Monday, November 11, 2013

Day 7: The Maunsell Sea Forts & Dover

We woke around 7am and arrived downstairs to breakfast at 8am. We wolfed down Cocoa Pops in the deserted breakfast room facing the car park and dashed past the confused staff member trying to offer us hot food. Our taxi collected us outside the door moments later and conveyed us to Dover Priory station. Cazy continued to use his hokey English accent - he does not yet realise that it smacks of mockery.

The train took us to Sittingborne - we changed there for Queenborough. Trains are always on time and very clean in the UK. We walked past the hill where a castle once stood in Queenborough and then walked through town (past a nice old church and graveyard) towards the All Tide Landing on High Street. 

The walkway from the shore to the X-Pilot was long and guarded by a forbidding gate ringed with curly sharp bits of metal. We were early and had to wait for Bob to let us through the turnstile. His thumbnail was covered with black electrical tape.

The X-Pilot awaited! The fumes reeked as we met Alan the skipper who led us inside where we dumped our bags on a small shelf seat - it was lined with red cushions with their price tags still attached and beneath the seat lay 16 bright orange life vests. Neither of the four of us wore them. Inside it smelled faintly of kerosene (so says my brother) but to me it  was a smell I associated with my deceased great-uncle.

The X-Pilot

We set off from there, past large car-hauling vessels, a WWII ship wreck full of explosives that some say will one day take out all of Sherness and a power station which was built to be the most powerful (five generators) but has never been used to full capacity.

Bob pointed out all of this to us and throughout the day offered us tea and coffee. The tea he offered was from Marks and Spencer - the best, apparently.

The weather was fabulous and the water calm. As we approached the Red Sand towers (part of the family of Maunsell Sea Forts used to repel Germans in WWII), Alan divulged that it might be possible to board - “A bonus,” Cazy said. We had thought that as we were not part of an organisation we were not allowed on. We were now very hopeful!

The towers appeared in the distance like the Imperial walkers on Hoth in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back. You see movement and zoom in with your camera lens and then - there! There they are. Excitement mounted. 

"It's a good bet the Empire knows we're here."

Alan said it was very possible - our admittance seemed based on taking photos of damage with our cameras. We were told that we would be the first to board in 2013 and they needed to check if people had burned or trashed the towers.

“Seems fair!” Cazy said.

When we arrived, the tide was too low to board and Alan complained that the boarding platform had been built too high otherwise we could have boarded then. For an hour, we circled the towers and took photos (the Shivering Sands towers could be seen in the distance). We ate the lunch I had packed and worried as the water seemed to grow rougher. 

And we wanted to climb onto one of those!?

“Do you want to have a go?” we were asked and of course we said yes, bereft of lifevests.

After two goes, Alan and Bob roped the vessel against the control tower and then Bob leaped onto the platform. It was our turn - we had to scamper across and I was nursing an SLR so it was difficult. Then up a ladder we climbed, through a tunnel of barbed wire. It kept on going to another ladder that lay over a rusted WWII one.

We jumped onto that rusty lonesome corner on the very left.

Finally we were on the first level of the rust bucket - and what a mess! There was rubbish everywhere. Cazy recorded this while Bob showed me the latrines. 

“We have a very modern bathroom here,” he quipped.

Urinals, toilets without seats, cubicles without toilets, a lone cup on the floor, other rubbish and one very dodgy bath in its own room. Everything looked filthy. Ew.

A sad fate for one of Britain's greatest defenders.

Alan radioed Bob, concerned about the wind. On cue, the structure shook around us. Holy crap. Bob told us we only had a few minutes. Up we raced, past a filthy grey couch on the second floor, up to the roof where the guns had been placed. While Bob searched for something, we snapped photos from the roof then hurried down, down, down to the platform. It was terrifying.

 I doubt if I'd have felt any more vulnerable up here during WWII!

Bob was busy but Alan got us to climb down to prepare for the crossing onto the boat. Cazy jumped across quickly. I fretted there on the metal beam - no rope, no lifejacket, no courage. Then I grabbed the boat’s railing and hauled myself across. The weather worsened and barely a minute later the boat collided with the pylon and the railing I’d clung to was crushed.

Alan requested Cazy’s help with pulling a rope at the prow. The fort was to the stern. Again the railing crashed into the pylon, bending the railing further. But at last the X-Pilot was safely way from the platform. Bob returned and we got the fuck out of there. We took parting shots of the sea forts and retreated inside.

Age and rust shall weary them

Cazy said he earned “man points” for going through with the boardings.

Both Alan and Bob were disappointed that the mess was still there after three years. There seems to be difficulty in organising for it to be fixed up. They mentioned that there was a surge of interest a while back (I suspect a certain episode of Coast and a certain Neil Oliver) but it petered out.

“Let us know if there’s a partner who’d be willing,” they joked.

Lots of money and effort is needed. Alan and Bob are trying to fix a hatch but someone nicked the hinges. It’s hard to lock something seven miles out to sea. When we arrived back at Queenborough, we bought postcards from their meagre collection (3 for £1) and Cazy tipped them. We thanked them and were led by Bob back to the street. He offered us a lift to the station but we wanted photos of the church and other buildings.

The last photos I took were of the grassy castle hill. We boarded a train with youths (two had played soccer with a glass bottle on the platform before it smashed onto the tracks) and eventually got back to Dover Priory. A taxi took us to our hotel then we set off for South Foreland Lighthouse. Just closed, it seemed lonely so we gave it attention. The roads to the lighthouse were mere tracks with huge puddles and dips.

South Foreland Lighthouse

Afterwards, we found a good vantage point of white cliffs further along from Dover. There are no railings on these cliffs and I nearly stepped off the edge before I realised. 

One more step and I'd have fallen off!

We drove past WWII pill boxes on our way back to the hotel.

Very tired. Hastings in morning.

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