One kilometre off the wide, flat expanse of the Kent coast, where the mouths of the Thames and Medway rivers meet, stands a strange, lonely building, with a two-storey circular tower and adjoining concrete structure. It is accessible by a causeway at low tide, but at high tide it is surrounded by water. This is Grain Tower.
Built in the mid-19th century —1855, according to one of the tower’s doors — Grain Tower is a former gun tower, designed to protect the Kent coast from the French navy. It didn’t go exactly to plan. Improvements to artillery technology at the time meant that the tower was almost obsolete as soon as it had been completed.
Instead, by the end of the 19th century, the tower was used to defend against raids by fast torpedo boats. It was altered to support quick-firing guns and again put to defensive work in the First and Second World Wars.
In 1956, it was decommissioned, and has been derelict since. The tower was purchased from the Crown Estate in the early 2000s by Simon Cooper, a builder from southeast London, who hoped to turn it into a unique house. “We agreed a price and I purchased it. It just didn’t work out well as a home, and plus [there was] the cost of doing it,” Cooper told the BBC.
Cooper first put the building on the market in 2010, and then again in 2014. It was pitched by agent Nigel Day at River Homes as a one-of-a-kind purchase — and possibly even as a commuter property for someone working in the city, who could travel there by boat.
The property eventually sold for £300,000 to £200,000 less than it had been advertised for — to a buyer who owns and manages other properties and land in London and the southeast, according to the Land Registry. This year, the owner’s company became insolvent, and the property is now in the hands of receivers.
For those with dreams for the property, it is back on the market. Grain Tower will be auctioned by Savills on 20 September, with a guide price of £150,000 — half of what it last sold for.
“It’s been put on at a fairly attractive price, we hope,” says Savills’ auctions director Jeremy Lamb. “It’s an opportunity for someone else to get hold of.”
Designed along the same lines as other Martello towers off the British and Irish coastlines, Grain Tower is Grade II listed, with an empty series of brick-built rooms inside. The building is vacant, and its recent owners have not logged planning applications with Medway council or undertaken any major building work. There are no fixtures or fittings inside, explains Lamb, who describes Grain Tower as “a blank canvas with heaps of history and phenomenal sea views, not to mention its coveted No. 1 the Thames address.”
“The structure itself is fairly unique,” Lamb adds, with the Martello tower design having been adapted later to serve as a gun tower. “It’s surrounded by water. It’s a very serene, secluded position, and you’ve also obviously got a fair amount of privacy and uniqueness. It’s something very different. You can imagine people being interested in staying on it for all those purposes, if it was renovated.”
Like previous owners had planned, Lamb says that the tower could be converted to residential use for a unique home, rental opportunity or AirBnb. There is also commercial potential, and Savills have had interest from artists. “It needs an imaginative purchaser. It’s such a rare thing,” says Lamb.
Even so, restoring Grain Tower will be a big undertaking, requiring significant investment. Plus, plans for the building will require planning permission and listed building consent. “To do anything with it is going to cost a reasonable amount. It’s not going to be a simple overnight project by any means,” says Lamb.
Still, other former defences have been successfully put to new uses in recent years. An ancient hillfort and gravel quarry which featured on Grand Designs is being transformed into a unique —though costly— family home, while Spitbank Fort in the Solent has been made into a “luxury island retreat” and is currently for sale for £3 million.
Hubberstone Fort in Wales, which represents a similar proposition to Grain Tower, is on sale for £190,000.
“It’s hard to know exactly what [Grain Tower] is going to become,” says Lamb. “It’s a very rare beast, and I think someone will do something with it.”