Gravesham Civil Defence Bunker

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Hats off to the team of volunteers from Thames Defence Heritage, who have rescued this chilling piece of modern history and restored it to how it might have been, back in the days of the Cold War. This 13-room Civil Defence command centre was built in 1954 in Woodlands Park, Gravesend and remained in service until 1968. I visited the bunker today with Ruth. We were given a really well-informed guided tour, followed by plenty of time to explore and look at the individual exhibits in more detail. We sat beside a WE177 air-dropped bomb whilst our guides described aspects of the bunker.

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These 3 metre long, versatile monsters, destined to be dropped from Vulcan bombers, formed the basis of Britain’s early nuclear deterrent capability. The WE177 itself is a delivery vehicle, capable of transporting a variety of payloads. In ICBM mode it can carry a 10 kiloton thermonuclear warhead to devastate an area 3.4 km in diameter. In Piñata mode it can distribute up to 550 kg of Spangles and Opal Fruits over a similar area. Sadly, the latter option was never put to the test.

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Following our introductory presentation, we visited the ‘Message Room’ where, back in the day, if the bomb had gone off, cyclists would have delivered urgent messages from around the borough.

 

Directly opposite, across the spine corridor, is the plant room. The original generator is long gone but the fresh air system still works just fine off the mains. We were shown a genuine 1954 asbestos based filter, intended to remove harmful (radioactive) particles from the air. The rooms on the left of the corridor comprise the female dormitory and male and female Elsan based toilets.

It’s a peculiarly British thing that with hell on Earth going on outside, with friends and relations literally left dying on the streets, the authorities still felt the need to have segregated toilets. Yet there was insufficient space for a guardroom or any form of dedicated military presence.

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The female dormitory has just four bunks. When the facility was operational, these would have served 16 female staff. The arithmetic for the men’s dormitory, across the corridor is similar: six beds for 24 male staff. The final small room, next to the emergency exit, was the home of the Clerk of the Works.

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The Clerk of the Works was ultimately in charge of the bunker and it was he who had to set priorities or decide where to send the last fire engine. Three individuals filled the rôle, working a shift system to maintain 24 hour cover. The bunker at Gravesend was cast to represent the Cabinet War Room in a film, Age of Heroes, in 2011. James D’arcy played the part of the officer in charge. Across the spine corridor are the operations rooms and communications facilities.

Orders and observations were expected to arrive by telephone (as well as by bicycle) and here they would have been decoded and interpreted, then written onto notes and passed through a hatch to the control room. The Control Room is the heart of the facility, where following a nuclear strike, difficult decisions would have to be made. Representatives of the local authority, Police, Fire Brigade, NHS, utilities companies and Army would have all been based in this room. To get an idea what it might have been like, watch Threads (1984), probably the scariest and most realistic ‘after the bomb’ movie ever made.

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The Control Room has been set up by members of Thames Defence Heritage to recreate the environment as it would have been in the Cold War, just add a couple of dozen stressed people and remember that 80% of them would have been smoking. The volunteers have managed to bring together a truly unique collection of contemporary period stuff to help us understand what it might have been like. There are two blast calculator devices which I have never seen on display anywhere else. Does anybody know how to use these?

Everywhere there are books giving instructions and government advice. All of which are freely available for the visitor to pick up and read.

This facility is the most informative and best presented example of the local government aspect of ‘after the bomb’ Cold War Britain that I have yet seen. It is open once a month and you have to book in advance with the local tourist office to buy tickets. Not to be missed if you like this kind of thing.

 

 

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The Tower Subway

Well I like to think I know my way around London but I was totally unaware of this particular feat of Victorian engineering. About 200 metres upstream from Tower Bridge, there’s a tunnel under the Thames. Built as a pedestrian walkway in 1869, this 410 metre long tunnel has a diameter of just 2 metres. It was dug by hand, behind a small tunnelling shield. Digging progressed quickly, with the shield advancing an average of  11 metres each week, the tunnel being completed in under a year.

The whole project never came close to being a financial success and was totally scuppered by the building of Tower Bridge. 220px-Tower_Subway_1870

After a series of financial difficulties, the owners closed the tunnel to the public and sold it to the London Hydraulic (water) Company, to route their pipes through. It is still used for the same purpose today.

There is no public access to the Tower Subway tunnel but I did find both ends:

The northern shaft breaks the surface on Tower Hill, just south of the tourist shop/toilets and is easily identified by this fine, circular brick structure at street level.

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The shaft at the southern end of the tunnel is less obvious. In fact I don’t know for certain that I have found it! I know that the southern shaft emerges in Vine Lane but Vine Lane has been absorbed into the smart, modern ‘More London’ development. All of the buildings in the area are in exactly the same style: glass, metal and textured black stone Except this one …

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I’m 99% certain that the above structure sits on top of the southern shaft of the Tower Subway. A rather bland and disappointing end to a small marvel of Victorian engineering.

If you’re interested in the Tower Subway, Wikipedia has a very good page here.

Brunel’s Thames Tunnel

Between  Rotherhithe and Wapping runs a 400 metres long, straight tunnel, now accommodating the London Overground railway (formerly the East London line).  This was the first tunnel to be put under a river, anywhere in the world. It was the brainchild of French (via USA) engineer, Marc Brunel, who was IKB’s father. Work commenced in 1825 but after just three months, the chief engineer for the project resigned. Marc Brunel appointed his nineteen year old son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (IKB) to complete the job. What a great opportunity for a young man. It took eighteen years.

Thames_tunnel_shieldBrunel invented the tunnelling shield, a heavy, rectangular  wrought iron frame. In this case, three compartments tall and twelve compartments wide, each compartment containing a single miner with a short handled spade (36 men digging through London Clay). These miners were assisted by an army of Irish labourers, who would barrow the spoil away.

When enough spoil (London Clay) had been carted away, the tunnelling shield would be jacked forward 4 inches (10 cm) and the bricklayers would move in to lay one more course of bricks, slowly creating two tunnels out of the one large rectangular bore.

This system was not without its problems. The river bed was just 5 metres above the brick ceiling of the tunnels and on five occasions during the 18 year construction, the river broke through.flld

Several  lives were lost but in 1843 the tunnel opened. On the first day 50,000 visitors paid 1d each to walk it’s length and experience this ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. It remained a pedestrian tunnel and a spectacle until 1865, when it was converted to railway use. In the later years before the railway took it over, the tunnels were used by prostitutes and as a refuge for homeless people. It remains a railway tunnel today and is a testament to the quality of the original Victorian brickwork.

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There is no longer any pedestrian access to the tunnel. Its twin tubes are now entirely the province of the London Overground railway. The best view you’re going to get is looking back from the northbound platform of Wapping Station (above).

The 15 meter diameter access shafts have both been capped off with steel and concrete but the shaft at Rotherhithe can be hired as a party/meetings venue or as a theatre space. There is a small but interesting Brunel Museum in the former pumping engine house at Rotherhithe.

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Wealdway – Hartlake to Leigh

Distance: 14.7 km

Steps: 27,734

Maps: OS Explorer 136, 147

Weather

The wood to the west of Hartlake Bridge is tiny. Maybe 200 metres x 50 metres. I selected the most covert, dry, sheltered spot and began to set up my basher at 8:30pm last night, just as the light began to fade. By 9:00pm it was full dark and my bivouac was complete. I got into bed and I was sound asleep within minutes. I awoke briefly around midnight to find that I had neighbours. One male and one female, two voices, talking very quietly, about 30 metres away I guess. I went back to sleep.

I was up soon after 06:00am and back on the trail before 07:00am. Walking west and eating the remains of my food as I went along, I soon reached Eldridge’s Lock.

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There are dozens of dog walkers about at this time of day. I got to Tonbridge just after 08:00am. The town is now much developed beside the river from the days we used to moor Kajani here (1989?). Luxury apartments now extend to just beyond Town Lock on the south bank and all the way to Cannon Bridge on the north bank. There are signs saying that you can still moor here at £5.00 per night but nobody was.

I carried on along the south bank and reached the town bridge. This was our highest navigable point on the Medway as our tiny mast wouldn’t go under the bridge. There’s a pub just here on the river where Matt Sankey used to DJ with vinyl.

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I paused for a breakfast bap in the grounds of Tonbridge Castle. I’ve got a blister on my left heel. That’s never happened before! I’ve been wearing these Meindl boots for two years now. I must be walking funny. I blame the Parkinson’s 😦

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Was tempted to ride the model railway but it seemed to bring me back to where I started from so I declined and carried on walking west past the rugby pitches.

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The Wealdway passes under the Tonbridge-London railway line and continues beside the Medway. There’s plenty of fish in the river along here. I’ll return for a day out. I walked another 4 km beside the river, lakes and flood defence measures, passing under the A21 dual carriageway. Then I reached Leigh where I got the train home to change my socks etc.

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Wealdway – Wrotham Heath to Hartlake

Distance: 24.1 km

Steps: 45,672

Maps: OS Explorer 148, 136

Weather

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Did you know that you can save 10% on the room rate at Premier Inn, just by booking a ‘saver’ reservation on your phone whilst standing at reception. They don’t tell you this unless you ask! Declined their kind offer of hot food for breakfast and departed the Premier Inn at 09:00am. I turned immediately left towards Platt. It’s a steady gentle gradient rising 50 metres over 1 km. A good start to warm up.

Laurel hedges abound in Platt as local residents attempt to distance themselves from Wealdway Walkers

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Before I succumbed to the temptations of a comfy bed and a hot bath last night, my wildcamping destination had been planned to be Shipbourne Forest in Crouch. I breakfasted there today. It’s not pretty: recently coppiced hazel and beech, some birch. Bit boggy here and there. I definitely had the most comfortable option.

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I walked south 3 km through Shipbourne Forest/Mereworth Woods. It’s a long, dry, pot-holed road and I met only two dog walkers. No other hikers. This brought me to Gower Hill, a pretty site maintained by the National Trust with outstanding views to the west and south on a clear day (which it was). The weather brought a few fluffy clouds but an otherwise clear sky.

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Another 2 km brought me to West Peckham, where Blake never saw an angel but there was a lone lawnmower man lovingly tending the tiny cricket green. I enjoyed an excellent cheese ploughman’s lunch sitting outside the ‘Swan on the Green’. There was no cricket today but the pub was very busy with lunchtime trade; locals and ramblers.

 

The signage and waymarking for the Wealdway has so far been excellent. With a keen eye for the signs you could walk the trail without a map/compass. I wouldn’t because for me, the map work is part of the fun. But that’s me.

There has been just one exception to this confident statement. Barnes Street. Here the sign points south down a drive and through a farmyard. The walker is directed through a field of sheep (with dire warnings for dog owners). The path fizzles out. I found myself on the wrong side of an irrigation ditch and had to back track. I had to walk round a ploughed field to reach a gate I’d identified on the map as leading down to the River Medway. Probably my error but I would have been in trouble without a map/compass.

I walked west for 1/2 km on the south bank to East Lock.

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Then crossed the river at the lock, where there are a pair of WW2 pillboxes, and walked another km to the west where the path ducks under Hartlake Bridge. There once was a tragedy on Hartlake Bridge. The modern bridge is made of concrete and steel and is of sturdy construction but it wasn’t always so. In 1853 the bridge was a rickety old wooden structure, much in need of maintenance. It collapsed while a cart of hop pickers was passing over it. 30 people sadly drowned in the river below. They were aged 2 to 59 and were all Romanis from one extended family.

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I made my camp in the woods 200 metres or so beyond the bridge. The overnight weather promised to be dry and there was no wind. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

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Wealdway- Gravesend to Wrotham Heath

Distance: 28.7 km

Steps: 51,938

Maps: OS Explorer 162, 148

Weather

Today has been the London marathon and St. George’s day. The weather has been ‘the hottest day since …’ Nice, but hard work for runners and walkers alike.

A big thank you to Nic, Lee and Iris for putting me up last night. Great barbecue. Iris has St. George’s Day Parade today. Hope all went well 😁.

I got up bright & early for the 08:22 train.

There was a carnival atmosphere on the train with every seat taken by marathon runners, friends and families. Standing room only 😃

I was early, ahead of my schedule, so I visited the Pocahontas memorial in Gravesend,

on my way to Gravesend Town Pier.

Gravesend is a charismatic town on a Sunday morning. Wetherspoon’s is already full with family guys out for an early cuppa.

Tightened my boots at this very spot and set off. I followed Wrotham Road out to the A2, which I crossed via the rabbit bridge then on to Ifield, Nurstead and Nash. Lunch in the (very friendly) Railway Inn at Sole Street.

From here I walked beside Camer Park (translates literally from the French: ‘Park to take drugs in’). Then south to Coldrum long barrow, maintained by the National Trust since 3800BC. Kelly Sands and I had a picnic lunch here, many years ago.

But for the modern wooden fencing, the view from Coldrum must have remained unchanged since neolithic times.

As I came to St Vincents near Addington, I heard the unmistakeable sound of live music. I judged it to be in a distant pub garden. But no, as I approached a lone house, I realised that the loud rock music was coming from inside a garage. I had heard it from at least a km away, pity the neighbours. It had been a long, hot day an had the option been available, I was have seriously considered calling a taxi. But I walked on. And so I reached Wrotham Heath, and much in need of a bath, food and a rest, I opted for the Premier Inn rather than wild camping in the woods, but heigh-ho, I’ll wild camp at Tonbridge tomorrow 😜

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The Wealdway

Distance: 134km

Cumulative elevation: 1,795 metres

I plan to help Lee on Saturday, then … glutton for punishment, I’m off on Sunday for another walk. This one departing from Gravesend and continuing south for 134km in the direction of Eastbourne 😎

Here’s a summary of the route, courtesy of fellow walker ‘the Walking Englishman’.

Summary: The Wealdway is a long distance footpath in south-east England which makes its way through three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and which connects the Thames Estuary with the English Channel through the Weald of Kent and Sussex. The Weald Way crosses chalk downlands, passes through river valleys and woodland (including Ashdown Forest) and across farmland. It links the North Downs Way at Trottiscliffe with the South Downs Way near to Eastbourne. There are also connections with other long distance routes including the Medway Valley Walk, Sussex Border Path and Diamond Way and the Greensand, Saxon Shore and Vanguard Ways. Some of the towns and villages visited on the route, from the beginning in Gravesend, include Sole Street, Vigo Village, Wrotham Heath, Platt, West Peckham, Tonbridge, Bidborough, Speldhurst, Fordcombe, Withyham, Fairwarp, Uckfield, East Hoathly and Hailsham before reaching the finish in Eastbourne.

I’ll try to keep this blog up to date as I go along next week 😜

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Snowdon

1,085 metres elevation. It’s been 9 years since I walked up Wales’s tallest mountain. We went up the Miner’s Track and down the Llanberis path.

We were blessed with cool dry weather which made the journey easy until we got to the scramble pictured above which added 110 metres of elevation and put us onto the Pyg Track with just 20 minutes to the summit.

I’m walking this weekend with 5 ladies. We summitted just after midday with all team members in high spirits. Everyone gave a good account of themselves, completing the 14 km route in 7 hours.

Average speed for the our group was almost identical to our practice performance on the North Downs Way. Which is good because today’s route was far steeper 😀.

New Tavern Fort

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New Tavern Fort, Milton, Gravesend was originally built in 1780, to complement the much older Tilbury Fort, to protect the Thames against marauding ships trying to reach London. The layout of the fortifications is much the same today but the armaments have been constantly updated as artillery technology has improved. From spherical iron shot fired from smooth bore barrels (up to 9″ diameter), to pointed cylindrical rounds (bullet shaped) fired from rifled barrels. Ultimately, breech loaded guns were used, having the longest range and greatest accuracy. During WW2, Bofors anti aircraft guns were installed.

Today the site is operated by the Thames Defence Heritage organisation, together with Gravesham Borough Council.

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The ‘tunnels’ at New Tavern Fort might more properly be called a corridor.

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The corridor is about a metre or so lower than ground level and it provides safe passage within the fortifications, for soldiers distributing shells and explosives to the gunners above.

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It links together twenty underground rooms and chambers, originally used to manufacture, store and distribute rounds and gunpowder charges. The shells were transferred up to the gunners by way of a manually operated lift.

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An interesting visit.

Belsize Park and Camden Town

Two more deep shelters.

Whilst in North London, locating ‘Paddock’, I took a quick look at the two northernmost deep shelters. Only at street level, there was no opportunity to go below. The Northern Line was closed for ‘planned engineering work’ so I photographed the surface buildings but could not enter the tube stations.

The northern entrance to Belsize Park shelter is the one first featured in Oliver Harris’s book, Deep Shelter. It is at the end of the alley beside Costa Coffee. It appears not to be in use at present but somebody must have the key to those grey metal doors. 200 yards or so down Haverstock Hill, at the junction with Downside Crescent is the southern entrance to the shelter. This is definitely in use. ‘Abbott Archive Storage’ have an office within the surface buildings and presumably they store their archives in the shelter tunnels.

 

The northern entrance to Camden Town shelter is in Buck Street, around the back of the tube station, adjacent to the covered market. It’s a very busy and vibrant area. It took me a while to find the other entrance though. It seems to have been absorbed by the Marks & Spencer car park in Underhill Street. The store was closed so I couldn’t absolutely verify the location but I spotted some familiar brickwork emerging over the back wall.

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