Today marks the anniversary of a certain Queen giving a rather famous speech to her troops in Tilbury. But why Tilbury?
You can blame dad, Henry VIII who built a small fort at Tilbury to defend London from invading ships. Not further out as cannons couldn’t reach the middle of the river, giving invaders a safe route, and not closer to London as there were nice landing spots further up-river.
Tilbury was the perfect spot for a fort, and so one was built. It was also a good location to muster troops ahead of the battle. So, on this day in 1588, the original Queen Liz came to visit, dodged a cloak, stepped in a puddle, gave a speech then went home.
The fort though was to remain an important part of the defences of London right up to the 19th century — with upgrades during the English Civil War, and the current design dating from upgrades to defend us from the Dutch — and modern guns added in the 19th century.
It was also at times used as a prison, as rebellious Scots from Culloden found to their discomfort.
No one ever died at Tilbury fort, save — allegedly — following a game of cricket in 1776 when one team was accused of fielding a professional player, and in the argument, a man was shot dead. Allegedly.
Although secretive and still owned by the military right up to the 1950s, it’s now a place anyone can visit.
There is a ferry from Gravesend, or a modest walk from Tilbury Town station, past the London Cruise Terminal and the first pub I have ever seen called the World’s End that actually looks like it’s at the end of the world.
The fort starts here, past a car park with enough puddles to keep Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak busy if the current Queen Liz were to visit.
Entry is via a grand entrance, known as the Water Gate, as it once faced directly onto the river. Today, high concrete embankments protect London from its main danger – high tides.
You can, if so minded pop your head through the gate – notice the wooden ceiling, and peer into the main courtyard of the Fort, and not pay to go in, but if you’ve made a special trip to visit, that would be odd.
Entry is via the old gatehouse next to the main gate, now a typical English Heritage shop and modest cafe, staffed by a family operation on my visit with daughter occasionally helping mum with the tickets.
I declined the audio guide, as I personally don’t really like them, and the guidebook is good, for a place like this is both deeply rich in history, but so empty today that it’s more like a park to visit. Climb up the high walls, wander around the place, soak up an atmosphere.
It’s about double the size of the Tower of London, but also almost empty of old heritage, so you don’t come away with the head-spinning at how much you’ve seen — you really are looking at a lot of emptiness.
But that’s oddly, its appeal. Yes, there are guns old and modern dotted around, more as heritage decoration, but it’s not packed of things from the past to see.
What it does have though, are three marvellous buildings.
Not the row of Georgian houses, former officers quarters and now rented out, or the remains of the soldiers quarters, which were far less pleasant to live in.
Do climb up the steel staircase to see the empty home of the Master Gunner, who lived above the main entrance. The floors wobble just enough to worry, but the fireplace is impressive, and the space hasn’t really been touched since it was vacated — including the 1950s light fitting which would have been achingly modern at the time and now looks awful.
Around another side though, above the ticket sales is a remarkable survivor — and while it looks OK, interesting, it’s also one of the oldest surviving military chapels in England. Very simple, with the officers benches at the back unusually, but there probably because that’s where the fireplace was. It’s a bit plain Georgian in design today, but would have been richly decorated with military banners when in use.
There’s also an exhibition centre, which is mainly display boards in an old gunpowder store, informative and worth reading up on the history.
Clamber around the earthworks and peer through the gaps where guns would once have fired. But it’s the south side – facing the Thames, where the big guns are now to be found. Away with cannon’s firing balls of metal, and hello to powerful shells loaded with explosives.
Although the area is now very industrial, it’s also curiously rural, with the fields surrounding the fort still empty, save some horses grazing, and a feeling of desolate emptiness that fits with the location.
Sadly, the outer ring of defenses, with their moats and replica drawbridges is not accessible, just to look at.
What’s really worth coming here for though are the tunnels.
They’re not technically underground, being built at ground level out of brick, then covered over in massive mounds of soil – these were the magazine stores for the munitions.
And they are marvellous.
They’re made up of two sets of tunnels, one for the munitions — and behind thick glass, were the lamps to illuminate the rooms.
As walking through such a space with lit lamps is unwise, there’s a separate tunnel running next to them, with access to put lamps in their niches.
All wonderfully atmospheric and gloomy, and while fairly small, it’s quite spooky with the sunlight fading away in the distance, and rooms leading off to hold munitions and the lamps glowing behind thick old glass.
If you want to see the fort empty, get there as soon as it opens in the morning, as on my visit, I was the only person there for at least an hour, people dribbled in slowly later, but by the time I was leaving the queue to go in was fairly decent.
I would say that it’s more family-friendly, mainly thanks to the ramparts which are very climbable, and the views across the Thames will excite people who don’t live near the river.
I spent about two hours here, which isn’t bad at all for a place that seems so empty upon first viewing.
Tilbury Fort’s opening hours vary through the year, with weekend openings in summer, and closed at weekends in winter. The site is occasionally closed to visitors for several weeks at a time while the Fort is used for filming (Wonder Woman!), so always check before making a trip to visit.
Entry is £6.50 per adult, or free for English Heritage members.
Tilbury Town station is only half-an-hour from West Ham station (Jubilee/Hammersmith) — leave Tilbury station by the London-bound platform as you need to be on that side for the fort.
A modest walk further along the Thames can also be found the occasionally open Coalhouse Fort.