Sunday, April 16th 2017
Today’s jaunt was to Tilbury whose position, on the Thames to the east of London, is shown on the map below (click for the corresponding Google Map).
The favourable location of Tilbury means that it has long been, and still is, an important port handling, among other goods, paper, containers, grain and cars. There is also a ferry service between Tilbury and Gravesend on the south bank of the river.
The town grew up from an Anglo-Saxon settlement and although there are uncertainties concerning the derivation of the name, the general consensus is that it combines the personal name Tila with burh, meaning a fortified settlement, thus ‘Tila’s stronghold’.
At Tilbury, the Thames narrows. This makes it a fine place to site defences against enemy ships seeking to approach London. This logic caused Henry VIII to build a fort here whose cannons could fire upon such unwanted guests. It was this fort that we had come to see.
We took the train from Fenchurch Street Station and disembarked in Tilbury. The railway reached Tilbury in 1854 when a station called Tilbury was opened to bring passengers to the docks for the steamboat services. In 1885, a second station, called Tilbury Dock, was opened to serve the town. Perhaps this latter name caused confusion because in 1934, Tilbury Station was renamed Tilbury Riverside and Tilbury Dock became Tilbury Town, a name which it still bears today. Riverside closed in 1992, leaving Tilbury Town as the only station. (There is a bus to take passengers from this station to the docks.) The present station buildings obviously do not date from 1885 but I don’t know where they were put up.
From the station, we walked down Dock Street. We thought of having a cup of tea somewhere but the town was very quiet and most shops and businesses were closed. We eventually happened upon a cafe called The Dock. It was very busy but we managed to find a table. It seemed likely that this was the only place open so we decided we’d better have lunch while we were there!
We set out again after lunch, making for the fort. Perhaps there is a bus service that takes you there but if there is we never discovered it. We therefore walked, both there and back. I don’t know how far it is but it took a while and on the return I was glad when we finally reached the station again.
The only Website I have found for the fort is Tilbury Fort on the English Heritage site and that offers no clues as to how to get there. Perhaps they assume we will all roll up in our Rolls Royces.
Here and there we saw the odd sign pointing the way to the fort but we mostly relied on Tigger’s Inner Pigeon, assisted by the map application on her iPhone. We left Dock Road to join St Andrews Road, crossing a grassy area on which we found a number of horses (or are they ponies?) grazing. There were also a couple of donkeys. There was no sign of their owner and nothing to prevent them from straying apart from the grass which they were consuming. (On our return journey, we saw one of the donkeys walking along the main road with a lengthening queue is motor vehicles forming behind him.)
We eventually reached the neighbourhood of the fort and walked along this path, looking for the entrance. I read somewhere that the V-shaped notches in the wall on the right once each contained a gun capable of firing on shipping on the Thames. This picture on the Thurrock Local History site shows the layout of the fort which, because of its shape is called a star fort.
One enters the fort through the elaborate Water Gate. The original fort was built between 1539 and 1540 by Henry VIII but the structure that we see today dates largely from the reign of Charles II. It was begun in 1670 and the gate was designed as a monument to commemorate its building or, more likely, as self-advertisement by the King whose supposed achievements it celebrates. Comically enough, the niche where a statue of the monarch should reside remains empty.
This, however, is more than just a gate as it also contained the quarters of the master gunner and a chapel. The latter can be visited (see below). When you buy your ticket, you are given a guide to the fort and a brief lecture on where everything is.
In the centre of the star formation lies the Parade Ground. This is of considerable size and it’s virtually impossible to give an impression of it with photos taken on the ground. The nearest I could come to itt was by stitching several photos together, which leads to some perspective distortion. (Click for a larger version.)
Part of what is now open space would once have been occupied by the soldiers’ barracks of which only the outlines of the foundations remain.
If you go up the steps at the side of the Water Gate to an upper floor you find that chapel and beside it a small room described as the vestry. It was constructed in the late 17th century and a notice tells us that ‘This is the oldest chapel within a fortress in Great Britain. The chapel was last used in 1940 as a gun operations room for the anti-aircraft defences of this area’. Judging by its relatively small size, I imagine that when it was used as a chapel, this would have been for officers only.
From the battlements, one has a view of broad stretches of water. These are part of the moat system created to protect the fort from possible attack on land.
The above map section shows the elaborate moat system surrounding the fort on all but the side on the river. (Click to see the corresponding Google Map.)
An important part of the fort is the gunpowder store. It is very large, consisting of two chambers, each capable of holding 3,600 barrels of powder. The size reflects the fort’s role as a distribution centre: gunpowder was delivered here from gunpowder factories in London and Faversham and then issued to other forts in the area or to the army. There were also smaller magazines near the guns which could be used straightaway and replenished as necessary from the store.
Cranes such as this one were used for moving and stacking barrels of gunpowder. They travelled around the store on wooden rails and were operated by ropes. The cranes were made entirely of wood to avoid the use of metal which could give off sparks – something you obviously did not want in a gunpowder store!
One of the doors in the storage building in which the studs have been arranged to form a decorative pattern.
This terrace of houses was built to provide accommodation for senior officers and their families. One can now only speculate what it must have been like for wives and children living here in a military establishment in which the drilling of soldiers and the firing of cannon would have been familiar events. The houses were built in 1685, rebuilt around 1772 and modified again in the 19th century. In this, they reflect the evolution of the fort as a whole.
In front of the houses, between them and the parade ground, stand two pumps. These would have provided water for the houses and for other purposes. The ground in the area of the fort is marshy and its water not suitable for use. Rain water was therefore collected and stored in tanks beneath the parade ground to be drawn as necessary by the pumps.
I am glad to have visited the fort though it was less interesting than I had hoped – ‘underwhelmed’ was Tigger’s word for her impression of it. I don’t doubt that maintaining a site such as this is challenging and expensive but there was a certain lacklustre quality to it. We gained very little impression of what the fort would have been like at various stages in its operational history and it felt little different from the many castle ruins dotted about the country. Could they not, for example, have opened one of the officers’ houses to visitors, restored as it might have been when in use?
Conveniently located beside the fort is a large pub called The World’s End (and after our long walk to arrive at the fort, we felt we had reached the end of the world!). Here we stopped for rest and refreshment before undertaking the journey on foot back to Tilbury and the railway station.