Seaside postcard: Shivering Sands There are some mighty strange places around the UK coast. One of the weirdest lies nine miles out into the North Sea, between the coasts of Kent and Essex. It's a 7-part wartime defensive structure, dating back to 1943, and it looks completely out of this world. Hop on a speedboat from Herne Bay and you too could join the surprisingly small number of us who've actually seen it.
These are the Maunsell Forts at Shivering Sands, strategically positioned alongside the shipping lanes at the mouth of the Thames Estuary. They were designed to house a variety of gun installations, both to shoot down approaching aircraft and to destroy enemy ships. Seven towers were built and towed out to sea, then dropped so that their concrete foundations sank firmly into the sand. The central tower was then linked to each of the others via an aerial cat walk, enabling military personnel to move freely around the defensive complex. Needless to say this isolated existence was not a popular posting, so the forts were evacuated after the war and finally decommissioned in the 1950s.
But that's not the end of the Shivering Sands story. In 1963 a Swedish ship careered into the searchlight tower in thick fog, breaking its legs and carrying it several hundred miles across the North Sea before anybody noticed. The northern control tower, now severed from the remaining five, was put to use by the Port of London Authority as a tidal monitoring station. And because Shivering Sands lies outside the official limit of UK coastal waters, the southern tower became home to one of Britain's first pirate radio stations. Screaming Lord Sutch moved in during the summer of 1964, but couldn't endure the inhospitable conditions and soon sold out to his manager Reg Calvert. RadioCity ("The happiest swinging station in the world") was rather more successful, at least until a proposed merger with Radio London went tragically wrong and Reg was "accidentally" shot dead. Only in Essex, eh? The incident spurred the passing of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, and pirate radio's days were firmly numbered.
Today the six remaining towers rust in silent solitude, their windows smashed out by the army to ensure that no unwanted squatters can move in [photo]. Apart from one lonely writer who spent a recent summer here getting lonely (and blogging about it), now only seagulls claim Shivering Sands as their own. With decent visibility it's just about possible to see the towers from the Kentish coast, small stilted blobs on the northern horizon. But for a proper view I had to take the boat trip, out into the maritime mist, for the opportunity to get up close. And yes, they really are an impressive and unusual sight [photo]. Ropes hang limp where walkways once stretched [photo], and gaping doorways allow the unforgiving North Sea weather to penetrate inside [photo]. The stump of the smashed tower is clearly visible above the waves in calm weather (you can probably spot it in my top photo). Every slight change in boat position generates a fascinatingly new vista of boxes and legs [photo], so no photo of the fort complex is ever the same. I found this a very peaceful spot, at least until a large cargo ship departing Tilbury chugged close by [photo].
And what of the future? Our pilot suggested that Shivering Sands' proximity to the shipping lanes might prove its downfall, and that demolition may be on the cards within the next couple of years. It'd be a damned shame to lose such an iconic offshore structure, but all too often it seems risk analysis wins out over heritage preservation. All may not be lost, however, because there's another similar cluster of Maunsell Forts at Red Sands a few miles further to the west. Our boat trip didn't go there (even though it said we would in the tour description, not impressed, guys). These forts are in a slightly better condition and are therefore more likely to be saved. Apparently there are plans afoot by a private consortium to restore the towers to create a sustainable "self-funding facility", incorporating recording studios, a wartime and broadcasting museum, and of course a gift shop. If Project Redsand is successful, the platforms might even be able to host corporate events and weddings. Part of me absolutely hates the idea, but at least some element of these amazing wartime defences will be saved for the future. In the meantime, especially if you want to experience the awe-inspiring Shivering Sands, you'd better hurry and try to pick a sunny day to get out here for yourself.