I’ve long been obsessed by the Isle of Grain – the name, the idea of it
– although I’d never been there. I even wrote a poem about it, informed by a
painting by David Harker. David had never been there either (he’d based the
painting on a photograph he’d been given) so together we entered into an
imaginative speculation about this magical weird spot, a misnomer (the name is
derived from the Old English greon meaning gravel), the end
of the world.
Because sometimes art is better for not having had the experience, just
imagining what it might be like. Why get hung up on truth?
But this Monday I finally, physically,
arrived in Grain – by bus, in the company of Steve Perfect (http://www.steveperfect.com/)
and other artists (including Mike Nelson and Adam Chodzko)
/ keen psychogeographers. I can report that it truly does feel like the end of the world; although
it’s now linked to the land, it has the aloof air of somewhere cut-off, on the
We began our walk at the footpath at the end
of the tarmacked road, which follows the sea barrier along the coast. Across
the water at Sheerness, Garrison Point Fort
was to our right, and, just over the ridge, Grain Power Station
to our left. The power station was decommissioned in 2012 and is in the process
of being torn down; its chimney remains (the second-tallest power station
chimney in the UK). One of our group said the locals had protested against its
demolition. You could argue it’s a strange structure to love, a reminder of our
grim nuclear history, not worth preserving. But if you had grown up in its
shadow, and it had represented work and prosperity, you might begin to
understand its symbolism. And besides, it’s rather beautiful, with its gently
tapered base, imposing in a stark landscape where there are few defining
features. Like Grain’s answer to the Shard.
As we walked, we could begin to see our destination looming in the distance, forlorn and imposing: the Grain Tower Battery. There are many Martellos, mysterious squat structures that dot the east coast of England, mostly along the curved shore of Kent and Sussex. They were constructed to keep Napoleon at bay, over two hundred years ago. But the tower at Grain is unique; its Martello-style base was built slightly later, in 1855, to protect the nearby Sheerness and Chatham dockyards from possible attack by France. It was added to during both the First and Second World Wars, so what remains is an odd, slightly thrown-together construction, like something a kid might make if he’d gone mad with Lego. It has the best address in the world – Number One Thames, and sits in prime position, at the point where the Thames and the Medway meet. It is bunker and fairy castle combined, its brick and concrete daubed in graffiti, but undeniably beautiful, in a sort of butch, brutalist way.
As soon as we saw it, we had to get out there. The tower is accessed along
a stone causeway that joins it to the foreshore, only passable at low tide. We
started across, wading through the thick mud that sucked at our boots, making
slow but steady progress.
What makes these strange, set-alone places so
alluring? Often, it’s simply the challenge of reaching them (our journey to the
tower at the easier level of achievement). Once there, it’s the promise of
solitude, in this case, an opportunity to feel as if we’d stepped into the sea,
with all the secrecy of codes and campaigns that the tower suggests.
The urban explorer Bradley Garrett made a
point of getting stranded at Grain Tower at high tide: http://www.bradleygarrett.com/our-own-private-island/. Even
more extreme was artist Stephen Turner’s thirty-six days in isolation at
Shivering Sands, one of the incredible sea forts in the Thames Estuary: http://www.seafort.org/theproject.html. It
was enough for us to touch the heavy bomb-proof walls, to climb the makeshift
ladder into the upper levels of the lookout, and stare across the estuary to the
Perhaps we also crave a notion of safety. We live in frightening times, and these coastal defenses were built to last, built to deter intruders, still standing to purpose two hundred years on. We find them romantic, windswept and lonely, looking out to sea, but they were symbols of defiance and fear, born from our panic that the channel wasn’t wide enough to repel the French.
And now we make them into desirable homes. Even
as the power station is demolished, Grain Tower Battery is being repurposed. It
has just been sold for £500,000, and may be turned into an exclusive residence,
or maybe a hotel or nightclub. And so another reason for our desire is to see
these places before they are modernised beyond recognition, always more
beautiful as ruin than when made whole again.