The Isle of Grain sits on the junction of two river estuaries, the Thames and the Medway. Whilst only an hour’s drive from London, the isle feels remote and isolated. The southern mud flats are dominated by three huge power stations and the container ports at Thamesport and Sheerness.
The ship building towns of the River Medway were of huge importance during Britain’s maritme history, and the outer reaches of the river’s estuary were well defended. A satellite view of the estuary reveals the remains of numerous fortifications, many dating back to the mid 19th Century.
If you are confident paddling on open, choppy, tidal water, this corner of England can make for interesting paddling. At Hoo Marina we checked we could park our car, then set off about an hour before high tide.
A wide range of boats are moored in and near the Marina, not all of them floating. We headed downstream, buffeted by a strong breeze, and then paddled directly across West Hoo Creek to the low lying island of Hoo Salt Marsh, our eyes stinging from salt spray. The easterly edge of the island is protected from erosion by a line of sunken barges. Other discarded boats lie in a drunken huddle nearby, brightly coloured paint peeling from their hulls.
The island is home to a largely intact fortress, Fort Hoo, which is accessible at basement level via a dark, flooded passageway. Care would be needed if exploring this fort, and would be explorers should note the presence of a ‘private – no trespassing’ sign on the shoreline. I had been worried about disturbing the wildlife as we nosed around the island, but the local wetland birds didn’t shift a feather and just carried on chattering.
We carried on downstream with the outgoing tide, past Kingsnorth Power Station and Thamesport, before a brief rest on a small stretch of beach. Our next obstacle was a huge tanker carrying liquid natural gas, berthed at the next jetty and either unloading or getting ready to leave. We made a navigational error here and passed by on the inside of the tanker. The ship was an impressive site as we swept past on the tide, but we had just entered an unmarked exclusion zone and, unknown to us, wheels had been set in motion.
We were tiring now, as we paddled past the Isle of Grain Power Station and through a strange, hot stream of water flowing from the station’s cooling system. Around the corner and our final destination came into view, the Grain Tower, built in 1855 and half a mile from the shore. The fort is accessible via causeway at low tide but our kayaks gave us immediate access. We pulled our boats up onto a rough beach, exposed by the retreating tide, and took in the impressive tower – a mix of first and second world war fortifications built upon the original base, with an additional lookout tower on top of everything else.
Whilst there we spotted a small coastguard dingy speeding across the estuary from Sheerness – towards the fort – and us. A friendly coastguard waded from the boat and informed us that we had been reported for breaching the exclusion zone at the liquid gas terminal. He said we shouldn’t have gone within 500m of the ship. He also pointed out the dangers of climbing around on a condemned structure, but complimented us for being well equiped for the open water.
Having given our names, addresses and multiple apologies to the coastguard guy we shouldered our kayaks and started the half mile trudge back to the shoreline. The tide had retreated to leave wide expanses of mud, but the broken causeway got us back to a coastal path and after another mile of walking we got to our shuttle car at the Grain car park. A long paddle, a long walk out, but a great day of paddling and exploration.
Notes: This is a long and exposed paddle for experienced kayakers only. Local paddlers tell us they have also been warned for paddling too close to Kingsnorth Power Station. It is probably best to give the power station and liquid gas terminals a wide berth, particularly if ships are unloading, as long as it is safe for you to do so. The forts are privately owned and any exploration of these dangerous structures may be regarded as trespass.
The contact number for Medway Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) is 01795 663025. If you call before you set out they will be able to advise you of any exclusion areas, but you must also make sure you let them know when you are safely off the water. If you carry a VHF radio tuning to channel’s 16 – 74 – 73 – 22 should give you more information.
Images courtesy of Sean C.