Our next explore takes us not far from our latest video at Rochester Castle, to a beautiful Elizabethan castle that stands on the north bank of the river Medway. Although it glorifies the name castle, Upnor is actually an artillery fort. Join us as we manage to wander the place alone and explore just what Upnor Castles history is made of.
Our first treat before entering the castle is walking along the stunning high street of Upnor, these houses are beautiful and I can imagine in the summer this is the place to be. The tiny homes and stores along the cobbled road, all in just a 200 metre walk and what’s great is the two traditional pubs on this high street, so a perfect place to stop in after visiting the fort for a pint or two in stunning and quiet surroundings.
The first building we enter after visiting the ticket office is the barracks of Upnor. They are an important element of the fort and the exact size of the garrison and the identities of the individuals that lived here are mostly unknown, but numbers that are recorded suggest that the barracks were for accommodation for two officers and 64 men. The conditions of the barracks were built for multipurpose and the men of upnor spent their downtime sleeping, drinking, smoking their daily pipes or gambling with cards and dice. The main job here was to guard the ammunition and powder that was stored in the castle. Before this building was built the men and their growing families would have worked, ate and lived in the magazine room in the main castle itself. The building is famed for being a rare example of the first generation of British Army Barracks. The pictures in the frames here are so interesting to see and the old blueprint of the castle itself is something to see.
Whilst reading the information we learnt about what the soldiers would have eaten and its said that the soldiers here were in no means starving, they were able to do a top up shop to their already daily rations of bread, meat, cheese and rice so were well fed. The officers didn’t make or cook their own meals; instead they would often visit the many local pubs along the high street. Interestingly once the soldiers had their rations portioned out, the food was boiled on the fires in the barrack block, there weren’t means then for baking or roasting and breakfast was always at 730am and dinner at 1230pm.
The Castle itself was built in 1559 as a gun fort to defend the Medway and the royal dockyards here at Chatham. In that effort the castle had proved ineffective, they allowed the Dutch to sail unobstructed towards Chatham and destroyed much of the fleet in 1667. The incredible story of the Dutch raid is told throughout the many exhibits and artefacts on display inside the castle which we will see later on. Elizabeth I established a naval dockyard at fleet anchorage at Chatham, this was to defend her warships at anchor in the reaches of the Medway and Upnor was the answer.
In 1559 the castle was built, under the direction of Sir Richard Lee. Lee’s design called for a stone keep defended by a pointed bastion jutting out into the river. The original castle was enlarged with a curtain wall on the landward side, defended by a ditch. Within the ditch was a large gatehouse, and a pair of towers were added, one on either side of the stone keep. By 1564, it housed twenty-three of the fleet’s largest ships.
Despite the landward defences, Upnor’s primary role was to fire on enemy ships sailing up the Medway, and it was never intended to repel a direct attack. Each tower had gun emplacements on several levels, providing lines of fire over the river and flanking fire along the walls. The main guns were installed on the triangular ‘water platform’ projecting into the river.
The design of the castle is unusual, especially the bastion, but this reflects the experimental nature of military design and building at the time. Technological advance and the need to set up defences further after the raid by the Dutch meant that the need for Upnor’s use as a fortification was greatly reduced so it was changed into a huge gunpowder magazine and soon became the largest in the country.
One of my favourite things when visiting here was seeing the iconic gatehouse passage, Originally the gatehouse was accessed via a drawbridge and The brick additions were added around 1625 when the gatehouse was rebuilt after a fire. Some of the rooms when we came here were locked but inside them would have been storerooms, offices and a room with a fireplace where the officers or infantry soldiers would have been on guard duty.
As we wander inside the magazine, amazing displays are all around showcasing the incredible history and turmoil that the place went through. Upnor was captured by Royalist forces during the English Civil War, but its first real taste of action came in 1667 when a fleet of Dutch warships sailed up the Medway.
The Dutch destroyed the unfinished fort at Sheerness and sailed toward Gillingham and it was then that The English defences proved totally inadequate, so the Dutch broke through and carried on up the river. The English retreated, withdrawing their ships to Upnor and bringing in extra gunpowder for the expected battle. Many English ships were sunk off Upnor to prevent them being captured by the Dutch but The Dutch warships exchanged fire with batteries at the Castle and managed to burn three English warships before withdrawing. The channel was now clogged with half-sunk ships, and the Dutch suffered heavy casualties. They decided to break off the attack and sail away with their booty.
Upnor failed in its mission to halt the Dutch because of one fatal flaw in its design; the water bastion that was shaped like the point of a star, which meant that only one side of the bastion faced upriver. That meant there were not enough gun emplacements to fire effectively on a fleet approaching down the Medway. The failure of Upnor Castle to halt the Dutch raid led the government to reconsider their defences on the Medway. New batteries were built at Gillingham and Cockham Wood, and Upnor was relegated to the role of a magazine, or ammunition storage depot. The gun platforms were removed from the roof of the towers and the keep.
Upnor continued in military use until WWII, though it never saw action again. As we head around the magazine, Hundreds of barrels of gunpowder were shipped here from Tower of London Wharf and In 1808, a purpose-built gunpowder magazine designed to hold 10,000 barrels was constructed downriver of the Castle, and another bigger one was built adjacent to it . More buildings were added throughout the years for the filling of bullet-shells and the storing of guncotton. Most of these were later demolished but the first magazine remains standing which is incredible to walk around, they have put in displays to mimick the daily life of those men who worked and lived here.
The castle remained in military ownership but it became more of a museum from the 1920s onwards and during WW2 the castle was still in service and was damaged by two enemy bombs which fell in 1941, the bombing dislodged pieces of plaster in the castles south tower and gatehouse, and what was discovered was old graffiti, including a drawing of a ship dated to around the 1700s.
One of the intriguing and unusual features at Upnor is a spiral stair inside the keep. The stair has a hoist inside the stairwell to raise and lower ammunition quickly. But what is unusual is that the stair itself is cantilevered out from the wall, without supports, making it perhaps the earliest example of a cantilevered stair in England.
A pair of towers stand on the river’s edge a short distance on either side from the main building. They were originally two-storeyed open-backed structures with gun platforms situated on their first floors, providing flanking fire down the line of the ditch around the castle’s perimeter. They were later adapted for use as accommodation, with their backs closed with bricks and the towers increased in height to provide a third storey. Traces of the gun embrasures can still be seen at the point where the original roofline was. Thanks for reading.
Till next time!