It’s always a good day when you’re on the Waverley.

This historic sea-going paddle steamer appears on the Thames every autumn like a migrating bird, raising a smile from the most churlish Londoners. I’m grinning like a Cheshire Cat because I’m off to see the Maunsell Forts, a series of World War II defences out in the Thames estuary. We’re setting off from Tower Pier, and Tower Bridge is opening just for us. All the way down the Thames, stopping at Gravesend and Southend, then out into the estuary. This blog starts as we wave goodbye to Southend Pier and almost immediately signs of World War II begin to appear. Stranded on a sandbank a short distance from the pier is a “Mulberry Harbour”. In the run up to DDay, temporary harbours were built to be towed out to the Normandy beaches. These were made up of a number of individual “Phoenix” units, but this one didn’t make it to France. Having sprung a leak on the way, it was beached on a sandbank and abandoned, and has been there ever since. A little further on, on the horizon, we can just about see the masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, an American steam ship which ran aground and sank off the coast of the Isle of Sheppey in 1944. The ship was carrying about 1400 tonnes of explosives, so if it does ever goes off, it’ll be a very big bang. We give it a wide berth. And so we go steaming further out into the estuary. It’s a lovely day, with beautiful skies and a haze that blurs the line between sea and sky. Gradually strange eerie shapes appear, floating on the horizon, looking for all the world like the Walkers in Star Wars. These are the Maunsell Forts at Red Sands.

The forts were built by the army in the early 1940s to help to protect London from the Luftwaffe. They are built in a group of seven, with search lights mounted on one and the control tower and guns on the other six. The forts originally had interconnecting aerial walkways between them and a restoration society seems to have reinstated one of these. I wouldn’t fancy making the trip across there, and I wouldn’t fancy being stuck out in the sea with the Luftwaffe roaring overhead. In the 1960s, the forts were occupied on several occasions by people wanting to live alternative lifestyles, but, most famously, by pirate radio stations.

On, on, and further out to sea until we come to a second group of army forts at Shivering Sands. In this group there are only six forts remaining, with the stump of one leg revealing the loss of one fort due to a collision with a ship. With so much sea around these forts, I can’t imagine how a ship managed to hit one of them, but there you go. On the side of one of the forts is painted “Radio City”, the name of one of the short-lived radio stations that called it home.

The weather is good and the tide is with us, so we steam on to a different kind of fort in the Knock John Channel. Knock John Tower is a navy-type, with two sturdy legs supporting the upper platform. There were gun emplacements and radar mounted on the platform. The crew of up to 100 men, manning this tower had their living accommodation in the legs, which must have been pretty strange, like a cross between living in a lighthouse and in a submarine.

There is another fort of this type still standing further up the coast (not visited on this trip); HM Fort Roughs. In 1967, former British Army Major Paddy Roy Bates occupied the fort intending to start a radio station. In 1975 he declared it an independent principality called Sealand, which he ruled over until his recent death. Ho hum.

The Knock John Tower really does feel like a long way out to sea as there is nothing much else to see except the odd passing ship and an off-shore windfarm a long, long way off. It’s really beautiful and really cold* (it is the North Sea, after all).

THE END (* just ignore that man in the green vest. It was blooming chilly.)

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