I’m sitting in a dimly lit, wooden panelled room with paintings of ships, battles and stormy seas on the walls. Artefacts like ships lights and wheels are hanging from the ceiling. I’ve spent most of the day in rooms like this. One claims to be London’s oldest riverside pub and is a favourite of mine, the other was the Dutch maritime museum in Amsterdam which had a bigger but over edited collection of salty things. I’m literally on a flying visit and enjoying a beer with friends in The Prospect of Whitby, named after a coal barge that used to moor up alongside the quayside in London’s old docks. A noose sways from a gibbet outside and marks the area of Execution Dock where the fate of lawless pirates would be displayed to those entering the city by river. Down the road is the home of the England’s oldest police force, the Thames River Police, founded to combat looting of ships in the Port of London. Across the water is the Mayflower pub also claiming to be London’s oldest, sitting near the departure point for the eponymous ship. The Mayflower was built in Harwich, and departed from London to meet with the Speedwell in Plymouth. This ship, carrying the religious separatist, Pilgrim Fathers from Leiden was so badly damaged that the Mayflower took it’s passengers and made the Atlantic voyage alone. The Prospect was a regular haunt of Samuel Pepys and sketches of the river exist from both Turner and Whistler from the pubs balcony. It is thought that Chrales Dickens also drank here. I’ve flown into City Airport and booked the next day on the channel tunnel, taking my car to pick up the kayak. I’ll be back via ferry to Harwich in the next few days. It’s light drizzle as I leave the Maritime museum in Amsterdam having enjoyed a lunch of traditional mushroom and chicken soup made for the Queen. It’s an interesting collection but like many national museums has been revamped with lots of push button slidy things and projections which don’t add much to the content. The excitement of discovery has been removed which is ironic. Having said that, I particularly enjoy the historical maps, including those of Mercator, of map projection fame and paintings by Van de Velder the Elder, which I find amusing. A set of buxom ships figure heads stare with googly eyes from inside their glass case and a flashy map of the port has information on the biggest imports and exports in Holland. I can even step inside a metal box to get a container’s eye view of shipping movement. The wind has picked up, slamming doors and lifting the paper menus off the tables outside. The flight is uneventful, despite news reports in the UK that travellers are facing ‘travel chaos’ crossing the channel as a result of the thunderstorms and hot weather. The airport is calm and quiet and I arrive back in London to a dull overcast sky. In the course of a few days, I’ve crossed the short stretch of the channel three different ways. It reminds me how close our small island is to the mainland and makes me want to cross by kayak even more.
From the plane, small gaps in the clouds reveal a light swell in the sea and I can see the waves picking up over the sandbanks in the estuary. I get a quick glimpse of the coastline before the gap closes up again. I’m staring out of the window, contemplating the next steps of the journey as well as the distance I’ve come. The woman next to me is travelling with a small toddler, she’s friendly and chatty and keeps apologising for him standing on my legs. She sees me writing in my notebook and looking out of the window. I’m flattered when she glimpses what I have scrawled down and asks me if I’m a poet or a writer. It must be the big bushy beard I’ve now got after a few months not shaving. We chat about my journey. ‘Well’ she says ‘I think you should follow your passions, if this is what you love, you should do more of it’. Sometimes half the challenge is knowing what our dreams are before we can start to follow them. We start to drop down through several layers of clouds and as my ears pop, the sewage treatment works at Beckton comes into view with the homely green-brown snake of the river alongside. The ground is dry and parched with a low haze in the air. It starts to rain as I head into London on the Docklands Light Railway. From this vantage point I can see the scrapyards, skip companies and reclamation yards with the shiny towers of Canary Wharf beyond, Faraday’s lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in the foreground. The low water in the river and creeks around the new ‘City Island’ development is lined with a thick layer of good old Thames mud. High contrast to the azure blue and power boats shown in the visualisations. The beer tastes good and it’s nice to be back in familiar surroundings.
A few days of back and forth later and I’m back in London with my kayak and kit, It’s sunny and hot. I’ve spent most of the day washing, drying and reassembling kit, waiting for my friend Michal to finish work so we can drive out to the estuary. We load the kayaks quickly and arrive on the Isle of Sheppey late afternoon. There is a scattering of people on the small beach beneath the concrete flood defences on the edge of Leysdown. Motorhomes and cars are parked along the roadside with deckchairs and loungers spilling out across the hot tarmac. People lie around on inflatables tethered back to the breakwater. We can see the Maunsell Forts at Red Sands and Shivering Sands in the distance, relics of gun defences and reportedly one of the toughest places to be stationed during the war. They jointly shot down 22 enemy aircraft in WWII preventing attacks on the capital. A steady stream of cargo ships are strung out along the horizon from Tilbury and the new Thamesport near Canvey Island. I had watched this maritime freight train from the other direction a couple of days before and I saw the reality of international trade. I’d driven across the flat lands to Rotterdam and arrived on the busy beach at the Hook of Holland. Look one way and it’s sand and open sea, the other way and you’re on the edge of one of the world’s busiest ports, Europoort. Long banks of cranes line up along the banks, necks bent like giraffes. The drive has taken me along a series of raised dyke roads which run between acres and acres of greenhouses. Signs by the roadside advertise tomatoes but I expect most of them are for export, probably to the UK. Sailing boats look tiny and fragile in amongst the string of container ships and tankers. The passenger services Stenna Hollandica and Stenna Britanica cross to Harwich with the Pride of Hull and the Pride of Rotterdam serving the route to the Humber. Ships pilots buzz around and it’s hard to see how you could cross this busy entrance in a kayak.
Back on the other side, we leave the beach behind, knowing it will be dark when we get back. A couple of hours later and we near the splayed legs of the insect-like structures. There is a cluster of seven towers at Red Sands which would have been connected by bridges. One bridge remains linking two of the towers, birds circle around in the setting sun and add to the eery scene. They are part of a scattering of similar off shore fort structures that occupy the sandbanks of the Thames estuary, the Humber, Solent and in the past, the Mersey. The Thames estuary forts take their name from the engineer Guy Maunsell and fall into two types of construction. There is another cluster, across the shipping lane at Shivering Sands and perhaps the most well known is Roughs Fort or Sealand, 7 nautical miles from the Essex coast in international waters. This independent micronation was founded by Roy Bates who set up radio Essex in the 60’s, a pirate radio station looking to break free from the strictures of the national broadcasters and first operating from the closer to shore, Knock John fort. The principality of Sealand was officially founded in 1967 by Bates, a former Major in the army, with his wife given the title Princess Joan, they became the Royal Family. It has its own flag, coat of arms, national anthem and ID cards. The Sealand motto ‘E Mar Libertas’ strikes a chord with me, meaning ‘From the sea, freedom’ and refers to the breaking of the shackles from the mainland. Radio Essex was one of a number of pirate radio stations on offshore structures or ships, Radio Caroline attracting a third of the amount of listeners as the BBC’s light programme at the time, which later became Radio 2. At Shivering Sands forts, Screaming Lord Such (of Monster Raving Loony Party fame) set up Radio Such in 1964 which later became Radio City. Red Sands was home to Radio Invicta, adding to the history and use of these structures outside of the jurisdiction of UK law. The forts now stand rusty and abandoned but campaigners are calling to preserve them.
The hollow clanging of the North Red Sands channel marker buoy echoes around in the waves, it has a simple and striking clang and will clang around by itself for time immemorial. Its similarity to a funeral bell has a haunting resonance. The tide is going out and there is movement in the water from left to right mixed with a gentle swell and very light breeze. The current pushes our kayaks slowly to the side creating a panning effect to the view in front of us. The setting sun intermittently covered by the stalky legs of the perching metal creatures. The sky is yellowy orange and the heat of the day has dissipated. We drift around taking in the strangeness of the place and feeling lucky to be here on such a special evening. The sun dips low and the silhouette of a car transporter truggs across the horizon. Heading back, we meet two inflatable boats with pirate flags speeding towards us, they’re low in the water and the would be pirates give us a friendly wave. They’re heading out to the forts too and are hoping to spend the night there, we swap stories of the strange structures and I worry about their vulnerable rubber craft against the barbed wire covered metal. We can see Mars clearly in the sky over Whitstable, the brightest thing around and light orange in colour. Heading to land, we start to see the headlights of cars turning on the road, and hear the low level thrum of civilisation. it’s hard to see exactly where we left from and we both take different routes around a small shingle bank. The air is cooler now and a light fog floats in, enough for us to loose sight of each other. We’re both carrying radios, phones and lights and have both recently spent time paddling alone so neither is particularly worried about the other. I dropped a GPS location marker as we left the beach so have something to aim for if necessary. Theres something quite exciting about not being able to see where you’re going, you have to rely on instinct and trust as you tentatively push on. The water is really shallow by now and the boat keeps scoping on the shingly mud. I get out of the boat and drag it over the slippery stones. Shapes and silhouettes are visible and I can see the line of the flood wall that I’m wading and dragging towards. There’s a distinct smell and consistency to estuary mud and it feels strangely homely to hear the squelch and slop tinged with the irony and sharp sandy smell. Michal is staggering up the beach, boat on shoulder, we laugh at each other covered in mud as we try not to get too much of it in the car.