“I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” — Queen Elizabeth I to the troops at Tilbury waiting to battle the Spanish Armada, 1588
Queen Elizabeth I gave this speech astride a magnificent steed and clad in armor, inspiring her troops to battle and all the people of England to see her as their true sovereign. Earlier this year, I tried to repeat some of these stirring words while standing approximately where she might have stood, but I was clad in a soaked-through raincoat and inspiring seagulls to give me a wide berth. Otherwise, pretty much the same thing.
By the end of March, Liz and I had decided our next English Heritage adventure would be to Tilbury Fort, built along the Thames estuary as one of several lines of defense against an attack by sea. There were earlier versions of a fort here, but the first permanent one was built under Henry VIII; he kept antagonizing France so much that he became concerned they might try to invade, so he got serious about defense. It was reinforced under Elizabeth I and Charles II, left to a lesser role for a while, and then had one last hurrah during World War II before being decommissioned and turned into a museum site.
So on a rainy Sunday, we took a train out to Tilbury town. We walked out of the station and into a bizarre world where literally not a single store was open, there appeared to be no pubs in the entire town (which I would have thought impossible if not downright illegal in the UK), and the Canadian flag flew outside the local council building. What had we done? What would Essex do to us?
Essex would soak us in endless amounts of rain and send us down the side of a fast two-lane road with no shoulder to walk on, that’s what it would do. We took a turn that we thought would lead us to a pub, but it just took us past a bunch of houses and onto Ford Road, which sounded promising but was still further away than if we’d just stuck to the main road from the train station. Still, better forge ahead, so we pulled up the hoods on our rain jackets and marched on.
Horses and ponies dotted the side of the road, squeezed onto tiny patches of muddy land, hemmed in by flimsy netted fencing. Bits of hay were strewn on the ground, and a few plants tried to grow, but mostly the poor animals were mucking about in mud. Liz fed one of them an apple from her pocket, which seemed an appropriate offering to these guardians along the road, before we carried on.
We walked along a small ridge, with the road on one side and a watery ditch on the other. Cars rushed by at 50 miles an hour, and rain sluiced down my glasses, leaving me partially sighted. The wind tried to push me into the ditch, but I had new boots and came to no harm, which will surprise everyone who has ever met me or heard of my misadventures. No, I didn’t fall down or twist an ankle. I just walked a couple miles out of my way in the driving rain and arrived at my destination already exhausted. The glories of travel!
World’s End is a pretty popular name for pubs in England, but by the time we stumbled upon the Tilbury one, a stone’s throw from the fort, the name obviously felt more appropriate than ever. We fortified ourselves with a giant meal, and it was only as we were leaving for the fort that I realized I’d gone native–normally after all that walking, the first thing I’d want would be a giant glass of water with my meal, but in Britain people generally have a sedate beer and no water with pub meals, and I’d done just that without even thinking about it.
After all that, we still had a fort to visit. English Heritage has left the main courtyard mostly empty, except for a couple large cannons and machine guns, and from what I understand, historical re-enactors sometimes gather here for shows. Along one side, a row of buildings that used to house officers now holds creepy mannequins dressed in military uniform, as well as a cache of weapons on display.
Along the back of the courtyard sits the warehouse where cannons and gunpowder were kept. There are apparently a few underground tunnels, but those were closed when we visited. If you climb up the small grassy hills at the corners of the fort, you have a good view of the flat land all around you, or if you’re on the southern end, the Thames as it flows out to sea.
The fort was nearly empty the whole time we were there, which was unsurprising given the weather. So it was a bleak and bare visit, requiring a lot of imagination to see the fort full of the noise and hustle of soldiers. Up on the southern rampart, we found that the heavy guns left over from World War II could still be swung about, and the handles cranked in order to move the barrel of the gun up and down. So we sighted a large ship making its way up the estuary, and that is the closest I got to seeing things from a soldier’s point of view.
I certainly didn’t see the fort from Queen Elizabeth I’s point of view, because she actually gave her speech outside the fort, where the troops were assembled. But looking out over the Thames and the surrounding landscape, I thought I would still give such a speech if I were her. Even with rain drizzling down the back of my neck, even looking at the flatness of Essex and the gray dullness of the Thames, I still felt a strong affection for this country. I was almost thrown to the ground by the wind as we walked back to the train station, and it took the entire trip back to London to get even a little dry, but that’s the kind of bracing walk you take here before a pot of tea and a packet of biscuits puts you right when you return home.
Hail Britannia is the title I settled on for posts about the British adventures I’m having while living in London. It covers London and non-London locations alike. It has a pleasing ring to it but doesn’t, I hope, make us dwell too much on ‘Rule, Britannia,’ not least because I am neither in the Royal Navy nor pro-imperialism.