On an overcast and cool morning in early summer, I climbed aboard the X-Pilot vessel moored in the river Medway in Rochester for a 6-hr round trip to the seven Maunsell sea forts at Redsand, situated at the mouth of the Thames estuary some six miles from the Kent and Essex shorelines. Assembled in 1943, the Redsand forts were one part of a larger series of defensive marine fortifications to protect London and Liverpool from German bombing raids; these included a similar group of seven forts at nearby Shivering Sands, four naval forts also in the Thames estuary, and three more in the Mersey estuary in northwest England. The Maunsell sea forts – named after their designer Guy Maunsell – are the more striking of the structures in terms of their visual appearance. They are made up of four precast concrete legs sunk into the seabed and which support a steel box-like superstructure that used to contain all the accommodation and defence equipment, mainly large guns to bring down German aircraft. During the Second World War, each fort housed up to 265 men for weeks at a time, the seven identical structures linked by tubular steel catwalks, creating what might well have been the strangest streetscape in the world.
For the visitor approaching from the Medway estuary, the Redsand forts first appear as a group of vague smudges on the horizon which very gradually grow larger and larger until, all of a sudden, one is upon them. Even in their current dilapidated condition – the walkways long collapsed, the gun placements broken off, and the steel boxes stained red with rust – they are still striking structures. They are both alien in their improbable location and uncanny similarity to the merciless tripods in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and familiar in their anthropomorphic appearance and simple formal arrangement. For a while, the boat circled and passed between the forts in a slow dance, while the dozen or so passengers took photographs. It was a moment of shared wonder at the audacity and strangeness of these marine human habitats, long abandoned but still possessing a charismatic hold on the imagination. They summoned up both the dream of living autonomously, free from the enmeshing webs of conventional life, but also the nightmare of what must have been a prison-like existence for the hundreds of men who were once forced to live on them. With the UK Referendum on its continued membership of the European Union just around the corner, such feelings took on an especial relevance, the EU flag gracing the toilet seat in the boat indicating in no uncertain terms where the owner’s sympathies lay.
In one sense, it’s the dream of autonomy that has characterised the forts’ history since they were decommissioned at the end of the Second World War. At this time, the Mersey forts were demolished but the Thames groups were left standing, even as, from 1958, they were abandoned by the Ministry of Defence to the elements and the occasional plucky scavenger. From then on, a host of people have claimed the forts for themselves, from the pirate radio stations of the 1960s (one of the Redsand forts was occupied by Radio K.I.N.G. for 6 months in 1965) to the artist Stephen Turner, who inhabited one of the identical group of forts at Shivering Sands for 36 days in 2005, the time period corresponding to a tour of duty in the fort during the Second World War. The fate of the nearby naval fort of Roughs Tower became bound up most notoriously with such freedom-loving dreams when, in September 1967, it was declared the sovereign nation of Sealand by Roy Bates and his family. Contested by many, the family have nevertheless occupied the fort to this day and issued their own currency and passports for the world’s smallest country.
My own trip was organised by Project Redsand, a group of volunteers who have acquired the seven forts at Redsand and are now trying to secure financial backing to conserve and re-appropriate them. With plans to convert the towers into a variety of new uses – a recording studio for musicians, a wartime and broadcast museum, a base for seawater experiments, a military training facility, or even an astronomy centre – the Project has created a safe access ladder to one of the forts on which volunteers now work. In memory of the spirit of freedom that characterised the pirate radio stations, the Project carried out its first broadcast from the renovated fort in July 2007. Yet, the lure of freedom can be dangerous: on 25 February 2012, a fisherman drowned and another had to winched to safety by an RAF helicopter after the pair had tried to board the Redsand fort for an impromptu barbecue.
A recent proposal by Aros Architects to turn the derelict forts into a luxury resort, complete with executive apartments, a sea spa and helipad for guests, highlights how libertarian dreams of escape from society are always in danger of being coopted by the social elite for their own isolationist dreams. Within this elitist libertarian dream, the progressive utopian social ideals that might have taken hold in the 1960s have been hollowed out into a romanticisation of the marine environment as an inviolate retreat from the socio-political realities across the world today. It’s not that the desire for a room of one’s own is inherently regressive, but rather that we must always understand that perfect security is only ever to be found in the imagination; even miles out to sea, the world will still be connected to us. Roy Bates’s island-state Sealand shows what happens when those wider connections are severed. He may live now in inviolate isolation but, as every healthy person knows, it’s precisely our lack of a hard protective shell – our vulnerablity – that in the end draws us into a larger world that encourages us to share and allows us to grow.