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!!!