After leaving the Dockyard from No.8 Slip, a gusting south westerly comfortably drove us along, until the river curled south and east toward Gillingham Reach and we were hit broadside on by three foot waves. The Army could easily cope in their seven metre RIBs and 70hp engines, but a 3.1m Magwitch and a 3.5hp outboard, was at its limit. Laden with fuel, water, food, tents, sleeping bags and toilet bucket it was getting uncomfortable and seeking shelter, I turned the boat about at Hoo Ness to skirt the more sheltered northern shore across the shallows of Hoo Flats. We then ran out of fuel and had to paddle like fury to reach land – as the wind and receding tide tried its best to suck us out to Middle Creek.

Whilst the squalls stood off for a while and circled around our camp, we managed to erect our tiny tents and staved off the cold with welcome flasks of hot tea and coffee and Carols’ pre-prepared tuna and cheese sandwiches. It felt as luxurious as tea at the Ritz.

Sharp shards of glass (not what you need with an inflatable) on the foreshore, did not feel entirely welcoming and we found most everything growing ashore was well provided for with plentiful prickles and thorns, as we walked over the island to visit my old friend from the 1990s – Hoo Fort.

Its defensive ditch was surrounded by a thicket of brambles, hawthorn, nettles, thistles and even spiky new sprouts of primitive teasels that did their best to bar our entry. I’m sure there were other less ‘well armed’ plants there, but my lacerated legs (I’d foolishly worn shorts) definitely coloured initial impressions. After getting through this terrible tangle, knee deep fetid water around the fort entrance (guarded by hundreds of mosquitoes) was about ten unpleasant steps too far. We looked longingly through two huge partly open steel clad doors and reluctantly decided this complete world in little would save for another time.

Instead we went to a broken backed wreck on the eastern shore, where salty winds and briny water were transforming a once staunch steel hull into frail layers of iron oxide, before crunching our way down across a carpet of shells and shingle to Folly Point; its tall steel beacon a blanket of mussels below the waterline and the mussels themselves encrusted with barnacles and all wrapped around with fronds of murky brown bladderwrack. Life was clinging on.

Filigree Steel of a Rusted Hulk

Fort Hoo Sketchbook 1996-7

Graffiti covered all eleven steel casements inside Fort Hoo when I visited there in 1995, mostly chalked around the gun port windows with their views of the marsh outside. I copied them all into my notebook of the time. It is going to be interesting to revisit the same place tonorrow for the Estuary Festival with Carol Donaldson.


Magwitch has been fully inflated, checked out and is yearning for the water. She is technically Magwitch 2 as Magwitch the 1st (purchased following an auction from the closed RN Dockyard in Chatham in 1984) has been retired for this voyage. She is a 3.1m Zodiak boat with an aluminium floor and an inflatable keel (for more manoeuvrability). We will be using my Yamama 3.5hp outboard engine, recently serviced by Power Products Marine in Strood. Carol and I had a long conversation yesterday morning full of practicalities – of our proposed itinerary, menus, clothing, communication and navigation… Weather permitting we will be ready for departure on Monday 24 May, around noon.

Heading East to Fort Hoo & Fort Darnet

I will soon be returning to some of my favourite places along the length of the Medway Estuary which I first explored in 1994. This time I will be in company with the writer Carol Donaldson as we set off in our small inflatable boat ‘Magwitch’ to both cover old ground and to explore new places together. I have been looking at some of my older photographs to remind me of different moments during a long association with this special river. It’s been such a long and deep engagement that at times in the 1990s it felt more like a marriage! I have a lot of love still for all its natural and unnatural beauties; for the tides, terns and turnstones as as well as the recent recent history of cement and brick-making and power generation. Then there’s the legacy of hospital ships , quarantine vessels and prison hulks that even on a sunny day (to paraphrase Alan Silitoe in his book ‘The Saxon Shore Way’), still cast a their shadow across the marshes.

I will be looking forward to revisiting the twin forts of Hoo and Darnet in particular that were built to defend the Chatham Dockyard in the 1860s. Guarding port and starboard approaches to the deep water shipping lane, they were the Medway’s own Scylla and Charybdis* – designed to truly put any unwelcome ship between a rock and a hard place.

Unfortunately by the time they were completed in the 1870s traditional foes had become friends and naval technology had left their fixed gun casements on the verge of obscalescence. By the outbreak of the Second World War they had been abandoned, though Hoo Fort was recommissioned as an observation post. The earliest graffiti I found there was a large dot dot dot dash in white paint that possibly originated in 1945 with Churchill’s famous V for victory. A passing V formation of geese photographed on the same day was an equally happy counterpoint.

It’s exciting to be planning another trip and there is now only a few day to go..There are so many memories waiting to be unlocked and new associations formed.

* The sea monsters of Greek mythology that guarded the Straights of Messina.

The view East toward Darnet Fort from Hoo Island in 1994
Looking East from Hoo Island toward the now demolished tower of Kingsnorth Power Station in December of 1994