Darnet became our island home during our trip. I look at it now, from across the water in the Medway towns and I miss it.
The island has worked its magic, as islands often do. I stand at the gun emplacement window looking across the saltmarsh. I have been here how long? Half hour? Maybe more. Thinking of….nothing, just watching the sailing boats head out to sea and the terns fold their wings and dive for fish before emerging with a splash. The tide drifts in and, somewhere in the distance I can hear a cuckoo calling the hour away on Hoo Ness.
Outside, on the mainland I know it’s Friday. I can see real life carrying on. Lorries rush along the road to Grain, the never ending grind of sound from the building sites around Hoo St Werburgh can be heard across the water. In the Medway towns, people shop in face masks, drink lunchtime beer in pub gardens, race through office work so as to finish early for the weekend. It’s all out there and I know I must return but, just for now, I can stand at the window of my island fortress, doing nothing, peaced up to the nines.
We are leaving the island, only for a few hours but we fear invaders will colonise during our absence. Not the hoards of invasive brown tailed moth caterpillars that swarm over every item we leave on the ground. No, those invaders were here first. We fear human Invaders. The island has become home.
“I’m going upstairs to fetch the water,” Steve says, referring to our fortress kitchen reached by crossing the moat on a scaffold plank that bounces and squeeks when you cross. On day one we edged across gingerly, now we are as sure footed as mountain goats. We have become Kings of a castle we both want to buy, secretly plotting to out bid each other for our 11 room villa with 360 degree river views at a mythical property auction we will one day attend with mythical savings we do not yet have.
I am queen bee of this hive, regally waving at passing sailing boats from my eerie as I keep watch on the channel.
We are reluctant to leave but keen to explore so we pack the things we least want stolen, binoculars, water and cooking equipment and heave Magwitch into the water, paddling slowly away before starting the motor.
We round the island, passing the silent cranes of Kingsnorth. It is not yet high water, I hang over the front of the boat checking depth with an oar as Steve guides us under one jetty and towards the broken struts of Jetty B.
The old wooden and metal pier has been hammer punched by wind. Twisted sections of wood and iron are strung out across the channel like a broken chain of French knitting
The oystercatchers are patrolling. These are the real Lords of the Estuary. On land I rarely see chicks but here a pair patrol every high mark and mud hummock. They pipe, pipe day and night, strutting in courtly dances, head down, back flattened. They march along the roof of the fort calling from beaks the colour of blood oranges.
We duck beneath the jetty, a broken sea creature, twisted in its death throws, beyond is the rusting remains of a German U-boat, spoils of war. destined to be cut up for scrap but somehow spared this ignominious fate. Now it rests in a slowly sinking mud coffin. A tourist destination that even Google maps recognises.
The tide is leaving us, the wind is picking up, water breaks across the bow. Jet skies churn past us at alarming speed, their riders lost in their own adrenalin rush. Magwitch is tossed around on a fair ground ride.
“There’s home,” Steve calls. The waves calm, terms skim low into the wind. The oystercatchers rush out.
“It’s our river, our island,” they call.
It seems we are the ones who are invading.
“Have you got a death bag?” asks my friend Syd from Medway Watersports when I phone her on Saturday night and ask advice on what I should pack for a week boating and camping on the Medway river.
Syd corrects herself, “Oh no, I forgot, they don’t call them that any more. They are called survival bags nowadays.”
However, it is too late, I am spooked. The list goes on: an anchor, first aid kit, spare paddles, VHF radio, distress flares!
The Medway river needs respects, as someone who has been rescued from a fast rising tide by a lifeboat, I know this better than most. The estuary is not a landscape to be messed with and I am grateful for Syd’s caution.
“I can supply charts,” Syd says and goes on to explain the numbering of bouys and the system of flashes which are unique to each.
It is then that I feel the rush of excitement. This river, this landscape, is a ten minute walk from my front door but somehow I feel as if I am setting forth on a grand adventure. Less than a week from today I will cast off in Magwitch along with Stephen Turner and head out with my charts, my anchor and, yes, my death bag, for an adventure that feels every bit as exciting as a journey to some far flung destination.
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.