In 2005, Stephen Turner spent 36 days in solitude. For his artistic exploration of isolation, Stephen chose one of the bleakest locations imaginable in the south-east: a rusting and wind-swept seafort in the middle of the Thames Estuary.
These four-legged hulking structures were built as sea defences during the Second World War. Long-abandoned, they stand guard over the mouth of the Thames like forgotten soldiers or stranded AT-ATs. Conditions out here are bleak. The Shivering Sands fort, where Stephen served his self-imposed exile, is over nine miles from land. It is given a wide berth by passing shipping, and only seabirds stop by.
We accompanied Stephen on a recent excursion to the similar Red Sands fort, and asked him to reflect on his time of isolation.
Did you do any mental preparation for your isolation?
I was very interested in the difference between negative sounding isolation and the more positive, contemplative idea of solitude. I went to see Debra Searle who in 2002 had rowed solo from Europe to the USA in a small plywood boat. It took her 111 days and she experienced the lows and highs of both. It put my own shorter sojourn into perspective and I did not expect it to be a hardship. I was really looking forward to the adventure of investigating a new experience and place.
How long before your mind started playing tricks?
There were moments of transcendence when ordinary effects of sound or vision seemed to belong to another imaginary but believable world. I came to look upon a circular pool of sunlight traversing a rusty wall everyday as the passage of a planet through a ferric sky in my own private universe. I once distinctly heard voices in the fort, but there was no one there. I even looked below to see if a fishing boat might be tied up there as an explanation, but there was no boat and no people.
On reflection, I think that sound was travelling over the water from more distant sources, reverberating up the hollow legs of the tower and getting amplified in the sound box of the living space.
What everyday luxury did you miss most during your nautical exile?
I did not miss anything too much, but the lack of plentiful hot water for washing could have become an issue if I had been there for much longer.
Did you learn anything unexpected about the natural environment of the estuary?
I was surprised to discover that the Fort was a huge steel perch for scores of cormorants. Around thirty of the birds arrived for bed and breakfast one evening. I was sitting undetected just feet away and watching fascinated as these efficient social creatures fed in the sea directly below. They caught the fish and brought them back to the tower to swallow, amid the cacophony of happy guttural grunting that is cormorant speak. I realised that the towers are only derelict from a human perspective and that out in the Estuary everything finds a purpose or use.
Were there many remnants from the fort's origins as a military installation? Had the servicemen left behind any mementos?
I think the army were very efficient and had carefully removed most of what they saw as their valuable kit and caboodle, but much that was considered worthless in the mid-1950s when the forts were finally abandoned remained for me to enjoy. I loved the faded pinups still pasted up beside where the beds would have been in the men's sleeping quarters.
Would you say that the experience changed you as a person in any way?
I learned to accept that time is finite and that you can only do so much. I rose with the sun at dawn and accepted that the day had to end at sunset.
You had that rare luxury in the modern age: lots and lots of time to sit and think. Did your thoughts go off in any unusual or unexpected directions?
I found myself thinking of the Fort as my world in little. I got very agitated when, during a five-day spell with no wind power, I had to use my five litres of fuel for the petrol generator and I watched in dismay as my personal oil well began to run dry. It made me very aware of the finite nature of precious resources in the wider world beyond, and of our ultimately unsustainable society.
What, in your opinion, should be done with the sea forts?
I have conflicting feeling on this one. I can admire the instinct to preserve and restore them for the importance of their unique construction, wartime importance and post war notoriety as pirate radio stations. Project Red Sands, a small group of dedicated souls are valiantly trying to do this with Red Sands Fort in the estuary just a few miles west of Shivering Sands. However, my experience taught me that nothing is forever in nature and that perhaps their ultimate fate should be to turn from iron to oxide and fall back in the saline sea. Their memories and the stories can continue through and around their physical ruin.
Stephen Turner is one of 12 artists currently exhibiting at Museum of London Docklands' Estuary exhibition, for which Londonist is media partner. You can find out more about his Seafort Project on his website, and his ongoing Exbury Egg project which again sees the artist in isolation.