The Maunsell Forts are a group of nine WW2 army and navy defence forts located off-shore near the South East coast of England.
For those that love off-beat travel, they provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close to some surreal, awe-inspiring structures. Long abandoned, their rusty exterior gives a sort of mad max aesthetic which photographs beautifully.
I’m not going to lie to you – these Forts are not easy to access… there are no Instagrammers at dawn here! But don’t let this put you off. In this post I will show you how to safely view them with the help of a local boat tour company, X-Pilots.
What are the Maunsell Forts?
The Maunsell Forts are offshore defence forts which protected the UK from aircraft attack during WW2. They’re named after their designer, Guy Maunsell.
There were eight Forts originally. Four are still standing off the South East coast of England, in the estuary of the River Thames. They played an essential role in protecting London and its ports during the war. The name of each Fort is derived from the sandbank it is situated on.
Most of the Forts were abandoned in the 50s and since then they’ve gradually faded and corroded over time. They are truly bizarre looking structures, which look like they belong in a sci fi film. In other words, perfect photography material.
In the 1960s, several of the Forts were used as bases for pirate radio stations. One of the Forts (Rough Sands) is situated in International Waters. It’s inhabited by a family who have claimed it as an independent state, which they’ve called Sealand. Sealand has its own passports, currency and stamps (despite not being recognised by the UN).
How to visit the Maunsell Forts
Three of the Maunsell Forts are accessible via a Grand Forts boat tour with X-Pilot. The company is affiliated to Project Redsand CIO, a registered charity which aims to preserve the Forts in the future.
All the Forts are in quite a dangerous state of disrepair. There’s no way to climb on to them unless you’re willing to do some volunteer work through Project Redsand CIO. (This isn’t advertised on their website, by the way. The Captain of the boat mentioned it to us). So for most people, the 7 to 8 hour Grand Forts Tour with X-Pilot is the best way to access the Maunsell Forts.
What happens on the Grand Forts Tour
The Tour takes in the following sites:
- SS Richard Montgomery – a wrecked ship which sank in 1944. It still has 6000 tonnes of explosives on board, with experts divided as to what to do about this.
- Grain Fort – an artillery fort built in 1860 to defend Britain during the Napoleonic war.
- Knock John Fort – a Maunsell naval fort built in 1943, located 9 miles off the coast of Essex.
- Shivering Sands Fort – a Maunsell army defence Fort, built in 1943.
- Kentish Flats Windfarm
- Red Sands Tower – another Maunsell army defence Fort which looks a bit like the Shivering Sands one.
The lowdown on our 7 hour sailing
The first Maunsell Fort we visited was Knock John Fort, 9 miles off the coast of Essex. The Fort is incredibly beautiful with layers of rust and green lichen decorating its study legs. It look like a strange oil painting against the sea. There’s an urban explorer blog (28 Days Later) which shows photos of rooms inside the legs (these are filled with Greenpeace gear and 50s pin up posters).
Shivering Sands Fort’s pirate radio history
From there we sailed over to Shivering Sands Fort. This was the home for a pirate radio station in the mid 60s, called Radio City. It was established by Screaming Lord Sutch, an eccentric character who became the leader of the Monster Raving Lunatic political party in the 70s and 80s.
We learned all of this thanks to the commentary of Bob Le-Roi, a local radio presenter who accompanied us. Bob started his broadcasting career when he was just 15 years old. Radio City asked him to take over a regular shift aboard Shivering Sands. What a baptism of fire for a teenage DJ!
Imagine holding your very first radio show on one of these monster structures out in the middle of the sea!! As someone who loves music, my imagination was utterly captivated by Bob’s tales. He told us how he frequently used to give shout outs to the passing container ships. I found myself wondering what I would have said if I was in the younger Bob’s shoes:
“Shout outs to the Maersk mothership coming up on starboard – this one’s for you fellas – On a Ragga Tip by SL2.”
(That’s me by the way, pretending to be a pirate radio DJ on Shivering Sands Forts. If there’s no one else around except a container ship, I can afford to go in hard with a 90s rave classic, right?)
After sailing through Shivering Sands Forts, we made our way to Kentish Wind Farm.
Kentish Wind Farm
The 30 enormous wind turbines made a gentle wooshing noise in unison. It was strangely peaceful and calming to watch from the boat. The energy supply goes directly to households in Kent.
Aboard Captain Alan’s ship
The crew had some wonderfully interesting characters which really added to the whole experience. Captain Alan was a 72 year old local boy from Kent who runs an extremely tight ship.
His well organised galley kitchen impressed me. Everything was tied down to stop it slipping around in rough seas.
There was always a freshly boiled kettle for the never ending cups of tea.
Captain Alan took the time to speak to everyone on board the sailing. With two sailing trainees he could afford to take a little post lunch nap, propped up against the window of the wheelhouse .
Red Sands Fort – our final stop
It wasn’t long before we were visiting the last site of the day, Red Sands Fort.
Red Sands had had some investment thanks to the charity’s efforts to restore it. One of the Forts on this site is now accessible with the help of a winch. This allows army trainees and film companies to access on a regular basis. (I found out that The Prodigy filmed a video here in 2008. They also visited another favourite location of mine, Dungeness, for the same video).
Every single structure on each Fort site will take at least £1m of investment to make safe again. Given that there are 11 structures on just Shivering Sands and Redsands, it seems like a valiant but futile battle against entropy. But I greatly admire the fighting spirit!
All in all, it’s an amazing day of exploration – highly recommended as an off the beaten track adventure. My favourite Fort was Shivering Sands, partly because of the pirate radio history that Bob told us about.
The tour was excellent value considering the experience. It felt good knowing that my cash was going to support the charity which looks after the Forts, too.
How to organise a trip to the Maunsell Forts
X-Pilot’s Grand Forts Tour is a 7 to 8 hour boat trip departing from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.
The sailings take place on occasional days between April and October and they cost between £69 and £89. Book in advance: only 12 people are permitted per sailing, and places sell quickly. X-pilot can organise local accommodation for you to enable you to make the 8.45am sailing. However I found it cheaper to use Airbnb.
Bear in mind it’s a 7 to 8 hour trip on the North Sea, which can be rough at times. It’s advisable to take some sea sickness medication before boarding, if you feel you might benefit from this. Carry waterproof outer clothes and a change of clothes in case they get wet. Finally, make sure you pack enough food and water for the entire trip because meals are not provided.
More information on the Maunsell Forts:
- Book a sailing with X-pilot tours
- Learn about Project Redsand CIO, the charity which aims to restore Redsands Tower
- Learn about the Forts pirate radio histories
- Read about other destinations of interest to over 40 nomads
P.S. Would you like to get a free copy of my new eBook, Become location independent over 40? Get yours here.