Shipwrecks and Forts in the Medway Estuary
The estuary was still and dark when I arrived, so I inflated my packraft, stowed my gear and waited by the waters edge for first light.
Gradually, orange and yellow hues illuminated moored yachts, low islands and on the horizon the two forts. Between them and me, lay a few kilometres of cold and swift tidal water.
I pushed out into the ebb tide and paddled hard to cross the shipping channel.
Before long, I was skirting the south side of Hoo island, until I reached a ring of rusting barges sunk to defend Fort Hoo from the sea.
Fort Hoo was built a cannon shot from its sister, Fort Darnet, at the mouth of the Medway Estaury in the 1870's. Compact, circular and low lying, they were designed to take eleven guns and a hundred men each.
To understand these forts, you have to go back to 1667 and the Dutch raid on Chatham, which caused the loss of 13 ships and scarred a proud seafaring nation. 200 years later it was the threat of a French invasion and the memory of the Dutch raid, which prompted Palmerston and his Royal Commission to build Darnet and Hoo.
On the shore, beneath Fort Hoo, signs warned of deep mud and private property, so I paddled a few hundred meters north to a graveyard of discarded ships. Here, an hour or so after high water, I was able to drift amongst their rusting and rotting carcasses.
Each ship must have been floated here on a spring tide and then scuppered to ensure they didn't drift free. Comparitavely modern fishing trawlers listed against wooded hulks that still showed the marks of the shipwrights that shaped their timbers.
The Evie Marie was driven so hard into this semi-submerged fleet, that it now sits on top of a small yacht, crushing it's cabin, as if it had crash landed.
Then it was time to paddle further out to sea, across the winding shipping channel again, towards Fort Darnet. There is a long and well documented history of canoeists and passing yachtsmen visiting the fort and unlike Hoo there were no signs forbidding entry, so I beached my packraft and pushed through a ring of undergrowth to the edge of the moat.
The abandoned fort, bathed in autumnal sunlight, was worth every ounce of planning and hard paddling.
The first challenge was to cross the moat. I'd like to say I deftly tightrope-walked across the narrow rotting plank but in reality, I edged across it on my hands and knees, cackling to myself at the ridiculousness of the situation.
The fort is surprisingly well preserved and to my eyes stunningly beautiful. Curves, arches and beautifully hand hewn stonework are apparent at every level. Once inside the main gun deck is broad, circular and so uniform that once you've walked a circuit, it takes a while to work out which gun port you came in through. Narrow arched walkways lead to an overgrown central courtyard suspended above a flooded lower level that used to house the munitions.
Back outside, an tall rickety ladder beckoned me to the climb it to the roof. Foolishly, I did, and was rewarded with stunning views across the water to Essex.
Then it was back down to water edge, where I collected my packraft and carried it to the moat. This was my third approach to the fort and once again it wasn’t going to be simple.
This time, I had to lie on my back on the floor of the packraft and edge myself through a small opening, just squeezing under the sharp spikes of a rusting portcullis. Once inside I was able to paddle through flooded subterranean rooms, pushing through curtains of trailing plants.
At last it was time to head back, so I set off against the tide. Conveniently moored in the middle of Pinup Reach were a set of sparkling new GPS Marine barges. They provided a convenient spot to shelter from the wind and fast tidal rip. Perhaps in 50 years time they too will be sunk and canonists will paddle through their remains, whilst exploring this estuary.
It was a long hard paddle back, skirting large expanses of now exposed mud banks. Muscles aching, I drew up at where the slipway should have been and realised there was a hundred meters of mud between me and the start of the hard standing.
Medway mud looks innocent enough, but it's deep and the slightest contact, coats you with a fine, foul-smelling adhesive that resists all attempts to remove it. So I considered my options and chose to paddle further upstream, where I hopped out onto a barge, rolled my packraft into the rucksack, climbed a ladder and hiked back to the car.
The Medway has plenty of other history. Further upstream a Russian Foxtrot B-49 Hunter Killer Submarine is being renovated and downstream the wreck of the U-Boat UB122 is still visible, resting in Humble Bee Creek.
Note: This is a potentially dangerous paddle and shouldn't be attempted without a good understanding of the tides and your capabilities. The shoreline at Fort Hoo displays clear signs stating it is private property and warning of deep mud. Fort Darnet has no similar signs and has a long and well documented history of being visited by canoeists and passing yachtsmen. Please do your own research to ascertain your rights to visit the island and above all consider the safety aspects of tides, extensive mud flats and disintegrating archaic structures. If you decide to visit any of these locations consider taking some rubbish bags to collect any litter you may come across.