25 August 2016 | 26 °C

Tilbury Fort: Protecting London For Half A Millennium

Tilbury Fort: Protecting London For Half A Millennium
Mounds containing subterranean passages for you to explore.
Mounds containing subterranean passages for you to explore.
The well-buttressed magazine building. The doors are made from copper, less likely to cause sparks than iron.
The well-buttressed magazine building. The doors are made from copper, less likely to cause sparks than iron.
The drill yard.
The drill yard.
Some of the guns can be swivelled and pitched, allowing you to notionally target your least favourite parts of Kent.
Some of the guns can be swivelled and pitched, allowing you to notionally target your least favourite parts of Kent.
The Water Gate, a 17th Century survival.
The Water Gate, a 17th Century survival.
The fort from above, showing its intricate geometry. (Bing Maps)
The fort from above, showing its intricate geometry. (Bing Maps)

Just outside London, where the river toys with becoming an estuary, you'll find the great container port of Tilbury. These docks are relatively modern, but the surrounding area has a venerable past. Here, the river pinches to a relatively narrow flow, making it a natural place to build fortifications. On the Kent bank lays the important river town of Gravesend. Opposite, on the Essex coast, stands Tilbury Fort, a great fortress that has protected London from naval attack since the days of Henry VIII. Today, it's a visitor attraction looked after by English Heritage, and it makes for an excellent day out.

The fort is huge, covering two and a half acres. The sturdy walls zag in and out, providing a lengthy defensive perimeter. A vast marshalling ground takes up much of the interior, peppered with artillery units from different eras. It is surrounded by several Stuart-era buildings, including the officers' barracks and a sturdily buttressed store house for gunpowder. The complex is entered through a fine neo-classical water gate and sentry house.

The fort's origins are Tudor. Henry VIII established the first, much-smaller Tilbury Fort in 1539. His daughter Elizabeth I gave her rousing Armada speech nearby in 1588. After a period of decline, Tilbury was redesigned and massively expanded in 1670, following a disastrous Dutch attack on the navy in the Medway. It saw its final action in the two World Wars. Although outdated as a fortification, it made a good mustering point for soldiers heading to the trenches, and a base for anti-aircraft guns, some of which remain on site.

While there are plenty of information boards, particularly in the magazine house, you'd be wise to pick up a free audio guide, which goes into more detail. Kids will love climbing the Teletubby-esque mounds in the north-east and south-west corners. These contain a series of part-flooded tunnels, again once used for ammo storage but now an intriguing diversion for anyone who loves exploring underground spaces.

The train from Fenchurch Street takes little more than a half hour. You then have to amble for about a mile from Tilbury Town station along featureless access roads, but it's worth the trek. Be sure to visit the World's End pub after visiting the fort, for a decent selection of ales and a small beer garden.

Tilbury Fort, operated by English Heritage, is open Wed-Sun, 10am-5pm (only weekends from early November to late March). Entrance is £4.60 (adults) and £2.80 (children).

Londonist is official media partner to Estuary, an upcoming exhibition at Museum of London Docklands.

Last Updated 20 August 2016