In anticipation of the Museum of London Docklands' upcoming exhibition about the Thames Estuary, we took a boat ride to Red Sands military forts, which protected London from enemy attack in the Second World War.
There's something chillingly familiar about the Red Sands Forts. Their distant silhouettes, perching stolid yet menacing on the horizon, are uncannily reminiscent of the At-At walkers from The Empire Strikes Back. Even up close, it's impossible to avoid the sci-fi comparisons.
These quadruped giants were constructed in the Second World War to protect London and other Thames settlements from the aerial and naval attentions of Nazi Germany. Three sets of Maunsell Forts, named after their designer Guy Maunsell, were built in the Estuary to this design: the Nore forts off Sheerness, now demolished; and the Red Sands and Shivering Sands forts, further out. These nautical bastions were assembled after the main London Blitz, but were in place to hinder later attacks. They jointly shot down 22 enemy aircraft and 30 V1 flying bombs, undoubtedly saving hundreds of lives.
Seven protrude from the estuary waters at Red Sands — some untroubled by human intrusion for half a century. Five turrets circle a central command and accommodation block, with a seventh structure housing the search lights. Bridges once spanned the gaps between each roost, but these have long-since vanished. Isolated and other-worldly, only the gulls communicate between them.
The structures fell into this rusty stasis not long after the war. The entry ladders were sawn off, to prevent dangerous trespass. Nevertheless, the forts became havens for pirate radio stations. Radio Invicta and its successors operated from one of the forts through the mid-1960s. A large broadcasting mast remains.
The forts are truly isolated. The six mile boat trip from Queenborough takes around an hour with favourable tides. We're still in the Thames, but at a point where the land is a distant sight. A forest of wind turbines a couple of miles away makes an aloof, disinterested neighbour. Shivering Sands is just visible on the horizon. As we manoeuvre in beneath the towering legs, a nearby buoy tolls a muffled note, casting a melancholy soundtrack to these eerie eyries. Maunsell Forts or Maudlin Forts?
The structures stand empty, but not unloved. Project Redsand is a charity dedicated to maintaining the structures. It runs occasional boat trips for interested parties. One fort is semi-habitable, with a landing gantry for visitors. The charity has also begun to reconnect the metal monsters, and the beginnings of a bridge hang between the accessible fort and the central command tower. Our party was unable to board, alas, thanks to winter damage that had crippled the landing gantry.
The charity is now seeking sponsors and other financial support to make the repairs and advance their programme of safeguarding and restoring the little-known landmarks. The gantry alone will cost £3,000 to repair. Surely, surely, there must be a well-heeled aficionado of military history prepared to invest in such an offshore treasure?
The Maunsell Forts feature prominently in Estuary, the Museum of London Docklands' upcoming 10th anniversary exhibition, which opens on 17 May 2013. Londonist is the media partner for this exhibition.
A trip to Tilbury Fort