The creeks and saltmarshes of the tidal Medway hide many secrets, including the rusting hulk of a WW1 German submarine, abandoned here almost one hundred years ago.
Searching for the submarine
Access to this submarine isn’t easy. The Medway estuary is a wide expanse of mudflats, swept by fast moving tides. We went in search of the sunken sub using kayaks, launching from the broken causeway that leads out to Grain Tower Battery. There’s parking for a few cars here, at the end of Smithfield Road.
Another option, dependent on tides, is the Stand Slipway in Gillingham – the only public slipway on the tidal Medway. There’s parking here, but it can get crowded in summer.
We headed into the estuary with the incoming tide, sticking to the north bank. If paddling here, give the National Power jetty a wide berth. Leisure boats need to stay at least 150 metres away. Security is twitchy, especially if a tank ship is berthed up and unloading a cargo of highly explosive liquefied natural gas. We got this wrong once and they requested a police helicopter to respond; you have been warned!*
Across the estuary, Deadman’s Island lies low and marshy in the water. This is the final resting place for hundreds of men and boys, who perished aboard prison hulks roughly 200-250 years ago. These disease-ridden, floating prisons were once a common sight in the Thames and Medway, moored fast to the mudflats with a wretched human cargo.
Contagion was rife aboard the ships, and prisoners who died were buried on this remote, deserted island. Their bones are now exposed by erosion and washed by the tides, finally free of all constraint.
Example of a prison hulk. This is the convict ship HMS Discovery at Deptford. The ship was originally launched as a 10-gun sloop at Rotherhithe in 1789, before serving as a convict hulk from 1818 until 1834. A grim place to live, and to die.
Back on the north bank, once past a series of active jetties and tall cranes, the Medway opens into a wide expanse of tidal creeks and mudflats. These are largely submerged at high water. To find the submarine, head west across the estuary, towards the broken line of the Bee Ness Jetty and its rusting pipeline.
In order to locate the sub we followed the line of Bee Ness Jetty towards the shore. The submarine is at about the halfway mark, roughly 400 metres to the north east of the jetty, mostly hidden behind a small scrap of seamarsh. At high water, much of the submarine is underwater. At low water, exposed mud means the submarine cannot be reached by boat. We found it about an hour after high tide.
The submarine is marked on Google Maps, but don’t count on getting a good signal out in the estuary.
The U-boat wreck
The submarine is a German U-boat, probably UB122, which was confiscated after Germany’s surrender at the end of WW1. In its day it carried ten torpedoes and 34 crew, who must have been pretty snug in such a relatively small submersible.
After confiscation, the U-boat was taken to Halling on the River Medway, where the engines were removed for other uses, and the conning tower detached. In 1921 the submarine was being towed downstream when it broke free and stranded in Humble Bee Creek, where it remains to this day.
This submarine is believed to be the only WW1 U-boat wreck still visible on the British coastline. It is now protected by the mud that prevented it from being salvaged back in 1921, and there are no plans to move it.
As we paddled back, we encountered a couple of inquisitive seals hunting in the bath-warm coolant waters flowing from the Grain Power Station. The warm water attracts fish, which attract anglers, and seals!
Grain Tower Battery
The Grain Tower Battery is always worth a look. At low tide the Tower can be reached by walking along a broken causeway, and is accessible for several hours. With the tide still high, we kayaked to the Tower, and gained exclusive access via a wobbly ladder.
The fort dates back to the 1850s, with First and Second World War additions. The original structure is largely intact, but later work has eroded and in many places the structure is unsafe.
The tide moves quickly across the mudflats and within an hour the causeway was exposed to the air. We hefted our boats to our shoulders and made the long walk back to the sea wall, scattering crabs and small fish, which accelerated away leaving puffs of mud in the shallow pools.
Note: Strong tidal flows, mudflats, exposed conditions and river 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 2019.
* Thankfully the local coastguard said a helicopter wasn’t necessary and said they would have a chat with us. A friendly RNLI crew member met us at Grain Tower Battery and explained the problem of unauthorised access and explosive gases. We solemnly promised not to do it again.