If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know I’ve got a thing for the Thames, and for the Estuary in particular. Charles Horton himself sails downstream and out into the Estuary in The English Monster, and there are various comings-and-goings across this extraordinary stretch of water in all of the books.
I’ve done the journey myself a few times, most memorably on two separate occasions aboard the SS Waverley, the world’s last oceangoing paddle-steamer. She’s a beautiful thing, maintained by volunteers and run as a charity, and if you can get on board I heartily recommend it.
The second of my Waverley trips was only last week, so I thought I’d put some photos – and a bit of video – up here so people can see, in glorious amateurish technicolour, some of the places I’ve previously only described in words.
The destinations for this particular trip were the Maunsell Sea Forts, which were sunk into the sands of the Estuary during the Second World War. We visited the forts at Red Sands and the lovingly-titled Shivering Sands – these were the Army forts designed by Guy Maunsell, built at Gravesend and then towed out into the Estuary and sunk into the sands.
According to Wikipedia, these extraordinary constructions were responsible for downing 22 aircraft and 30 flying bombs during the Second World War. However, the Luftwaffe dropped 163 high-explosive bombs on St Katharine’s and Wapping alone from October to June 1941 – and in the process almost certainly destroyed the tenement block in which Charles Horton once lived (perhaps with his wife Abigail, though I confess I made her up).
If he’d have seen the Waverley, he’d have seen a vessel powered by technology that he would have recognised and understood. I picture him looking down into her engine and thinking to himself, if we can build this, what else can we build? Then he looks out into the Nore, the ancient mustering point for the English Navy, and sees the future shadow of concrete-and-steel forts, and from the East, the distant deep rumble of bombers.