In the possession of the writer is an iron key thought to have been used by Lt. Col. Charles G. Gordon (later General of Khartoum fame) during his stay at New Tavern Fort in Gravesend from 1865-71 when acting as Commanding Royal Engineer for the Thames District.
Gordon lived for part of his time as C.R.E. at Fort House at the back of the fort, for which this was a key. The words’ FORT. HSE ENT’ were marked into a special infill inserted subsequent to the manufacture of the key.
From handling the key and with a little imagination, it is possible to feel a connection with a great Briton who may once have used it to enter his home.
Fort House no longer exists, having been demolished following damage received from enemy action during the Second World War but his office in Commercial Place survives, having been converted into a private residence. There is a commemorative statue of Gordon in nearby Gordon Pleasure Gardens.
New Tavern Fort (armed from the 1780s-1908) on Gravesend’s riverside displays a regionally important collection of 12 pieces of historic artillery. All are relevant to the site, whether as authentic re-arming of its phases of development or representative of other defences in the district at various dates. The Historic Defences Committee have been pleased to respond to a request from their friends at the fort with an offer of guidelines for continuing maintenance for the guns. This follows information supplied by the HDC at an earlier stage.
The fort is well worth a visit. This is both because of the display of guns and on account of the innovative way in which the magazines have been historically refurnished and re-equipped. Details of the opening dates and times for the August-September period will be advised.
The history and archaeology of a Cold War bunker at Gravesend: a research and reporting project
It has been a remarkable – and at times exciting – journey, beginning with the discovery in 1990 of a 13-room Cold War Civil Defence Control Centre under Woodlands Park, Gravesend. This was built in 1954 and maintained during the first half of the Cold War as a command post for the coordination of local civil defence forces in the event of an air attack, whether by conventional or nuclear weapons.
The second step along the way was a proposal in 1995 by the New Tavern Fort Project (later renamed Thames Defence Heritage) to the owner, Gravesham Borough Council, for a voluntary project to restore and refurnish the bunker for public access. An enlightened council readily granted permission, leading to historical research to better understand the building and to inform restored layouts. Parallel with this was a programme to collect appropriate historical artefacts and furnishings, sometimes involving long trips and challenging extractions from holes in the ground as well as from other bunkers no longer required by central or local government. Before long the council generously funded the introduction of emergency lighting, a fire detection and alarm system, partial rewiring, as well as other works
The bunker received its first visitors in 2000 but its refurnishing and display continued to be strengthened. Following discussions with Chris Pond MP, during 2004 (the bunker’s 50thanniversary year) a formal museum opening ceremony was attended by an Attaché from the Russian Embassy who helped unveil a commemorative plaque with the builder of the bunker, George Rattray. A little later and thanks to negotiations between Adam Holloway MP and the Ministry of Defence a menacing nuclear bomb casing was delivered for display to visitors. The bunker became the most fully refurnished bunker of its type in Britain, made accessible to the public by volunteer guides from Thames Defence Heritage. Its visitation went from strength to strength. The Second World War-like ambience of the early Cold War period refurnishing led to the bunker becoming a backdrop to part of a Sean Bean motion picture, Age of Heroes. However, more recently ground water penetration and flooding has led to temporary closure for remedial works. Thames Defence Heritage and Gravesham Borough Council hope to re-open the bunker to visitors in 2015.
Although during his time as Director of Thames Defence Heritage the writer produced a research-based visitor booklet on the bunker, he is well-advanced with the preparation of an academic study, also for publication. This should be helpful in strengthening and varying informational and interpretive outputs for this site at a number of levels. He is delighted that former senior staff from emergency planning teams (who are also members of the Historic Defences Committee) as well as specialists from English Heritage have agreed to participate. There may be others. It is the aim to include enhanced graphics to further interpret the bunker, including a cut-away view of the interior, peopled as though in operational use. Supplementing this may also be a strip cartoon of a ‘what-if’ scenario.
The writer thanks members of Thames Defence Heritage and Gravesham Borough Council for their steadfast support and participation in the historic development of the Cold War bunker for public access.
Formerly Director of Thames Defence Heritage
Any enquiries about obtaining a copy of the visitor booklet should be addressed to Sandra Soder of Thames Defence Heritage – firstname.lastname@example.org