350 years to this day, the Dutch finally withdrew from their daring raid on the Royal Navy’s fleet at Chatham. Also known as the Battle of Medway, the raid resulted in one of the most humiliating defeats the British have ever suffered in domestic waters.
The Dutch suffered only minimal losses, capturing and towing away HMS Royal Charles, flagship and pride of the Royal Navy, as well as HMS Unity. Reinforcing Dutch naval supremacy in the 17th-century, the Battle of Medway had far reaching global consequences – allowing the Dutch to strengthen their maritime empire and gain control of crucial sea trade-routes.
Yet, this crippling defeat was also an exercise in creative destruction. A pivotal moment in British military history, the Battle of Medway catalysed renewed investment in the Royal Navy, sowing the seeds of Britain’s future domination of the world’s oceans.
We went back to the original location of this game-changing conflict, and discovered that the history of the Dutch Raid is very much alive and kicking in Medway’s fantastically preserved historical sites.
This article explores the exciting array of military history exhibitions on show in Medway. To read more about the Battle of Medway itself, click here. To find out more about this year’s Battle of Medway 350th anniversary celebrations, visit www.visitmedway.org/events/223817/?key=battle-of-medway-2017.
The Historic Dockyard Chatham
The Dockyard at Chatham has been hugely important to the development of the Royal Navy. From the 1600s onwards, it was the bustling nexus of England’s shipping industry.
Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, was built here, as was HMS Temeraire, the iconic subject of Turner’s celebrated painting, The Fighting Temeraire.
Nelson, of course, was a frequent visitor to the Dockyard, as was Turner – who found much inspiration for his turbulent maritime scenes amongst the waters of the Medway.
Given this distinguished historical significance, the Dockyard is a must-see for anyone with an interest in heritage, with a wide array of exhibits on public display.
The dry docks are now home to three historic warships, all open for public viewing: HMS Gannet, a sloop of the Victorian Royal Navy, built on the Medway; HM Submarine Ocelot, the last vessel of the Royal Navy to be built at Chatham; and HMS Cavalier.
Command of the Oceans, the new permanent exhibition at the Dockyard, is also not to be missed. It chronicles Britain’s rise as the world’s dominant maritime power, with a video introduction presented by none other than Fiona Bruce. Highlights include a brilliant scale model of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, and the remnants of the timber frame of 90-gun ship of the line, HMS Namur.
Above: Scale model of Nelson’s HMS Victory, built at Chatham.
The star of the show at the Dockyard, however, is undoubtedly the Victorian Ropery, still functioning after 400 years. Here, audiences can watch live demonstrations of rope being manufactured using 19th-century techniques. We got an exclusive insider-view on the process:
A hugely important element of Britain’s national heritage, this is just a small preview of the brilliant range of exhibits the Dockyard has to offer. To do real justice to the Dockyard, you must pay a visit to the site itself.
After the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Medway, Britain began pouring money into improving her naval defences. Fort Amherst was constructed to provide defensive coverage of Chatham, so that the humiliations inflicted by the Dutch could never be repeated. Plans for the Fort were drawn up in 1708, and construction began in 1755.
An interlaced network of tunnels that run deep underground and into the hills, Fort Amherst holds the keys of a hidden history of warfare harking back to the Napoleonic era.
Visitors are thrown into pitch black darkness as they enter the Fort’s ghostly passages. The first underground chambers hold the remnants of a WWII dorm-room, arranged exactly as it had been when Fort Amherst was used as a headquarters for the Anti-Invasion Planning Unit and Civil Defence for North Kent.
Most of the volunteers that manned the headquarters were, in fact, women, and the rough cut beds, simple latrines, and cold, chalky walls of the dormitories shed a glimpse into life as Civil Defence volunteer.
As you continue through the tunnels, the control, communication, and map rooms remain with many of their original equipment intact. The air-raid warning sirens, if activated, still sound.
We were lucky enough to be given a demonstration of the alarm in action – a truly spine-chilling experience. As the shrill wails of the siren echoed through the immense network of underground tunnels and caves that comprise the Fort, the terrifying atmosphere that must have filled the walls during a real WWII air-raid was recreated.
Further along in this subterranean labyrinth, many individual Napoleonic defence features can be seen. From cleverly crafted iron gates and musket holes, to well-positioned cannons overlooking crumbling ramparts, the rich military significance of the Fort must be witnessed to be appreciated.
Our final stop was Upnor Castle, positioned across the river and slightly upstream from the Dockyard at Chatham. An Elizabethan artillery fort, it too was expected to defend the Dockyard from river-borne attacks, spectacularly failing to do so during the Dutch Raid of 1667.
Despite its hapless defence during the raid, the castle’s rich history is still worthy of a visit. It exchanged hands twice during the English Civil Wars, and remnants of frescoes from its original use as a Tudor fort remain. After the defeat on the Medway, the Castle was used as an ammunition depot. A particular gem is the exquisitely crafted spiral stairwell leading out of the gunpowder room – featuring lead-lined handles to prevent any friction or sparks from igniting the castle into flames.
Don’t miss the audio-visual model of the Battle of Medway tucked away in a corner of the gunpowder room. The model narrates the battle in rich, deep tones, whilst the landscape of Chatham is lit up with fire and explosions.
With Rochester Castle a stone’s throw away, as well as the intriguing Russian submarine, U-475 Black Widow, floating on the Medway nearby, this is far from an exhaustive list of the brilliant military historic sites available to view at Chatham.
And last but not least…leisure!
If you’re planning a weekend away in Medway, there’s plenty of relaxation to squeeze in between museum visits. The Copper Rivet Distillery (pictured above), a short walk from the Dockyard, provides excellent tours and gin-tasting sessions, in the setting of a beautifully restored Victorian warehouse. Try out their signature gin and tonics with a slice of grapefruit at the bar!
Next to Upnor Castle you will find a selection of charming, quaint streets to meander along; with a fine selection of pubs and restaurants. You can also take a cruise along the river, following the course of the Dutch ships during the original raid on the Medway, and passing by all the landmark sites discussed in this article.
Finally, we were lucky enough to receive exclusive Archery lessons at Arethusa Venture Centre, an ex-naval training camp that now provides team-building and adventure activities to a wide array of groups and individuals.
With all the above on offer – Medway certainly hits the spot as the perfect weekend holiday destination!