Residents of the River Medway #1: The Soviet Submarine at Rochester Bridge
With only film crews, pigeons and urban explorers to fill it with life, the Soviet submarine, moored down river from Rochester Bridge, is desperately in need of some TLC and a new home.
The TLC is being given courtesy of John Sutton and the Russian Submarine Company, who took ownership of the sub, number B49 (the Russians didn't go much on names – their designs were very much for functionality, not comfort or complexity) ten years ago. Weather permitting, major painting will soon be underway to spruce up the boat (yes, they're called boats!)
John was kind enough to give me a tour and tell me more about the submarine's history.
"She came from Russia in 1994, following decommission, and was moored in London for a while, before moving to Folkestone, which is where we found her. She was built in 1967 and served mainly in the Baltic during the Cold War. Battery powered, she could go around the world on one fuel tank – 30,000 miles! We had her open to the public for a while, birthday parties and so on, but we had to leave Folkestone when the harbour was sold to make way for the marina. What we need now is a permanent mooring to continue the renovation work so we can open her up again."
Got a spare 300 odd foot mooring on the Medway somewhere? The problem John has is that although some places would be willing to take B49, they either don't have the room or can't manoeuvre her in. A great shame, as fully renovated and accessible, the submarine would make a wonderful venue for the community to enjoy. If you're trying to figure out where she is now, look right as you cross Rochester Bridge to Strood. Or left if coming back!
It was a fascinating visit – the boat has an early 1990 version of a satnav and a tactical deception number: U475, which is basically a different 'number plate' on her side, to confuse enemy vessels. Just two toilets served 76 men (sounds awful, doesn't it, until you remember that we women suffer that in most places) but strangely, it seemed a lot more roomy inside than I thought it would be. John explained that B49 doesn't have any false floors, which some subs open to the public are fitted with, and this can make a difference.
So I was happily lurching my way sideways through the middle of the sub – there's quite a list to one side – when my fiction head starting asking "What if" questions: I was relieved to find an exit at the other end. Although I then had to walk across the top of the sub, with a sheer drop to the Medway on one side and a rather scary slide down the other. Luckily it was a beautiful, dry and sunny day, because I never did find my sea legs.
It was heartening to find out that film crews use the sub on a regular basis – watch out for her in an estuary feature on an episode of the BBC's Coast next year. Evidence of a film made by Dutch company, Column Films, called 170Hz (the lowest frequency of human speech) remains behind, as masses of water bottles lie abandoned in unopened packs. This is a link to their website, with the trailer for the recently released film – a dark love story between a deaf/mute couple. Warning: There may be bad language but since it's all in Dutch I can't tell – there are a couple of visual adult references though. The film has been well received by critics, with the submarine location perfect for its unsettling nature. Let's hope there's a happier ending for B49 herself.