, aged only 6½ years old. When I got back home I looked up this bench on the internet. I could find references to it, but who Harry was, and why this is his spot, I do not know. His memorial bench is well tended, and in a beautiful spot, watching the ships slowly make their way up the Thames.
[Edit: see the comments on this post for more information about Harry’s Bench and the tragic story behind it]
Something else Harry’s Bench looked onto, standing on the sands of Coalhouse Point, is an abandoned hexagonal tower. This is an old radar tower, used during World War Two. It was apparently designed to look like a water tower, to the point of even being identified as such by some maps. Perhaps that is romantic myth, though, as some sources say it is not a radar tower at all, but a structure used by the coastguard. Either way, it is in disuse today. Although it seemed possible to clamber up some rocks and enter the open doorways to each side, we left it alone. Next to it are the ruined timbers of a jetty. What this jetty was used for I do not know, but it has long since been left for the river to slowly reclaim it.
We continued along the path, which is known as the Two Forts Way as it connects Coalhouse Fort to the more substantial Tilbury Fort. At one point we sat down to have a cup of tea, watching the wading birds who were picking their way through the mudflats, looking for food. As we walked west the view was dominated by the large structure of Tilbury Power Station, together with the heavy machinery of its jetty. We approached over a pathway running through what appeared to be landfill, before reaching a sea wall covered in graffiti which was mostly directed against the government.
Tilbury Power Station first came into operation in 1969, as a coal-fired plant. However, RWE, who run the site, applied to convert all three of the power station’s units so that they can generate energy from 100% sustainable biomass (effectively wood pellets, mostly delivered from Georgia in America, or Canada). This will reduce output from 1,131 to 750 Mega Watts of electricity, but will also reduce greenhouse gasses by some 70%. The conversion is expected to be fully completed by the end of 2012, at which point Tilbury will be the biggest biomass electricity-generating site in the world. The site, along with many other coal burning stations, had been scheduled for closure in 2015 under European laws, but its conversion to biomass may save it.
(Postscript, 27 February 2012: alas, biomass may not save the power station, but rather act in completely the opposite way. We came back here a week later for our next walk, and 9 days after that a fire started in the plant. As at the time of writing this postscript, it is believed a spark from a machine ignited the biomass and caused the fire– HERE is the BBC news article).
A footpath runs in front of the sea wall, allowing access between the station and the jetty and we therefore avoided having to walk round the circumference of the site. Shortly after leaving Tilbury Power Station the sea wall leads to Tilbury Fort.
The origins of Tilbury Fort date back to the 1530’s. Henry VIII had rather upset his Catholic neighbours by setting up the Protestant Church of England so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon. His next wife-to-be, Anne Boleyn, was already pregnant, meaning if Henry wanted to secure legitimacy for his child then he needed to move quickly – just as quickly, I suppose, as he had moved on Anne Boleyn in the first place! As the Church of England was established, relations between England and the papacy deteriorated, and the pope excommunicated Henry. By 1538 a Catholic Crusade against England was becoming a real threat, causing Henry to fortify the Thames and protect London. In 1539 he started building a series of blockhouses (small isolated forts), including one known as “Thermitage Bullwark”on the site of what is Tilbury Fort today.
By the 1580’s tempers had not cooled in Europe. Elizabeth I was on the throne, but most of the blockhouses were by now in a dilapidated state. Although some were demolished, others were repaired, including the one at Tilbury. With the threat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, emergency alterations were also effected. It was at this time that Elizabeth journeyed to West Tilbury to inspect her troops. It is here that she made her famous speech, “I know that I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too“. Indeed, that phrase is one of the more cultured graffiti slogans painted onto the sea wall at the power station.
Once the Armada had been beaten, Tilbury was expanded into a larger fortified enclosure, including ramparts and a ditch, and the walls were extended to protect the ferry station which gave access to Kent.
By the 1630’s, the fort had once again fallen into disrepair. Matters became so bad that the outer defences flooded at high tide, and the fort was often “invaded” by passengers and livestock from the ferry. In 1649 the fort was garrisoned and used as a checkpoint where ships had to register their crews and guarantee loyalty to Parliament.
In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne and immediately undertook a review of coastal defences. Improving Tilbury fell to Charles’ Chief Engineer, Sir Bernard de Gomme. According to English Heritage, his improvements to Tilbury Fort, and the fact that they have survived the passage of time, make it “the most complete example in Britain of a 17th-century bastioned artillery fort with elaborate outer defences“. The seaward entrance is an impressive stone structure, but with an unoccupied alcove in its middle. It is believed a statue of King Charles was supposed to have stood here, but was never installed. Why that is I do not know.
Building began in 1670 and lasted some 15 years. When it was completed it was one of the most powerful fortresses in the country. In 1715 there were 75 heavy guns defending the Thames. A year later the fort was given the additional duty of storing and supplying gunpowder for the Board of Ordnance, and a wharf was built to move gunpowder into and out of the fort. Further improvements were added in the 1780’s in time for the Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815, and more in the late 1860’s when French aggression again became a threat.
However, by the beginning of the 20th century the speed of technological advancements was so great that many of the older forts became obsolete. Tilbury had new emplacements built in 1901-1903 in order to take the new style of artillery guns, however, by 1905 it was generally accepted that the Thames was now defended more by the Royal Navy and guns at the mouth of the estuary, and that an attack as far west as Tilbury was virtually non-existent. Tilbury’s guns were removed, although the fort continued its role as an ordnance depot.
By 1925 the fort was considered so obsolete that the Crown tried to sell it for commercial development, but failed to find a buyer. The ramparts became a promenade for the public. Although thousands of troops and equipment passed through Tilbury during the D-Day preparations of World War Two, Tilbury Fort was not used, and in 1950 it became a historic monument. Today it is run by English Heritage and is open to the public (check the English Heritage website for opening times). I enjoyed its magazines in particular, with their underground tunnels. I also enjoyed English Heritage’s Ginger Wine, available from the gift shop after a free taster at £8.95 a bottle!
We left Tilbury Fort, adjourning to The World’s End pub next door. There we had a pint and a spot of lunch, before departing. As we left, the ferry terminal was in sight and the hazy shores of Gravesend beckoned to us. I need to come back and re-do this walk with my wife and children so that they can catch up, but Coalhouse Fort to Tilbury Fort is only 2½ miles or so. Our next walk, I hope, will include the ferry crossing and the start to our Kent expedition.
Points on this walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):
- East Tilbury: N 51° 29.092 E 000° 24.810
- Coalhouse Fort: N 51° 27.899 E 000° 25.975
- Harry’s Bench: N 51° 27.639 E 000° 25.860
- Radar Tower: N 51° 27.589 E 000° 25.853
- Tilbury Power Station: N 51° 27.297 E 000° 23.378
- Tilbury Fort: N 51° 27.167 E 000° 22.478
- The World’s End Pub: N 51° 27.147 E 000° 22.229
Walk #10 Statistics:
- Date of Walk: 11 February 2012
- Walk #10 total distance covered: 7.70 miles
- Coast of Britain Walk Total Distance Covered: 65.78 miles
- CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO INTERACTIVE MAP!!!
Pingback: 11 – Coalhouse Fort (again) to Gravesend | The Coastal Path
the bit next to the radar tower is not a jetty but the remains of a tudor blockhouse. it was a fortified position aimed to protect the river from invaders. it is several hundred years old and quite remarkable that the wooden frame parts are still standing.
Philip – Many thanks for the information and clarification. I had no idea what it was, but it did take a lovely picture! I have to say that I have enjoyed visitng various forts and various blockhouses in various states of repair as we have made our way along the shoreline of Essex and back out again through Kent. It has been very interesting visiting each building/ruin in turn and understanding how they developed and how they work with each other in defending the Thames. Nic
The little boy got killed whilst at work with he’s father in the docks by a crane I think.and he loved the docks and looking at the river along the tilbury coal house fort stretch the accident prompted a stop to children being allowed into the docks.
Sarah – thank you so much for the information. I have often thought about poor Harry and what happened to him. It is heartening to see that some 10 years later his bench is still so well tended, including it seems by so many strangers. It was a poignant place to visit, and I remember it more than anything else from that day. Nic
Did you also know about the Victorian dump you have never wrote about that. Past the tower and bench the stretch between the power station is full of human remains it was used to dump remains when cemetery’s were full in London . Iand for ceramics and a old bottle dump I find that whole stretch very poignant today my 12 year old son was collecting bottles and old bones. Some were very small proberbly childrens. Very sad .
Hello again Sarah – I think I read about the Victorian dump somewhere, and the bones, but I seem to recall it was an obscure reference, like one sentence in one book. When we were between Coalhouse Fort and Tilbury Power Station the whole area was a wasteland with trucks going to and fro offloading earth from a barge. I didn’t mention any of it in the blog as I wasn’t confident about what or where I was writing about. Thank you for confirming it is still there…it sounds like you son has a lovely collection!!! Thank you also for the link to the bbc article about Harry. Nic
Beautiful picture of Gravesend – as a Higham resident, its not the view we usually see, so I may even venture North of the River to take a look ! Thanks for sharing
Thanks Evelyn. It was good, a week or so later, to be able to take the ferry crossing and reach the side of the Thames we had been looking at for so long from afar (and to settle the debates about which building the various towers and spires belonged to). Nic
I’m the English Heritage site manager of Tilbury Fort and met you and Mark when you came to the fort earlier this year. I’m glad you enjoyed the fort and the ginger wine (it has now increased in price by 4p)! Regarding an earlier comment relating to neighbouring Coalhouse Fort there are no visible remains of the Tudor Blockhouse at east Tilbury so alas the wooden jetty is not part of this early fortification.
Hello again Kevin and thanks for the clarification. I have been plugging the ginger wine wherever possible and will continue to do so, despite the 4p price hike!! It is great stuff. When we arrived at Upnor a couple of months back I asked if they had any for sale, but alas the answer was no.
I enjoyed the Thames Forts. In particular it was interesting to see the difference between those which had been maintained like Tilbury as opposed to those in ruins like Shornmead. We are slowly making our way round to Reculver at the moment.
Thanks for getting in touch.
Upnor is a great castle. I went there for the first time a few months ago. It’s surprising that they don’t sell the Ginger Wine as it’s an English Heritage best seller but that site is slightly different to most as its staffed by the local council but managed by EH. Like you I was intrigued by the lighthouse/lookout tower in the backgarden of the house near the entrance to the castle.
Keep up the good work, the blog is excellent. You should check out some of Mark Wallington’s stuff. he wrote a few novels about long distance walks across the UK with his dog including Boogie Up the River (to the source of the Thames) and 500 Mile Walkies (the South West Coastal Path).
Walk this route in 2011 http://starcom68.livejournal.com/1615524.html
Thanks for sharing it. I wish we had entered the radar tower too – it looks fascinating inside…