This is a story of an iconic battle you’ve probably never heard of which took place on a river you’ve also probably never heard of. Curious? Then let us take you on a journey through history to the Battle of Medway.

Upnor Castle, Battle of Medway, Chatham, Kent

Rivers are historical points of reference. Many great empires have risen or fallen around them. Think Nile (Egypt), Tigris (Mesopotamia) and Danube (Rome).

River Medway in Chatham, Kent may not be as illustrious but it forms the backdrop to an important event which became a watershed in British Naval history.

 

Medway, Kent: A Day trip away from London

Chatham sits along the River Medway. Together with Rochester, Gillingham, Rainham and Strood, these towns form Medway Council, Kent. Thanks to a super-fast South Eastern service from London St. Pancras station, we were at Chatham station within 40 minutes.

Our story begins at the Historic Dockyard Chatham, a museum that records over 400 years of British naval and maritime history. Fans of the show ‘Call the Midwife’ may recognise it as the setting for that gritty BBC drama series.

Call The Midwife, Historic Dockyard Chatham, Kent

The museum, spread across an expansive 80 acres, is home to the highest concentration of historical buildings in the UK and offers insights into some of the most iconic ships in British naval history.

HDYTI Tip: Visitors to the Historic Dockyard Chatham can also see the UK’s only surviving Victorian rope-making factory which still uses techniques and technology from the 19th century.

Over a coffee, Alex Patterson, curator and the man-in-charge of visitor experiences, began to unpack centuries of history. His calm demeanour masked a keen mind. His eyes lit up as he narrated the events from the reign of King Charles II (1630 – 1685) that led to the most humiliating defeat of the Royal Navy in British waters.

Now, you’re not alone if you can’t always tell your Charles I’s from your Charles II’s. Neither can we. However, noteworthy events that happened during Charles II’s reign include the Great Plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666).

HMS Gannet, Historic Dockyard Chatham, Ket

These tragic events, along with battles for supremacy against the Dutch and King Charles’s own hedonistic tendencies, greatly depleted the British treasury and weakened the navy.

This is where the story gets darker…

HDYTI Tip: As part of events to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Medway, The Historic Dockyard Chatham will host an international art exhibition titled ‘Breaking the Chain’ (9 June – 3 September 2017).

 

The Battle of Medway…

Sunset was approaching when we arrived at Upnor Castle after hanging out at Chatham Dockyard.

Upnor Castle, located down river from Chatham, on the banks of the River Medway, was built as a fortress to defend the dockyard from attack.

Upnor Castle, Battle of Medway, Chatham, Kent

With its strategic location along the River Medway, Chatham suited the purpose of building, repairing and resupplying ships.

The tragic events in London coincided with the period of the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the Dutch and the British mostly jostled for bragging rights over lucrative trading routes.

Looking to deal a decisive blow in the war, the Dutch hatched a plan to attack the Royal Navy by sailing up the Medway towards Chatham. In June 1667, the Dutch, led by Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter began their attack. The Battle of Medway began.

The Battle of Medway, Tocht Naar Chatham

Battle of Medway illustrations by Kevin Clarkson and provided by Medway Council

Upnor Castle’s small garrison went into action. Unfortunately, they failed to stop the Dutch who succeeded in sinking much of the British fleet.

To further rub salt into British wounds, the Dutch captured the navy’s flagship vessel (HMS Royal Charles), towing it away as their prize. A piece of that vessel is preserved in Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum.

Following a quick tour, we gathered on the castle’s water bastion to enjoy clear views of the Chatham Marina. The setting sun and the calm waters of the River Medway slapping against the castle’s walls lulled us into thoughts of the tumultuous events that took place here, 350 years earlier.

The Battle of Medway

HDYTI Tip: A ‘Battle of Medway’ exhibition opens at Upnor Castle from 1 June 2017. On 17 June, the castle will relieve its darkest moment. ‘Medway in Flames’ will bring the commemoration activities to a climax and will feature a spectacular dramatisation of the Dutch raid.

 

The turning point for the British Navy

Following that infamous defeat on British waters, the government invested heavily into the Royal Navy, transforming it into the international superpower that went on to reshape the world for the next 200 years.

HMS Victory, Dockyard Chatham, The Battle of Medway

New, stronger and faster ships were built with a mission to protect, destroy and discover in the name of the British empire. New forts were built to protect Chatham Dockyard from future land-based and river raids. Fort Amherst (part of the ‘Chatham Lines’ set of defences), Britain’s largest Napoleonic fortress, was built in that period.

Our guide, an enthusiastic local volunteer who was also part of a local group of history re-enactors, took us through the fort’s tunnel complex. Our voices bounced off the chalkstone walls, creating echoes as we explored hidden wells, dark passages and ancient graffiti. Paraphernalia used by North Kent’s Civil Defence Corps during WW2 attested to the fort’s more recent use as an air-raid coordination centre.

Nowadays, Fort Amherst serves as a training ground for local army regiments and hosts ‘ghost tours’ and weddings. It has withstood the test of time to serve as a marker of a defining period in British naval history.

 

A family-run distillery repurposes a piece of history

The age of timber and sails eventually gave way to the era of iron and steam. Chatham Dockyard continued its record of innovation as it embraced the industrial revolution.

Eventually, in 1984, the dockyard closed for ship building. Some of its buildings including, ‘Pump House No. 5’ (originally housing hydraulic equipment supplying power to drain dry docks) were put up for sale.

Copper Rivet Gin Distillery, Chatham, Medway

An entrepreneur spotted an opportunity to repurpose the pump house into the Copper Rivet Gin Distillery where today, cutting-edge technology is employed to handcraft gin, whisky and vodka from ‘grains-to-glass’.

Following a tour of the family-run distillery, we settled in for a gin tasting session and took a moment to reflect on the history surrounding us.

HDYTI Tip: Grab a bite to eat at McGuire’s, a restaurant producing tasty food using local Kent ingredients before visiting the Copper Rivet Gin Distillery next door.

 

Why is the Battle of Medway important?

Before leaving Chatham, we had a chance to retrace part of the route of the Dutch attack. After our gin tasting session, we boarded the Jacob Marley, a sightseeing vessel piloted by JetStream Tours.

The Battle of Medway, Jetstream Tours on the River Medway

The ride offered a unique opportunity to enjoy an on-river view of Upnor Castle, Fort Amherst and Chatham Dockyard; each one a reference point for the little-known Battle of Medway.

Seasoned travellers often say that that the places you’ve never heard (some of which might be regarded as off-the-beaten-path) usually provide the most unusual experiences and leave more lasting impressions.

The 350th commemoration activities will come and go. However, what remains significant is the contribution of places like Chatham, Kent to the rich tapestry of British history.

Battle of Medway, Dockyard Chatham, Kent

Kent, as the ‘garden of England’, with its close proximity to London provides a lot of options for those willing to explore. Archery, fishing, and hiking the British countryside are just some of the outdoor activities on offer.

We love London! However, getting away from the city can uncover some interesting experiences…and battles you’ve probably never heard of.

 

For more information and travel tips

The 350th anniversary of Battle of Medway.

Planning day trips to the ‘Garden of England’, Kent.

Other UK staycation ideas – Exploring Art, History and Luxury in Ipswich, Suffolk

Disclaimer: We visited Medway, Kent on a press trip. Transfers, accommodation, meals and experiences were organised by Four Communications. However, all views and opinions remain ours. Our sincere thanks go to the staff at Dockyard Chatham and all the other organisations mentioned in this article for sharing their stories with us.

 

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Copper Rivet Gin Distillery, Chatham, Medway

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).

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