The river Medway has a rich history for Naval enthusiasts and Concrete Sniffers alike. Suzanne is not averse to good-quality concrete, especially if it is mixed in with a decent walk and a meal. We started at Upnor Castle, which ticks all the boxes, having two good pubs nearby and a quaint Georgian street connecting them all. The castle is impressive and the dressing-up box is hidden safely away in a corner.
Upnor castle is famous for having failed to prevent the Dutch fleet from raiding Chatham Docks in 1667, and carrying off the Royal Charles. Fair do’s; we had ransacked the Dutch fleet previously and started all the grumpiness off by declaring the Navigation Act of 1651 in a move worthy of President Trump in full rant.
The Royal Engineers Museum is well worth a visit, and only 15 minutes away by car. It is well-laid out, the exhibits work and it is full of Stuff. The walls are information-dense, but that’s fine because military engineering is for grown-ups, and anyone having trouble reading the big words, is in the wrong museum¹. Notwithstanding, where else would do a Bank Holiday Bomb Disposal event? Cool! (Expecting an answer from Maj Tom Mouatt MBE here) 🙂
The other advantage of burying information on the walls in plain sight, is that it does not upset the rest of the Army: We learn that of the only two technical branches originally, (Sappers and Gunners), the top of the intake usually graduated into the Sappers. I was amused to find that in a specialist branch of the Army, my own specialities (Diving, Amphibious Engineering and Harrier Support) were buried away in the corners of the museum. It was somewhat unsettling to see events that I remember vividly to this day, reduced to a few dry lines and a black and white photograph containing familiar fresh faces from 36 years ago.
The sheer scale of the museum, from Gundulf², through the founding of military signalling, and aviation, the building of the Albert Hall and wars practically anywhere you can point to on the Globe, is overwhelming. Fifty five VCs and a long winding corridor stuffed full of medal drawers left me feeling rather numb.
Outside, the tank park is full of big toys, mostly with bridges on their backs or big shovels in front, or both. Sappers scorn long calibre 120mm guns, preferring bigger lumps of explosives and shorter barrels. The Churchill AVRE petard was not called a dustbin for nothing.
We stopped overnight in a very civilised YHA. No longer do you have to smuggle wine into your bunk room, but we did for old times sake.
Where Not to Stand When Firing
Day two was a visit to Fort Amherst, the largest surviving Napoleonic artillery fort in Britain. It is a sprawling, multi-layered fort buried into the hillside. The ramparts fight for air under creepers, trees and nettles. Volunteers are working hard to restore it to its former state, but we enjoyed the slightly run-down fin de siècle air of the place.
At the top of the Great Lines is the Naval Memorial for the Port of Chatham. Some interesting (to me) statistics:
Panels of memorials for WWI number 32 in total.
After 1915 when the Royal Naval Air Service was founded, a high proportion of officer casualties were from the RNAS, something to be expected from a service operating state-of-the-art bits of unpredictable wire, string and canvas over unforgiving seas.
Panels for WWII number 158 (+/-2, this from my memory after driving home)
1939 – 8, 1940 – 20, 1941 – 32, 1942 – 49, 1943 – 30, 1944 – 22, 1945 – 5, 1946 – 1, then a final panel with added dates for previous years (presumably missing confirmed dead). To me this highlighted the more global nature of WWII, and 1942 as the naval peak in activity.
Belvedere Heights at Fort Amherst
We missed the official guided tunnel tour, but wandered in through a promising entrance at the level of Belvedere Heights (see the grey door in the middle right of the picture above). Coming back out, we were asked by a tourist party if they were allowed to go in³. I assured them that they were, and we beat a hurried retreat before they met the real guided party coming the opposite way. Note to self – don’t visit any more attractions in Chatham looking like a retired Sapper officer. We ran out of time for a visit to the Naval Dockyards, but if you want a grand day out, then there is plenty to engage your interest in the Medway Towns.
- See Infantry, or Cavalry. If the RAF are feeling superior at this point, just remember that the Sappers started the Royal Flying Corps.
- “Humphrey de Tilleul, William’s engineer, brought a pre – fabricated fort across the Channel which he erected at Hastings after the battle with Harold. He was succeeded as King’s engineer by a monk named Gundulf, who later became Bishop of Rochester. Among Gundulf’s better known works are the Keep of the Tower of London and the Old Barbican.“
The Bishop of Peterborough told me that if his clergy ever asked if they were allowed to do something, he would say “no” on principle. I take the opposite view, as I believe that God has a sense of humour.