Kayaking the Medway Island Forts

by Ian Tokelove
Exterior of Fort Darnet showing gun port

A day trip to explore the Medway island forts, Fort Hoo & Fort Darnet

These Medway forts date back almost 150 years and can only be reached by boat, such as a trusty kayak. The forts were built on the recommendations of the 1859 Royal Commission, to protect the important naval dockyards of Chatham from sea-borne attack.

The best launch point is probably from the Strand in Gillingham, where a public slipway reaches out across the mud at low tide. All day parking is available, although there is a height restriction of about 2m. On a summer’s day the slipway and waters were busy with jet skis, despite a local ban. This is the only public slipway into the Medway.

On a previous trip we’d launched from Port Wedburgh, but this is now a gated community, with none of the friendly and helpful access we had formerly enjoyed.

Please note that both islands are important nesting sites for wild birds, so please do not visit during the spring breeding season. Wildlife needs space, just as we do.

Hoo Fort

We rode the ebbing tide out to Fort Hoo, the more accessible of the two forts. Expect some mud at most states of tide. The entrance is on the eastern side of the Fort and can be accessed via a rough path through the undergrowth. The entrance is usually flooded, and the depth can vary. Tread carefully. Once inside, both levels of the fort are accessible, but you will need a torch if you want to explore properly.

Entrance passage to Fort Hoo


Steps in Fort Hoo


The unlit passageways of Fort Hoo

Fort Darnet is a short paddle to the east, and again we used the receding tide to help our progress. We hauled out on rocks, but again, expect mud. The surrounding defensive ditch and lower levels of this fort are flooded, so access (at time of writing) is gained over a narrow gangplank that spans the moat. Open gun ports then allow access to the top floor of the fort.

Fort Darnet gangplank


Exterior of Fort Darnet showing gun port

Here, we found offerings of charcoal and alcohol, left by previous overnight visitors. The flooded, lower level would be dangerous to explore; we didn’t even try.

Free beers at Fort Darnet


Flooded lower level Fort Darnet.

If you’ve timed the tides right you can now hitch a ride back to the slipway with the incoming tide. As we passed Fort Hoo, a seal weaved past us through the shallow water, chasing fish.

If you still feeling adventurous, and have the tides with you, a scuttled World War 1 U Boat wreck awaits some 2.5km to the NE of Fort Darnet, visible and accessible at some stages of the tide. We were in creek boats so weren’t going to make it, but sea kayaks should do the job.

Wreck at Fort Hoo

Note: Fast tidal flows, very limited access to the water, wide expanses of deep mud and fast moving estuary traffic can present significant problems for the paddler. These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced paddlers. We undertook this trip using white water kayaks in August 2018; if you use a sea kayak expect to make faster time.

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