‘For the news is true, that the Dutch have broke the chain and burned our ships, and particularly the Royal Charles; other particulars I know not, but most sad news to be sure.’ – Samuel Pepys 1667
So, why are we celebrating, 350 years later, at the exact same spot deep into the heart of the River Medway, only 40 minutes away from London?
This anniversary commemorates one of England’s greatest naval disasters when in June 1667, the Dutch sail up the River Medway from the North Sea and caught the English unawares. This marine invasion brought the Second Anglo-Dutch War to an end.
Under Lieutenant Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, the Dutch fleet captured the fort at Sheerness before entering the River Medway to attack the English fleet at Chatham. They broke the defensive chain (how is being disputed by historians – did they sail through it? Did they send marines to lower the chain? Who knows, you decide) and towed away the prize of the English fleet, its flagship – the Royal Charles, and burned a number of ships. To prevent their capture and block the channel, the Royal Navy sank some of its largest ships.
A definite defeat I would say!
Although the dockyard was spared thanks to the arrival of the troops and artillery, this was a resounding victory for the Dutch, known as the Battle of Chatham and the high point of the Dutch Golden Age.
So, why do we want to remind ourselves and, better yet, celebrate this awful defeat?
Because it led to the beginnings of English, and later on a unified, British rule dominating a quarter of the world.
And it all starts at the Battle of Medway, where its historic naval battle will be retold with a major ‘Medway in Flames‘ event taking place on 17th June 2017 on and around the River Medway.
I was lucky enough to attend a trip on request by the Medway Council to find out more about the region and about the legacy and the Battle of Medway itself. So, on a brisk April day, I presented myself at London St Pancras station to take the fast train to Chatham on board South Eastern trains that took just 40 minutes. On the way, I read up all I could about the region.
The Medway takes its name from the river that flows through it and comprises of five towns – Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham and Strood.
Rochester may be better known thanks to its castle and cathedral and connections to Charles Dickens, but it was Chatham that I really came to see. Chatham saw all the action from the Battle including the Historic Dockyard Chatham, an award winning attraction and the world’s most complete dockyard of the age of sail.
So, I’ll be checking out that amongst the other attractions in Chatham including Fort Amherst, Upnor Castle, Copper Rivet Distillery, and a ride on Jetstream Tours on the river itself.
I for one cannot wait. Here’s what I got up to and what you can be getting involved in this month with more than 30 days of free festivals and events!
The Historic Dockyard Chatham
On a sunny bright morning, we rocked up to the entrance of the Historic Dockyard Chatham and already I was keen to get stuck in the enticing mess hall and sleek visitor centre that awaited me. The place felt like you were in the underbelly of a ship and what better feeling to have over coffee with the expert tour guides when you’re regaled the tales of Elizabethan and Stuart history taking in the Anglo-Dutch relations at the time that culminated with the Battle of Medway at this very spot. It was rather thrilling I must say.
With the facts in our minds, we undertook a tour of Chatham Dockyards, taking in exhibitions on how marine life must have been, sightseeing the ships in port, and given a rather interesting demonstrations of the still working Ropeworks that remains to be the last Dockyard trade in the UK.
— Ed Rex (@rexyedventures) May 4, 2017
I also had the pleasant surprise that the dockyards also the set of the popular tv series (which I absolutely love), Call The Midwife. I may have given a squeal…
Finishing off with a superb British lunch of sandwiches back in the mess hall, I was very pleased to have spent such a stimulating morning that I knew I would be heading back to The Historic Dockyard Chatham to take in more and also the exhibitions and events that happen regularly here.
Between 8th June and 3rd September, the Historic Dockyard Chatham will be celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Medway by presenting an exhibition called ‘Breaking the Chain’ – a once in a lifetime chance to see the story told through art. Collections drawn from the Royal Museum Greenwich, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Dutch National Maritime Museum, the Michiel de Ruyter Foundation and the British Library.
Don’t miss it!
Swiftly after lunch, we were whisked to see the Battle from an army perspective at Fort Amherst. The fort was built in 1756 to protect the Royal Dockyard Chatham from landward attack.
It was a rather surreal experience as we were taken through a daring network of tunnels and underground chambers that each told its story, helped by an enthusiastic volunteer from the independent trustee group that looks after it. Not only he told us what life must have been like in this cold and scary Fort, he also showed us a surprising fact that Fort Amherst was the headquarters of North Kent Home Defence in the Second World War. Relics from that period were still on display including maps, bunks, helmets and call stations.
Once outside on top, you can get a great view of the River Medway. But if you time your visit just right, you might still see today’s army recruits marching or running around barked by Sergeants who can make the girls feel all a-flutter (this happened in my group!) They still use Fort Amherst to this day.
As the sun set on this day of history, it still wasn’t over yet. The warm flows were a perfect backdrop to Upnor Castle – a pretty attractive turreted fortress built in Elizabethan times to protect her warships anchored in the Medway. It’s Medway’s truly hidden secret, overlooked by Rochester Castle, and what a secret to discover! In this attractive village of Upnor (the high street is utterly gorgeous), this castle is looked after by absolutely fantastic and enthusiastic staff who really pour their heart and soul of their passion into showcasing how amazing Upnor Castle is. I couldn’t agree more. Showing us the grounds, the rooftops, the fantastic diorama that tells the story of the Battle of Medway, you began to see in full how key Upnor Castle was in the Battle.
I do have to say that exploring Upnor Castle in the dark was a rather stimulating experience, particularly when ghost stories are told to us! (There was a time we all jumped that ended with someone screaming… not me!)
Upnor Castle will be commemorating the Battle with a series of exhibitions and displays, putting the events of 1667 into context and showcasing the daring Dutch master plan and the resulting programme of ship-building that led to a golden age of British maritime supremacy. Plus you can dress up too!
Copper Rivet Distillery
History and Gin? Yes, you heard me right, you can enjoy the experience of the Medway with a tipple of the good stuff. Head on over to Copper Rivet Distillery, one of the only few places in England that you can experience the entire distillation process from grain to glass.
We had a rather thrilling tour of the distillation process that had my interest peaked throughout. I’ve seen how wine and beer are made but Gin? That’s a whole new thing. Not only we had the tour, we were also given a master class on botanicals that are used to help with the distillation process. A rather enlightening talk!
Finally, we were given a glass of the good stuff, their popular drink of choice: Dockyard Gin; a lovely refreshing taste to help you in your journey around the region. Possibly the best souvenir to grab in your trip to the Medway.
This is a great place to watch ‘Medway in Flames,’ how about having a tipple as well?
Finally, after two days of exploring the Medway, we could now take a boat trip on this! We undertook this with Jetstream Tours who offers an informative commentary with a great opportunity to see Upnor Castle up close and the Historic Dockyard Chatham from the water. This hop on and hop off tour will be offering an additional stop at Upnor Castle during the celebrations but you can stay and take a trip all the way to Rochester if you would like to. Also, you’ll see a surprising view of a Soviet Submarine in the Medway that’s creepily called the Black Widow… you’ll have to see it to believe it!
You can’t miss this: Medway in Flames
I hope you’re booking your trip to the Medway. But you must go to this: Medway in Flames happening on 17th June. With water screens, digital projections, characters from history, amazing pyrotechnics, special effects and fireworks, you will be able to see the Battle of Medway brought to life! This finale will showcase the events of the Battle leading to the raid on the Royal Dockyard at Chatham, Upnor Castle and the ships of the English Royal Navy anchored in the River Medway.
This is a great event that will celebrate the friendship and co-operation between the Netherlands and the UK since the conclusion of the Anglo-Dutch Wars. So, ‘Medway in Flames’ – put that in your diary!
Interested in finding out more or book your trip to the Battle of Medway celebrations? Check out these links here:
Battle of Medway: http://new.medway.gov.uk/news-and-events/bom
The Historic Royal Dockyard Chatham: http://thedockyard.co.uk/
Fort Amherst: http://www.fortamherst.com/
Copper Rivet Distillery: http://www.copperrivetdistillery.com/
Jetstream Tours: http://www.jetstreamtours.com/
South Eastern Trains: https://www.southeasternrailway.co.uk/
I hope you have a wonderful trip like I had, and who knows, I may just bump into you there!
I just want to say a huge big thank you to everyone at Medway for giving me a fantastic and historical experience and for being your awesome selves!
This article has been produced as part of a blogging series in partnership with Medway Council and the partners mentioned in this post. They have provided me with free entry to the attractions a stay in a hotel. As always, all of the content and opinions in this post are my own.