Boat trip to the Maunsell Fort

Himself has taken to watching dull TV programmes in bed. I had assumed this was part of a strategy to combat late-night insomnia and bore himself to sleep, but it turns out he quite enjoys them. Given that in recent weeks I have drifted off to the low-volume mumbles of several of the shows the channel Yesterday has to offer, you’ll be as surprised as I was by my interest in an episode of Abandoned Engineering.

This (gripping) instalment featured a seascape that was very familiar to me, and possibly to you if you have ever been to Whitstable on a clear day.

The Maunsell Fort

Looking out to sea from the heights of Tankerton slopes you can see a collection of angular structures on the horizon which wouldn’t look out of place in a science fiction novel. Rather than something from a dystopian future sent to destroy us, these towers were life-savers.

A key defence during World War Two, the Maunsell Fort – named after Guy Maunsell, the civil engineer who designed the towers – was built in the Thames Estuary to deter and report German air raids. The seven towers were connected by metal walkways. Five of the structures carried guns, one housed the control room and another provided a searchlight.

Decommissioned in the 1950s, the Maunsell Fort has intrigued locals and visitors ever since. The towers have been the subject of rumour and speculation (at one point it was said they would be turned into a hotel) as well as various TV programmes; Abandoned Engineering being one of them.

This week I got to see the towers up close and find out more about their history, and what the future might hold for them.

Boat trip to the towers

There are several companies offering trips out to the fort, but I chose X-Pilot. This classic service boat is the supply vessel to the non-profit organisation Project Redsands, which was established to conserve and protect the Fort. The standard towers trip departs from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey and lasts around four hours, an hour of which is spent circling and weaving through the fort. The price changes slightly during the year but at under £60 per person, it is great value for money.

The X-Pilot classic service vessell

We set off from All Tides Landing at 11am following a quick but thorough safety briefing. There were ten of us on board (plus crew) so there was plenty of space to move around the decks; X-Pilot carries a maximum of 12 people on trips like this.

The outward journey took us past the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, the WWII-era ammunition ship which lies a mile or so off the coast of Sheerness. It may have been given a cutesy nickname (“the Monty”) but its cargo of around 1.5 tonnes of unstable explosives has the potential to cause devastation. We didn’t dwell on that thought for too long.

The wreck of the Richard Montgomery

Travelling at around 7 knots it took about two hours before the Maunsell Fort came into view. For me, looking out to sea gives me a feeling of being on the edge of the world. This trip took that to another level as the sense of remoteness was striking.

On top of the concrete ‘legs’ of each tower sits a two-storey metal structure coloured with rust, some topped with weeds and all providing shelter to various seabirds. The remains of ladders and walkways moved in the breeze. We sailed around the cluster of towers before weaving through them, getting close enough to touch one of the concrete bases. I wasn’t surprised to learn scenes for a horror film had been shot on one of the towers – there was an eerie sense of calm.

As we made our way around the fort, we got chatting to a Redsands Project volunteer who was on board as part of the crew. He explained that around 250 people would have been stationed on each tower during the war. Like rig workers today, they would have spent long periods at work followed by an extended break at home. The men were responsible for shooting down more than 20 planes and 30 flying bombs as well as playing their part in scuppering a U-boat.

The future of the Fort

After the war, the towers were placed on a ‘care and maintenance’ programme. Crews remained until April 1956 when the decision was taken to remove the guns and abandon the forts. Today, Project Redsands take working parties out to the towers to try to halt their decline.

The organisation is in talks with government agencies to secure and preserve the towers as a site of historic interest. The goal is to restore the Fort, tower by tower, putting each into use as they go. The options are endless from a ‘floating’ history museum to unique overnight accommodation. Already a new access system has been installed on one of the structures and surveys have been carried out to assess the safety of the site.

As we turned to begin our journey back to Queenborough, clouds moved across the previously bright blue sky, shading the towers and making the burgundy colour of the rusted metal even starker. Before long, the imposing structures were again dots on the horizon.

The Maunsell Fort off the coast of Kent

This September marks 75 years since the start of the Second World War. The Maunsell Fort was crucial to the war effort, offering protection to this corner of England and the important shipping lanes it is home to. These unique structures should be preserved but as with so many historic sites, its future will be determined by the availability of funding, and the willingness of enthusiasts and supporters to protect the site.

I thoroughly recommend travelling with X-Pilot to see these amazing towers for yourself. To book a trip visit www.x-pilot.co.uk

If you want to find out more about Project Redsands, or can help in any way, go to www.project-redsand.com

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