The Maunsell Sea Forts are military defence structures from the Second World War, designed and built under the supervision of Guy Maunsell. There were three in Liverpool Bay, not far from Hilbre Island and now no longer extant, and five in the Thames Estuary between the North Kent and Essex coasts. Of these last, one was dismantled in the early 1960s, but the other four still stand, buffeted by the sea and the winds, as a reminder both of great engineering inventiveness and of the grim circumstances which necessitated the use of that skill. They form two types: a large single superstructure atop two huge cylindrical legs of concrete (Knock John is of this type), and a collection of metal tetrapods topped off withy single buildings used both for living and keeping watch for enemy aircraft and ships. These groups are connected by what must have been quite hazardous walkways, open to the elements though with guide rails for safety. The tetrapods are especially fascinating, resembling as they do nothing more than the towers in H.G Wells’s The War of the Worlds, but Knock John is also massively impressive.
This work was written after a boat trip around here of the Thames Estuary forts, leaving from the North Kent coast (from where, on a really clear day, most of them can be seen with the naked eye): Knock John, Shivering Sands and Red Sands. It is subtitled Nocturne for Brass Band because the work is framed by quiet music reflecting both the atmosphere of mystery that stuck me so vividly, and the fact that it would have been at night that the greatest danger came. It was, as it happens, an exceptionally fine and calm day when I made my trip, but one’s imagination can very easily conjure up a greatly different atmosphere. Formally, apart from the slow opening and closing sections, the music consists of a kind of rondo in which, however, the meat of the invention lies in the two episodes (the second a fast passacaglia), with the fanfare-like Ritornello (heard three times) binding the structure together.
The Maunsell Forts was commissioned by the BBC for the 2002 Open Brass Band Championships. A word must be said about the ending of the piece: it is, so far as I know, highly unusual for a contest piece to end quietly, as this does, but it would have seemed less honourable to write a work finishing with a loud and probably triumphant conclusion, in view of the subject-matter. The Thames fort still stand, as a memorial as well as intriguing and remarkably affecting artefacts, an unexpected page of recent but not yet forgotten human history.
© Copyright 2002 by John McCabe