Tag Archives: Thames Estuary

The Medieval Church at Reculver

I hope you have had a good Christmas in whatever form that may have taken in these strange times. As well as Christmas, last week also saw the shortest day of the year, and slowly the days will start to lengthen. The weather has also been very grey and cloudy and the period between Christmas and New Year is often a good time to get out for a walk.

The Thames Estuary is an ideal place for a walk. Close to the Thames and the sea, usually a good breeze to blow away any late December lethargy, and plenty of historic places to explore.

One of these is the ancient church of Reculver on the north Kent coast. The remains of a church built in an old Roman camp, with two distinctive towers that for long were navigation markers for those sailing on the estuary.

Reculver

Reculver is a few miles to the east of Herne Bay, and as the above photo shows is on a prominent location on a cliff top next to the sea. The location is ringed in the following map ( © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Map of Reculver

This has long been an important location, with the first major construction on the site being an early Roman fort. A Saxon church was built at some point around the year 669, with the church forming the core of a small monastic settlement.

The towers were added when a series of alterations were made to the church at the end of the twelfth century. This work included a new, large west facing doorway.

The church was built in the centre of the original Roman fort, and the church was originally almost a mile from the sea, however erosion has taken the sea up to the edge of the church, and the land occupied by almost half of the Roman fort has been lost.

The beach (now occupied by large rocks to prevent further erosion) and the church has long been a tourist destination, and the following early postcard shows what would have greeted visitors in the early 20th century:

Reculver postcard

The Monastic establishment came to an end in the year 949 when the building took on the role of a parish church. The rebuild of the late twelfth century utilised the remains of the old monastery to construct the new church.

Over the centuries, land was gradually being eroded, and by 1780, the northern corner of the church was only 50 yards from the sea. In 1802 much of the core of the church collapsed and by 1805, the two towers were at risk.

The prominence of the two towers, on the cliff, overlooking the sea and the Thames estuary was critical to navigation. The minutes of Trinity House from 1662 record the need to make repairs to the steeples of a building that was long regarded as an “ancient sea mark”.

With the two towers at risk in 1805, Trinity House took action and purchased the remains of the old church in 1810 and built groins along the beach in front of the cliff, to break up the action of the waves. They also faced the cliff with stone to prevent further erosion, and following this work, the two towers have been able to continue to help those navigating at sea.

Trinity House also rebuilt the wooden steeples at the top of the towers, which had been blown down (it can get very windy along this exposed coast).

Navigation markers, such as the towers at Reculver, were becoming less relevant in the early 20th century for navigation on the Thames estuary, so Trinity House handed over the site to the Government’s Office of Works in 1925, and it is now the responsibility of English Heritage.

The following print from 1834 shows the new wooden steeples installed by Trinity House at the top of the towers. Note also to the right of the church two structures with flags which were probably used for signaling to ships at sea  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Reculver

Getting closer to the church and the original west facing entrance can be seen, now blocked up.

Reculver church towers

A legend associated with the twin towers of the church is that they were either caused to be built, or where repaired around the year 1500 by  Frances St. Clair, Abbess of a Convent of Benedictine Nuns at Davington.

There are a number of variations to the legend, with the majority recording that Frances, along with her sister (also a nun) were travelling on a ship that was shipwrecked near Reculver. They were brought ashore at the church. Some variations record that her sister Isabelle died in the ship wreck, other that they were both saved.

Either way, due to the shipwreck, Francis had the towers built / repaired as a result of being saved, or in memory of her sister.

A drawing from 1784 shows Frances and Isabella being reunited in front of the church at Reculver, with some serious artistic license and creativity being used to show the buildings of the church in the background  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Reculver

The site of the church has probably been in use for well over 2,000 years. Archaeological excavations have shown that the Roman fort probably started as a small initial camp for the invading Roman forces in the year 43. Excavations have also revealed that Reculver was the site of an earlier Iron Age farmstead.

The site was occupied throughout the Roman period, and the main walled fort was built early in the third century. It became one of the line of forts known as the Saxon Shore Forts which were established along the eastern and southern coast of England, and the northern coast of France, in the late third century, to protect against raiding parties as the Roman empire started to face many of the threats that would result in Rome abandoning England in the early 5th century.

The remains of a number of the walls of the fort can still be seen around the site, and Roman tiles and stone were used in the construction of the church. The distinctive red / orange Roman tiles can be seen embedded in many of the remaining walls of the church:

Reculver

My last visit to Reculver was on a brilliant sunny day, and the ruins of the church stood out against a blue sky.

Reculver

However it is a wonderful place to walk at any time of year, and has frequently been illustrated as part of a windy / stormy scene with the waves crashing up to the cliff showing how easily this part of the north Kent coast is eroded, and that the church would have been victim to the waves if not for the work of Trinity House. The following print is from 1829  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Reculver

Another scene from 1796 showing the nave of the church before this collapsed in 1802. The scene also shows a house between church and cliff, however as well as the collapse of the church, a few years later this house would also be lost and the cliff would be up against the church  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Reculver

Whilst today there are very few sailing ships off Reculver using the towers as navigation markers, the view from Reculver includes the Kentish Flats wind farm, roughly six miles offshore, and in the middle of the following photo, just visible on the horizon, is the Red Sands fort:

Red Sands Fort

Reculver is a fascinating place to visit at anytime of year. It is also a good place to see the impact of coastal erosion, with getting on for a mile of land having been lost in recorded history. Without the work of Trinity House, it is doubtful whether the two towers, the remains of the body of the church, and some of the walls of the Roman fort would remain for us to see today.

That’s my last post for 2021. Thanks for reading over the last year, and can I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2022.

alondoninheritance.com

Defending The Thames – Hadleigh Castle

Long term readers of the blog will probably recognise my fascination with the River Thames and how the river has shaped London, and London’s influence on the river.

The river was the main driver in London’s economic growth, providing the route by which ships could reach the City from the sea. This led to the expansion of central London docks, followed by the move of docks from the City out to the Estuary.

The river has also been a weak point, allowing enemies to attack key locations along the Rivers Thames and Medway, and potentially strike at the City.

The River Thames has been lined with various forms of defence over the centuries. I have already written about Tilbury Fort and Coal House Fort, and at Hadleigh in Essex there are the remains of a medieval castle, refurbished and extended to defend the Thames Estuary against the French during the 100 years war, and to provide a royal residence away from London.

A couple of week’s ago I was in Southend (Gary Numan at the Cliffs Pavilion – reliving the late 1970s / early 1980s), so I used the opportunity to visit Hadleigh Castle, just to the west of Southend, on a hill and overlooking the estuary of the River Thames.

The origins of Hadleigh Castle date back to 1215, when King John gave Hubert de Burgh land around the village of Hadleigh. de Burgh constructed the first castle on the site to demonstrate his position in the country and ownership of the Manor of Hadleigh.

As was often the case, relationships became strained as power shifted and de Burgh was forced to return his lands to Henry III in 1239.

Not much happened at the castle until the early 1300s when Edward II started to use the castle as a residence and constructed a number of internal buildings to help make the castle more suitable to providing royal accommodation.

Hadleigh Castle’s potential value as a fortification overlooking the Rover Thames was seen by Edward III during the Hundred Years War – the period straddling the 14th and 15th centuries when the Kings of England fought for the French crown, and the ownership of lands in France.

The Thames was a route whereby the French, and their allies, could attack the towns along the river, potentially all the way to London. This was a very real risk as demonstrated by the attack on Gravesend in the 1380s, and concerns that the French were assembling a large fleet for invasion.

Edward III built on the work of Edward II, strengthening and extending Hadleigh Castle.

Edward III may also have been interested in the castle as a retreat from London, providing views over the river and estuary. The area around the castle also provided extensive hunting grounds for Edward III and his guests.

The river provided easy access to the castle and there are records of the Royal Barge being moored at Hadleigh.

Royal interest in Hadleigh Castle was short-lived as after the death of Edward III the castle was no longer used as a royal residence, instead being leased to a series of tenants, until being sold off in 1551 to Lord Riche, who took no interest in occupying the castle, and started demolition to sell off the castle as building materials.

The version of Hadleigh Castle we see today is therefore a ruin and a shadow of its former self. Just a few towers, walls and foundations that have survived demolition and the castle’s geologically unstable location.

This is the view looking east, with the estuary on the right and the one remaining tower in the centre of the photo.

Hadleigh Castle

Almost the same view was the subject of a painting by John Constable in 1829, titled “The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night”:

Hadleigh Castle

Image credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I really do like this painting. It perfectly captures the relationship between the sky and the estuary. Blue sky is starting to appear after the stormy night, and the sun is shining on the ruins of the castle.

In many ways Constable’s view is much the same today, although there was no Southend pier jutting out into the estuary in 1829, and today, cows are not grazing on the slopes adjacent to the castle.

Constable exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1829, where it was described as “Full of nature and spirit, and graceful easy beauty; though freckled and pock-marked after its artist’s usual fashion”.

The painting now appears to be part of the Yale Centre for British Art collection in New Haven, Connecticut in the United States. I am not sure how it was acquired by the Yale Centre. In 1936 newspaper reports were congratulating the National Gallery on the acquisition of the painting and saving the painting for the nation.

The same newspaper reports were also expressing concerns about the planned development of the area around Hadleigh Castle. Factory sites were planned for the land around the castle. The villages of Leigh-on-Sea and West Benfleet were expected to expand towards the castle, and a road was planned to be built to run parallel to the railway.

The site of the castle is still relatively isolated. There are houses about half a mile further in land, and the Salvation Army run Hadleigh Farm is on the approach to the castle. I suspect the war put a hold on the proposed factories.

The following map extract shows the strategic location of Hadleigh Castle, marked by the yellow circle (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Hadleigh Castle

The map shows that the castle’s position provided an ideal view over the estuary, and any attacking force would be clearly seen. The map does not clearly show the height of the castle, which stands 42m above sea level. Not that high, but high enough in this part of southern Essex to provide a commanding view over the river.

The geology of the site is interesting as the castle stands on the edge of high ground, which quickly falls to a level stretch of land between the castle and the river. The following photo is the view looking towards the south-west, with a c2c train running on the route from London Fenchurch Street to Southend and Shoeburyness.

Hadleigh Castle

In the distance are the cranes of the London Gateway port, and in front of them are the oil storage tanks to the west of Canvey Island and in Coryton. Canvey Island is between the oil tanks and the stream of water.

The view below is looking south. The river is at sea level, and the land gradually rises to 6 metres at the rail line.

Hadleigh Castle

During the medieval period when the castle was constructed and in use, the area between the mound on which the castle was built, and the river would have been marshland, and probably subject to flooding at times of very high tide.

The view looking to the east, Southend Pier is visible in the distance.

Hadleigh Castle

The following print from 1772 shows Hadleigh Castle from where the railway line runs today. Although the majority of the castle had been demolished for building materials, some of the southern walls still remained, although the majority of these have since disappeared.

Hadleigh Castle

Although from a strategic perspective, Hadleigh Castle was built in an ideal position, with a commanding view over the approaches to the estuary and River Thames, geologically it was built in a very precarious position.

The castle sits on an unstable spur of London Clay. Over the centuries there have been numerous slippages and damage to the castle building, beginning soon after completion of the castle. The last major landslip was during the winter of 1969 / 1970.

Today, about a third of the southern side of the original castle has been lost due to slippage.

In Constable’s painting, two towers can be seen. Today, only one tower survives. The second tower to the north has slipped and collapsed and the remains can be seen to the right in the photo below:

Hadleigh Castle

The main tower still looks impressive, and gives a good idea of what the whole castle must have looked like in the 14th century:

Hadleigh Castle

Although the tower sits at the edge of the descent down to lower ground towards the river, and cracks inside the tower tell of the possible future for this one substantial remaining part of Hadleigh Castle.

Hadleigh Castle

The exterior of the collapsed tower:

Hadleigh Castle

The interior of the collapsed tower:

Hadleigh CastleThe following photo from Britain from Above shows Hadleigh Castle in 1930.

Hadleigh Castle

The tower on the left of the above photo is the one that has since collapsed.

The photo does provide a good view of the overall size of the castle, and the rather precarious position, situated on top of a high mound of London Clay.

The river is to the right of the photo and the two towers are facing to the east – to the Continent and to the Estuary, so the two large towers would have been the first evidence of the king’s power that anyone arriving from the Continent would have seen.

19th century interest in Gothic landscapes and architecture, and recreating late medieval architecture may have been the source of considerable growth in visitor numbers to Hadleigh Castle. Constable’s painting probably contributed, as did the relatively easy access from London on the Fenchurch Street line.

Visitor numbers were of such a size that in the later part of the 19th century, a large refreshment room was opened in the grounds of the castle, with seating for 400 people.

No such facilities at the castle today, just neatly clipped grass as the castle is now under the care of English Heritage.

Hadleigh Castle

When the Crown sold the castle to Lord Riche in 1551, he seems to have commenced the demolition of the castle for building materials in an organised manner. In the grounds of the castle are the remains of a lead melting hearth from the mid 16th century. The hearth was used to melt down the lead window frames from the castle, thereby making it easier to transport the lead away from the site.

Hadleigh Castle

The hearth is located in the middle of the castle’s hall, with only the foundations remaining today.

Hadleigh Castle

Part of the remaining curtain wall:

Hadleigh Castle

The southern edge of the castle, looking towards the west:

Hadleigh Castle

The above photo marks the boundary to the left, with the land that has fallen away in previous landslides.

To the left, there was the King’s Chamber, continuation of the curtain wall surrounding the castle, and the south tower. All lost as the London Clay fell away.

The one main archaeological excavation of the castle was carried out in 1863 by a Mr H.M. King, working for the Essex Archaeological Society. The work was extensive, however the finds from the excavation have since been lost.

Edward III also constructed a castle on the opposite side of the Thames at Queensborough on the Isle of Sheppy, although nothing now survives of this castle.

So, Hadleigh Castle is the one remaining example of a medieval castle on the Thames Estuary. The last land slip was in 2002, so for how long the castle will remain in its current condition is open to question as the London Clay gradually slips away.

Although the castle is fading away, it is still more substantial than the ghost that a Mr Wilfred Davies of Canvey Island was looking for in the 1960s and early 1970s, when armed with tea and sandwiches, he would keep a nightly vigil at the castle, looking for a female ghost that was reported to slap people’s faces. I bet though, on a dark night at the castle’s isolated position, looking over the Thames Estuary, it would be easy to imagine the ghosts of those who made it their home in the 13th to 15th centuries.

alondoninheritance.com

From The City To The Sea – The Thames Estuary

Before returning to London, a quick chance to explore the Thames Estuary and discover some of the legacy from the last war that has survived the last 70 years.

As the Waverley left Southend, the sky and sea seemed to merge even more into a uniform grey with only the occasional boat adding any colour.

Soon after leaving Southend Pier there is the wreck of a part of the Mulberry Harbours that were used directly after the D-Day landings in France to provide temporary harbours until one of the French ports could be taken.

This particular part is a Phoenix Caisson. These were very large concrete hollow boxes that were used to provide the support to the harbour. They were manufactured at three locations in the UK including Tilbury on the Thames, however this Caisson was being brought from Immingham on the Humber to Southsea (Portsmouth on the south coast) ready for transport across the channel.

Whilst being transported from Immingham it sprang a leak and was towed into the Thames and beached in its current position.

Southend to Sea 1

There is a much more potentially destructive relic of the last war about 5 miles from Southend. This is the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery.

The SS Montgomery left the US in August 1944 loaded with over 6,000 tonnes of munitions and explosives. Arriving off Southend the ship was instructed to moor off Sheerness. On the 20th August, the Montgomery started to drag her anchor and drifted to a sand bank where she became stuck as the tide went down and the due to the uneven distribution of weight and insufficient water to provide support, she broke her back and was stranded on the sandbank with her full compliment of explosive cargo.

There was an attempt to remove some of the cargo, however before this was complete the ship finally broke in two and the salvage attempt was abandoned leaving a very considerable volume of munitions and explosives (high explosive bombs, fragmentation bombs, phosphorus bombs, pyrotechnic signals, flares and fuses) on the ship, which remain there to this day.

The ship has an exclusion zone marked by buoys and is regularly surveyed to check the stability of the structure.

I am not sure if anyone really knows what would happen if there was an explosion, many years ago I heard stories that it would break many of the windows in Southend.

It is an eerie sight passing the wreck and seeing the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery still standing above the water.

Southend to Sea 2

Further out from Southend are the Maunsell Forts.

These were operated by the Navy and Army during the last war to provide anti-aircraft gun emplacements in the estuary. The River Thames provided an ideal navigation route to central London for enemy bombers. Even at night and with a blackout, the glint of the moon on the water of the Thames would lead directly to London.

These forts were the idea of Guy Anson Maunsell, a highly innovative civil engineer who had worked on a range of civil engineering projects in the UK and abroad, including in 1931, the widening of Putney Bridge.

The initial requirement was for a set of Naval Forts further out to sea than the Army forts. They were operated by the Navy with the objective of preventing German mine laying in the approaches to the Thames. Four of these were constructed, of which two (Rough Sands and Knock John) survive. From the Thames Estuary the Knock John fort can be seen as a rather enigmatic shape in the distance.

Southend to Sea 11The Army forts followed the Naval forts. The aim of these forts was to attack approaching bomber forces with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on each of the individual forts.

The first set of forts were deployed in the Mersey to protect Liverpool, with the next set of forts deployed across the Thames Estuary to protect London.

Three forts were installed, Shivering Sands, Red Sands and Nore, with Shivering Sands and Red Sands remaining to this day.

Setting out from Southend, the first fort is Red Sands.

Southend to Sea 3

The forts were built on the Thames in a disused and derelict cement factory that Maunsell had found at Red Lion Wharf at Northfleet, close to Gravesend. The forts were constructed, towed out and installed on site between May and December 1943.

Southend to Sea 4

A central observation tower was surrounded by towers, each with an anti-aircraft gun installed. Walkways were run between the individual towers to provide access across the complex.

Southend to Sea 5

Although land was visible from the forts, this must have felt like an isolated and remote location for those based on the forts, coupled with long periods where there would not have been any enemy activity.  It cannot have been very comfortable on a cold and stormy winters night.

The crew of the forts would spend 4 weeks on-board, then a 10 day break ashore.

Although the forts were operational after the main period of the blitz on London they were successful during the later V1 campaign when at least 30 of the V1s were shot down on their way to London.

Southend to Sea 6

I passed the forts during my 1978 journey down the Thames, with the following photo from this time. Most of the walkways were then still in place. The weather was also better, just to show that there is some colour in the estuary.

Southend to Sea 13

The Thames Estuary provides an example of how power generation has changed over the last century. Initially, power stations were local to population centres. London had a number of smaller power stations, (my grandfather worked in one in Camden). These were replaced by larger stations such as Battersea and Bankside. Power stations then started moving away from centres of population to places such as Littlebrook and Tilbury that we passed along the river. These have now closed and generation moved out to sea with a number of offshore wind farms located in the wider Thames Estuary.

Emerging out of the gloom are the 30 wind turbines of the Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm.

Southend to Sea 7

Further out in the Estuary is the Shivering Sands fort. This was the last fort is be completed and as Maunsell wrote at the time:

“the final floating out operation sailed on the afternoon on December 13th, whereafter it transpired that the last of the Towers was grounded on the Shivering Sand in bright moonlight and bitter cold shortly after midnight on December 14th.”

Shivering Sands lost one of its towers in 1963 when it was hit by a ship. The stump of the tower still pokes from the water:

Southend to Sea 8

Passing Shivering Sands fort with Red Sands in the distance. Viewed from a distance they could almost be the Martians from H.G. Wells book War of the Worlds, striding across the Thames Estuary ready to wreak havoc on Southend.

Southend to Sea 9

Seventy years of construction in the Thames Estuary from wartime defences to peaceful electricity generation.

Southend to Sea 10

After the war, Guy Maunsell and a couple of partners set-up their own business and were much in demand to work on major construction projects across the world.

In London, G. Maunsell & Partners were responsible for the Hammersmith Flyover. When this was completed in 1961 it was the first such pre-cast segmented concrete structure in the UK. Further work followed on the Westway from Paddington to White City.

Guy Maunsell died in 1961. His company continued independently, working on projects such as the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee Line, until the year 2000 when the company was bought by the US firm AECOM.

The Imperial War Museum has a number of photos of the forts in use (reproduced under the IWM’s Share and Reuse, non commercial licence):

Supply vessel approaching one of the Thames forts © IWM (H 34537):

IWM - 1View from the top of one of the towers showing the anti-aircraft gun mounted on each tower © IWM (H 34542):

IWM - 2The only photo of the construction of the towers I could find was of the Mersey forts, however the Thames Estuary forts from Northfleet on the Thames would have been constructed in the same manner, ready to be floated out to sea © IWM (A 13259):

IWM - 3 A final view of the Red Sands fort, wind farm and a ship approaching the Thames heading for its berth further upstream.

Southend to Sea 14

The water that has flowed through London and down the Thames has now merged with the sea. Even at this distance, connections with London can still be found through the Maunsell Forts, built specifically to defend the city from attack during the last war.

The Thames is a fascinating river with a long history, intimately connected with London.

Now it is time to turn round and head back to London. For my final post on the Thames it will be a dramatic after dark return to the centre of the city.

alondoninheritance.com