ENGLISH HERITAGE:Tilbury Fort Location: Tilbury, Essex, RM18 7NR [map] Open: from 10am (closed Mon, Tue) (weekends only Nov-Mar) Admission: £6.20 Website:english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tilbury-fort Four word summary: bastioned estuarine artillery fortress Time to allow: an hour and a bit
These days the greatest threat coming up the Thames is floodwater, but for centuries it was invasion. In 1539 Henry VIII ordered the construction of a blockhouse at Tilbury as part of a string of Device Forts around the coast of southeast England, fearful that French or Spanish ships might attack. They never did, but Elizabeth I was grateful for the headstart when the Spanish Armada turned up fifty years later, and popped down to Tilbury to make a particularly famous speech to her troops. By the 17th century the threat was the Dutch, so the defences at Tilbury were bumped up as part of a cluster of forts on either side of the estuary, and that's when the spiky pentagon took form.
It's still a mighty sight... more through extent than height. A thick bastion wall zigzags inland from the riverside, surrounded by a jagged moat surrounded by another moat. The fort's location amid the Thames marshes made it easy to defend, not that it ever had to prove its worth, its chief purpose being offence rather than defence. A shot fired from here could hit any enemy fleet sailing up the Thames to attack the dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford, protecting the capital from waterborne assault. And as technology changed so the fort's defences adapted to meet the challenge, until by the 1900s its guns could fire a shell over four miles downstream.
The easiest way to access Tilbury Fort is to live in Gravesend and take the ferry across the river. This drops you on the jetty beside the London Cruise Terminal, from which it's only a short walk along the seawall past The World's End pub. Getting here from Tilbury is less fun, involving a mile's yomp down an access road around the edge of the docks past streams of thundering lorries. There is a bus from the station, which you can ride for nothing if you bought a rail ticket to 'Tilbury Stations', but I managed to miss that and it proved quicker to do the yomp rather than wait another half an hour. Essex visitors tend to drive.
The entrance to the fort is through the ornate Water Gate, which once opened out onto the river but is now set back behind a high concrete wall. Even if you have no intention of stumping up six quid for full access you can still walk through the arch and stare out across the parade ground towards the magazines - no hassle, free of charge. Alternatively step into the guard room and pay up, being sure to take advantage of the free audio trail otherwise you may not have a full idea of what you're about to see.
You're now free to follow the numbered stops or simply wander willy-nilly, indeed the audio tour won't take you to every last corner. The central cobbles are relatively dull, and all the good stuff is around the perimeter. Above the gatehouse is a chapel, plus another empty garret accessed via separate stairs. The Georgian terrace to your right was the officers' quarters and is now a 'street' of seven homes, as is revealed if you walk round the back to spot several gardens with washing lines flapping. The barracks where ordinary soldiers lived are long demolished, and survive only as a rectangular grid of brick foundations. But it's the magazines on the far side you really want to explore.
Tilbury started to be used as a gunpowder depot in 1716, as a health and safety move to end the practice of storing explosives close to built-up London. Thousands of barrels could be stored here, exceptionally carefully, which explains why the magazines have spark-proof copper doors. Close by are the magazine tunnels, lit solely by lanterns shielded behind glass, and whose passages bend near the entrance to help contain any blast. These particular structures are covered with grass roofs and embedded into the fabric of the fort, giving this northeast corner a sinister Tellytubby vibe.
Which leaves the jagged perimeter of the bastion to walk around. Find the right viewpoints and you can stare inland where horses graze, or toward Tilbury Docks where huge wind turbines whirl, or towards the shell of neighbouring Tilbury Power Station whose chimneys were toppled just last year. But the best views are from the chain of clamberable gun emplacements adjacent to the river, looking out towards Gravesend past any large ships chugging intermittently through. The Thames would have been considerably busier back in the fort's lengthy heyday, but was always impressively protected.
If you like this kind of thing, be aware that Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury is open next Sunday, free of charge, for its Memorial Day Open Day.