Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Walks 51-53 The beginning of Essex 2016

Walk 53

Pitsea to Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Saturday August 6th 2016

Finally today we got back to the sea! We left the sea three years ago almost to the day when we passed Seasalter in Kent and began to make our way along the Thames to the first crossing. 

We caught an early train from Aldershot and arrived in Pitsea in time to pop into the big Tesco for lunch and water. We had identified the beginning of the first footpath last time we were here and it was a hopeful start as it was clear and dived neatly behind a row of houses just as it was supposed to do. It came out at the end of the houses into a wheat field, which was yellow and ripe and swaying gently in the breeze. 

At the end of the fields we came out onto a lane and our first landmark of the day; St Margaret’s Church at Bowers Gifford. It was already warm and we were grateful for a seat in the shade of the church wall to have a drink stop. There were a few people about with mowers and strimmers working in the churchyard and when we had finished the drink we stopped to chat. They were tidying things up as part of the preparation for a wedding and the grounds were looking lovely. A lady offered to show us the church and told us a little of its history. It is a strange place as the buildings now sits in the middle of fields a few miles from any civilisation but its origins were as a place of worship for the many people who lived on the marshes and worked on the farms there. Parts of the church date back to the 1300s and she showed us parts which date from the rebuild in Tudor times.

We left the church behind and found our way out of the far side of the churchyard and along another path on the edge of a field which again came out on a lane. We were intrigued by a handmade sign here pointing under the railway to “Daniel and Chloe’s party”. We were under the impression that the road only went to a sewage works but maybe not!

 There was a path here continuing alongside the railway but it was choked with nettles and brambles so we decided to find a way through the housing estate. It turned out to be very easy – up one road, right into another, then across a park. The park had some very large trees and we took a break in the shade and enjoyed a box of pineapple chunks. On the other side of the park, we found our way through more houses to join up with the route again at Benfleet Church. Outside the church we stopped again and bought some more water in a shop opposite. We then walked along a road through Benfleet and picked up a path which would lead us uphill and into Hadleigh Country Park. We were now looking for a place to stop for lunch but the path led into a cow field and although we had seen the cows trotting past, we were a little worried that they might come back. 

So we pressed on uphill, over a stile and up again to the edge of a patch of woodland. Here in the shade, was the perfect place to stop for a while. We had a view of Canvey Island and Sheppey and a small patch of blue in the distance which was almost certainly our first glimpse of the sea.

After a good stop and some good food we were ready to continue and we thoroughly enjoyed the next section which was through the edge of the woods. It was a good path which climbed gently, was well signed and easy to walk. 

After a couple of miles, we emerged into the car park of the country park. Here we found a large visitor centre, toilets, a café and hundreds of cyclists and the solution as to why Hadleigh had been naggingly familiar as a name. This is Hadleigh Farm which is where the Olympic mountain bike races had been held in 2012. The legacy of 2012 is really in place here as the Olympics courses are still in place and many more have been put in since. They are graded according to difficulty and some are suitable for children. We saw cyclists of all ages from toddlers on balance bikes to very elderly gents on swish expensive machines and many families out enjoying the sunshine. We stopped for water and ice cream and sit down in the shade.

Then it was on for the last lap. A good “multi-use track” took us towards Hadleigh Farm which is now a rare breeds farm and tea room. The site was opened in the 1890s by the Salvation Army to provide work and training for men from London who needed a helping hand. Many went on from Hadleigh to work overseas. The complex included several farms, brickworks and living accommodation and the work on offer covered farm work, labouring in the brickworks or work in the living quarters, library and kitchens. The work has evolved over the years but the Salvation Army still help people find work here on the farm or in the country park. We did not stop at the farm but continued down to Hadleigh Castle which is about half way down the hill. 

A few walls and one tower are all that is left of a once large castle. It was built in the 1230s by Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent and a hundred years later was a favourite residence of Edward I. Edward III also loved it and spent a lot of time at Hadleigh in his later years. After his death, the castle was no longer used and in the 1550s it was demolished and the stones sold off as building materials. It is now in the protection of English Heritage and the grounds are immaculate and it was full of families picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. The views were amazing and we identified Canvey Island below us and could make out Allhallows on the Isle of Sheppey and could definitely see the sea now.
After a break at the castle, we dropped very steeply to the path along the bottom near the railway line. It was hot down there, very hot and there was no shade. All we could do was keep going in the knowledge that we were nearly at Leigh-on-Sea. We could see the trains slowing down to stop at the railway station and suddenly we spotted this sign! 

 It took us a little longer than 2 minutes but we got there and gratefully collapsed on a seat in the shade for a few minutes. To our surprise it was quarter to five and we decided to finish the walk here. We were both struggling a bit and it seemed the wisest thing to do. Leigh station had loos and a coffee shop so all we needed was to hand, as well as a train back to London which was almost due. 

We came back all the way to Fenchurch Street and came across London on a beautiful balmy evening. From Fenchurch Street we caught the tube to Embankment then walked across Hungerford Bridge. The South Bank was crowded and loud as we made our way through the throngs and up to Waterloo for our train home.

It was a splendid walk; Essex redeemed itself today and we really enjoyed it. The best thing was that we finally saw the sea and will look forward to walking along a proper prom again soon.

Pitsea 10.23
1.49 miles
3746 steps

Leigh-on-Sea Station 16.46
10.26 miles
25791 steps

Time 6 hours 23 minutes
Steps 22045
Miles 8.76

Walk 52 
Stanford-le-Hope-Pitsea, Essex
Saturday July 16th 2016

Today’s walk proved to be the most challenging coast walk we have yet undertaken, partly due to weather, partly to footpath problems and partly due to Jen’s health.

We set off in good spirits on a route which was completely new to us. From Waterloo, we caught the Jubilee line to West Ham then changed onto a C2C train to Stanford-le-Hope. It was quite fast and by 9.15 we had arrived in Stanford. We called into the local Tesco express then made our way to the edge of town to pick up our route again. 

The first footpath was very easy to find as it wound through a cornfield and out the other side onto a track called Rainbow Lane. We were a little uncertain after this as a new road had been built to serve the London Gateway Port and we were not sure whether the old footpaths would still be open. However we crossed Rainbow Lane and followed a small roadway past a farm. Suddenly the new road loomed in front of us and, sure enough, the path opposite had a sign proclaiming it to be private property. We decided to investigate, crossed the empty (being a Saturday) dual carriageway and approached the path. There was a sign with its back to us which pointed to a right of way running south parallel to the new road. We reasoned that in order to see this sign, it must be possible to walk towards it so we set off down the track. It soon spilt and we took the path we wanted and met up with some local walkers. They promised to show us the way through to Corringham village then promptly missed the turning! It was very well concealed and overgrown but after a few yards fighting through brambles we arrived at the back of a park. Here were Saturday morning footballers and their families enjoying the sunshine. The park is new and was not on any maps but we took the chance of a break under the trees for a few minutes. 

At this point we realised that neither of us had packed the sun cream so we asked some ladies where the nearest shop was. They directed us and one offered her own cream. We took a little but decided to buy some anyway. Once across another dual carriageway a short path took us into Corringham and a small parade of shops which furnished drinks and sun cream. 

From the shops we walked back down the road towards the church and found a delightful ancient village centre. We stopped to admire the church and a man mowing the graveyard asked if we needed directions. We didn’t but it was kind of him and we chatted for a few minutes. Corringham is a very old village with connections to smuggling and part of the church dates back to Saxon times.

The path to Fobbing ran beside The Bull pub and was rather urban and unpleasant but short and brought us out at the bottom of a hill! Rather unexpected that. At the top of the hill was the centre of Fobbing Village and a few yards up the road a recreation ground with some big shady trees. We were intrigued by the monument here. It was erected in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the peasants’ revolt which began in this area in May 1381. Villagers from Fobbing, as well as Corringham and Stanford refused to pay their taxes and were summoned to Brentwood to explain to the commissioner. He told the villagers that if they did not pay they would be arrested. They refused and a riot followed. The unrest spread and led to the now famous march into London.

Fobbing’s history is also linked with smuggling. The village used to be on the waterfront and the church was well known as a hiding place for illicit goods. But after the 1953 floods, the land was drained and Fobbing is now stranded a few miles inland with a main street which goes nowhere. 

We were quite worried about the next leg of the walk. From Fobbing we needed to strike out across Vange Marsh, which is a wild piece of land almost rectangular in shape bounded by the road into Fobbing to the west, the A13 to the north, Vange Creek to the east and the River Thames to the south. A couple of paths were marked on the map but every blogger who had walked this stretch said that they were impassable. I had the app from the new Thames Estuary Path on my phone, however, and this clearly marked a route across. So we set off along Marsh Lane and out into the wilderness. There should have been a path heading almost directly north at this point but there was no sign of it. A field of crops stood where it should have been. We thought about walking round the outside of the field but it was planted right up to the edge. 

The alternative path on the map headed east then north, but was a lot longer and looked a little more complicated, which is why we had planned to take the quicker one. Again there was no sign of it but The Thames Estuary Path was well signed here also going away towards the east although it appeared to be on the opposite side of small water course. However, we decided to try it. Using the GPS on my phone and Memory Map also on the phone, we quickly established that we were indeed walking on the “wrong” side of the ditch but we were on a proper path. At the end of this footpath we had a rest under a tree and considered our options. The Thames Estuary path was signed again quite clearly heading north but on no route which was on the map. We came to the conclusion that this route must have superseded the old paths and that following it was the only way to get across the marsh.

We continued for another couple of miles, were overtaken by some faster walkers who were cheerfully just following the signs, and soon found a tree for a lunch break. After lunch we continued but the path became very difficult. It ran between a drainage ditch on one side and Vange Creek, which was protected by a 12 foot high bank, on the other. It was airless and very overgrown with long grass. It was a very much longer route than we had planned - at least an extra five miles as the Estuary path followed the winding edge of the creek instead of heading straight up as the old path had done. 

Jen began to struggle with the humidity and the conditions and with muscle spasms in her legs and we were forced to take frequent breaks. I was rather worried about her particularly given the distance we still had to go and how far we were from any help. We poured everything into her that might possibly help – sweet biscuits (she is a diabetic), water, ibuprofen, Ventolin (she is an asthmatic). While she rested, I clambered up the bank to survey the creek and the possibility of rescue if it became necessary. On the opposite side of the creek was The Wat Tyler Country Park and what appeared to be some sort of boatyard with small boats sitting in the mud. The tide was out, but if it really came to it, we could possibly wait for high tide and get out that way with assistance. However, Jenna insisted that if we took it slowly she would make it. So we just plodded on very gently, for a while stopping after every twenty steps for a rest, but secure in the knowledge that it was high summer, it would be light well into the evening and there was really no hurry. 

Eventually we came to a sign pointing away from the creek edge and here the Estuary path joined up with the mapped paths which made it easier to navigate. On the edge of civilization we found a patch of woodland, possibly an old orchard, and took a long break under the trees. The heat of the day was wearing off and Jen was feeling better so we were able to make faster progress as we approached the northern end of Vange Marsh. 

Here was an RSPB reserve and we walked alongside the railway line and found a possible way out. We had been forced to divert behind a small industrial site and the gate onto the road was open. It would have meant crossing the A13 dual carriageway and finding our way through a housing estate to a bus stop in Basildon. But, having checked the maps, we decided to carry on into Pitsea as it was not much further than the escape route.

Finally we passed the head of Vange Creek, which had caused this inland detour, crossed the railway line and walked through another industrial area to emerge onto the road near Pitsea Station.
We took the final photos then found our way to the huge Tesco store just over the railway bridge. We had run out of water several miles back so bought some food and six bottles of drink. Two bottles each went down us as we rested on a wall in the car park of the store! After that we felt strong enough to make our way home from Pitsea back via West Ham and Waterloo.

Stanford-Le Hope 09.45
1 65 miles
945 steps

Pitsea Station 17.58
10.94 miles
27510 steps

Time 8 hours 13 minutes
Steps 26565
Miles 9.29

Walk 51 
Tilbury to Stanford-le-Hope, Essex
 Saturday April 16th 2016

Our first foray into Essex would take us along the north bank of the River Thames heading optimistically for the sea again.

Having decided to walk today the first decision was how to get back to the ferry terminal at Tilbury to pick up the walk. Until 1992 there was a railway station at Tilbury Riverside; a branch line from the main line at Tilbury Town. The service has been replaced by a bus which connects with the train from London.  But not early on Saturday mornings. Somewhat reluctantly we decided that the quickest route was to go back to Gravesend and cross by the ferry once again. So that is what we did and after an easy journey via Waterloo Main and East, Tesco in Gravesend High Street and the first ferry of the morning, at 10:15 we were at Tilbury ready to depart. Initially, the path was obvious and very easy, alongside a road ending at The Worlds End pub thereafter joining a concrete wall for the short distance to Tilbury Fort. 

Tilbury Fort is one of a number of defences built to defend London from attack from the sea. The first fort was built here in 1539 by Henry VIII and was extended in the 1580s during the Spanish Armada. As part of that defence a boom was constructed across the river. It was fairly crude, being made of chains and cables attached to boats, but no doubt effective. One story suggests that it was at Tilbury that Queen Elizabeth 1 gave her famous speech about having the body of a weak and feeble woman but the mind of a king but that is not confirmed. What is known is that in the 1740s, prisoners were brought to Tilbury after the battle of Culloden and there is a memorial to them here. Over the years the fort was upgraded, left to decay and upgraded again and the soldiers here were credited with the shooting down of a zeppelin in the First World War. The fort was demobilized in 1950 and is now in the care of English Heritage. 

Unfortunately the site was still closed for the winter and a closer look at the sign revealed the frustrating news that the first opening day of the new season would be tomorrow. 

From Tilbury the wall continued and we enjoyed spotting landmarks from last summer across the river. Looming ahead of us was the not very attractive sight of Tilbury Sewage Works on the river’s edge and the power station behind. We were under the impression that there were two paths around these works, one on the river side and one inland. However, when we got there we were confronted by a set of steps crossing the wall and a sign to the effect that the sole path was on the river side and, incidentally, was only passable at low tide. With some trepidation we headed towards the river below the high wall enclosing the sewage works and peered around the corner. To our relief the tide was out and there was an obvious track across dry land. 

The pleasure was short lived as we realised that the path was not all that dry and we had to pick our way through rubbish left by the retreating river. What we were walking through does not bear thinking about; suffice it to say we were very glad to reach the other end and climb back onto the concrete wall again. 

This wall was to be our companion now for most of the day. It must act primarily as a flood defence as in some places the drop inside was very high.  We kept walking along the wall, pausing at a jetty being used to load some kind of quarried material and to look a sign which must have blown off a cruise ship. It read “Ibiza Loves You!” Also on this stretch was a hexagonal radar tower dating from World War 2. 

Soon after the radar tower, the path turned inland as we approached the second military installation of the day at Coalhouse Fort. This complex is much larger than Tilbury but is similar in that it dates back to the 1500s and has seen many rebuilds and reuses. It is located on a sharp bend in the river and operated at various times in conjunction with Cliffe and Shornemead Forts on the southern bank to defend the Thames on the approaches to London. It fulfilled this role though the Napoleonic Wars, the threats of French invasion in the mid-1800s and into World War 1, when the fort was manned by the Royal Garrison Artillery. A minefield was laid in the river, with mines which could be detonated mechanically in the shallower parts of the river and remote controlled devices in the deeper part. Thus legitimate shipping could pass but the mines could be set off if an enemy ship approached. Another brief for the troops here was to fire at any ship which did not stop when challenged. The fort played a similar role in WW2 but towards the end of the war was downgraded and acted as the base for the local Home Guard Coastal Battery detachment. The fort is well preserved and open to the public on occasions, while its grounds have been turned into a riverside park by its current owners, Thurrock Council. From our point of view, it had toilets and a café and we were glad to make use of both. 

After a pleasant stop we found our way back onto the concrete river wall again. At this point we took a bit of a risk. The older maps and guides routed us inland soon after the fort as ahead of us lay Mucking Marsh. Mucking was, until recently, the landfill site for London and barges would arrive regularly at the small jetty to unload their cargoes. Most of the marsh is now a nature reserve and, according to more recent information, it should be possible to walk from the end of the river wall over to the nature reserve.

We continued along the wall, past the end of the footpath inland. We were very amused by a series of duck slopes built into the wall, presumably enabling water birds to access the river. At intervals there were ladders with one end in the river and the other on the inside of the wall for people. We met a dog walker and stopped for a chat. We mentioned that we hoped to get through to the nature reserve and he assured us that, although he had never done it himself, there was a people-made path at the end of the wall. We continued and once we had spotted the well-trodden path, found a place to stop and enjoyed watching the traffic on the river while we had our lunch.  

Refreshed and rested we set off. All was well to begin with but we soon lost the obvious track and the land underfoot became rather soggy and not long afterwards turned to thick and deep mud. It was not universal mud, however, and we managed to pick our way carefully from one higher spot to another. In parts there were remains of a road, although that was flooded right across in places. At one point I lost my footing and sat down, coating my behind in greyish mud. Jen was leading the way and headed for a wide path which looked solid but, as she discovered, was anything but and she went in over her ankles. 

We ploughed on and eventually could see the nature reserve’s visitor centre above us, so we turned a little inland and clambered along the slopes above a flooded track at right angles to the river before emerging onto a proper new pathway and into the nature reserve. It was a huge relief to be safely on solid ground and we headed for the visitor centre. We later found out that the Gravesend inshore lifeboat had rescued two people from the mud in the area that afternoon and were thankful to have got through safely. 

The centre had a café, loos and a shop and it was a relief to sit down and have a hot drink. I suspect that we left a trail of mud everywhere but that couldn’t be helped. The visitor centre itself is interesting as being built on an old landfill site it has to be flexible enough to move as the land settles. So it stands on three legs containing hydraulic jacks which can be adjusted over time as the rubbish decays and the land shifts. After a good rest we climbed to the viewing point on the roof to look back at Tilbury and Gravesend, forward to Southend and across the river to Cliffe. 

 Our route now lies inland for a while as we skirt Canvey Island so we made our way out of the nature reserve along the access road and into the village of Mucking. It is a tiny village and there was not a soul in sight. The church is now a private house with the front garden planted around the gravestones. We consulted the maps then for the best route into Stanford le Hope and worked out a place to end the walk which would also work well as a beginning next time. This meant finding a path near the church which proved ridiculously tricky but it was there and easy once we had started along it. At the other end, we declared to walk over for the day.

From that point it was a short walk into the centre of Stanford-le-Hope and the railway station. The fun transport bit then followed to get home and although the morning’s journey in reverse sounded a bit complicated it worked because the transport all connected. From Stanford-le-Hope we caught the train to Tilbury Town, then the connecting bus to the Tilbury Ferry. The ferry was waiting for the bus and it was a quick hop over to Gravesend where we caught the high speed train to St Pancras. From there we took our well-worn route of tube to Oxford Circus then to Waterloo and home to Ash Vale where Glyn picked us up.

So we have begun Essex and can look forward to seeing some proper coastal walking again in the not too distant future.

Tilbury Pier 10.15
Stanford-le-Hope 15.35
Steps: 22855
Miles. 9.09

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Walks 48-50 2015 Kent

Walk 50
Cliffe Kent to Gravesend Essex
Saturday 15th August 2015

Today’s walk was scheduled to be much shorter than the previous one so we allowed ourselves the luxury of a lie in and caught the 7.04 train from Aldershot to Waterloo then out to Gravesend from Waterloo East. We arrived just before 9 and stocked up with food and drink before seeking out a taxi. Unfortunately the bus to Cliffe departed at 8.30 and the next one was not due until 1.30 so a taxi it had to be. The taxi dropped us off in the centre of the village and we decided to visit the church before setting off.

St Helens Church in Cliffe was built in 1260 and is one of the largest parish churches in Kent. It has a striking appearance being built of bands of coloured stone – knapstone and flint - and is grade 1 listed. A lady in the church gave us some leaflets and told us a little of the history. The parish magazine is full of local events and organisations and gives the impression of a strong, close community used to supporting one another.

The size and age of the church reflects the earlier prosperity of this large village. Once there were chalk quarries, cement works and gunpowder factories here. Now the area appears to be a lot less prosperous with many residents being employed in local towns. There are even three coaches a day directly to Central London for commuters.

After a good look round, we set our sights westwards and picked up the Saxon Shore Way, retracing our steps back towards the River Thames. We were able to appreciate our surroundings a little more this time as we were fresh and not hurrying to catch a bus.

Soon we came to a familiar crossroads in the tracks where the path from the wilderness had brought us into Cliffe the previous week. We turned left knowing that after a short distance we needed to turn right onto a footpath to take us to Cliffe Fort on the river bank. Or maybe not. We found the path but a closed gate and a sign made it clear that erosion had taken its toll. 

 The sign read, “Warning. No Safe Route Beyond this Point. Alternative Route Through West Court Farm.” The farm was clearly marked on the map and the path we had been about to leave led towards it so that had to be the way to go. Beyond the farm we could see an obvious route back to join the river bank slightly upstream.

The first path was very pleasant, winding along the top of a high embankment with fields on one side and a lake on the other. A ship suddenly appeared across the fields showing how frustratingly close to the river we were. The path ended on a road with a short terrace of houses on one side and the high fence of an industrial site on the other. Soon we turned right down another road – with good signposting so far. As the road curved to the right, there was a sign reading, “Warning. Lorries may be queuing round the corner.” Round the corner was the entrance to a huge gravel works whose gates were firmly shut with not a lorry in sight. We were lucky to be doing this walk on a Saturday, as it would undoubtedly have been much less pleasant on a working day

Just past the sign was the entrance to West Court Farm and, after a minor wrong turn, we spotted a footpath sign on a gate at the far end of the drive. When we got closer we realised that the gate had a stile and from there we could see more gates and signs clearly marking the route across the fields. Four stiles later, we emerged onto a road in the middle of the gravel works which had now acquired a railway line.

Across the road, a narrow opening beside the tracks was labelled “To River Thames”. It was fairly unpleasant at first; very narrow and overgrown with the gravel works on one side and more industrial sites on the other. The works had a strange beauty about them, their conveyor belts and heaps of stones sitting silently waiting for the end of the weekend. We were struck by the geometrical shapes made by the equipment and sand and took lots of arty photographs. 


After the last conveyor, the path turned left and became hot and narrow with piles of earth and stones on one side and a high concrete wall on the other. In the end though, the wall fell away and the works petered out as we emerged onto the riverbank at last. Over to our right was Cliffe Fort across an inlet, tantalisingly close.

From here to Gravesend the path was easy and comfortable, as we followed a high, grassy embankment with good views in both directions.

The odd fence crossing proved challenging but we managed without incident. All the way along, we shared the grass with horses of all shapes and sizes but they ignored us and we ignored them as we slowly covered the miles. After a while, we declared a lunch break and found a patch of grass clear of horsey remains to sit down for half an hour.

Our scenic view for lunch was of Tilbury Power Station across the water. It was pleasant enough sitting there although we were a little disappointed at the lack of traffic on the river. Somehow we had expected it to be much busier but agreed that the sailings must be dependent on the tides, so maybe it would liven up later.

A few miles on, we arrived at the remains of Shornemead Fort, one of the line of defences built along the banks of the Lower Thames in the 1800s to guard London from French invaders. It was in use from 1795 until 1945 when the constant battle to stop it subsiding into the marshy ground was finally abandoned. It was later used for practice by the Army Demolition School thus there is very little of the building left. What is here is part of the nature reserve and being left to decay slowly and naturally.

We were approaching civilisation!  We passed a rifle range, more gravel works, several anonymous factories and the Gravesend inshore lifeboat. We were puzzled by a strange set of buildings which looked like a two storey block of inner city flats, with walkways and doors but no windows. A look at the map revealed a Metropolitan Police Training School. Aha!

Just past the Port of London Authority buildings we were forced inland, up some steps, past the Ship and Lobster pub and out onto a road. The route then ran behind a series of industrial sites, which must run down to the river. At the end of this road a narrow footpath led out into a lane with industrial sites on both sites.

This appeared to be much older as it had setts instead of tarmac and the buildings had a more old-fashioned feel too. This road finished at a swing bridge over the lock of a canal and we realised we had reached the Gravesend end of the Thames and Medway canal.

Ahead of us we could see a lovely grassy promenade, almost a park, with seats and a fountain and café and lots of people enjoying the sunshine. We decided to join them and an ice cream and a sit down on a riverside bench was very enjoyable. This area is called Gordon Promenade, named after General Gordon who commanded the fort at Gravesend for a few years.

After our break, we turned away from the river as we had to pass behind several riverside buildings including some very lovely new flats. We almost missed the entrance to a ‘heritage centre’ with an open sign so went to have a look. This turned out to be Milton Chantry, which was built in 1322 as a chapel and has had a multitude of uses since including a public house and a WW2 gas decontamination station. Much of the original interior is intact and it also houses various exhibits about the local area.

From there a short walk brought us back to the riverside and along a promenade to the Three Daws pub. Next to the pub is the entrance to the ferry terminal and the end of the Saxon Shore Way which we have followed on and off since Hastings.

It was not quite the end of our walk however. After three years of walking the fiddly coast of North Kent, we had reached the crossing of the Thames nearest the sea so we took the next ferry over to Tilbury in Essex. 

We didn’t linger and came straight back, but it meant that we could travel out of London to Tilbury to start the next walk rather than coming back through Gravesend again.

Back on dry land on the Kent side, we could celebrate, not only the end of the walking for this summer and the conquering of the Hoo, but also our 50th walk, the end of the Saxon Shore Way and the beginning of a new county and a whole new adventure!

 Cliffe 10.00        
Gravesend 16.10
22920 steps 9.11 miles

Walk 49 
St Mary Hoo to Cliffe, Kent 
Saturday 8th August 2015

We had arrived at the big one. The walk we have been worried about for a long, long time. Various people have warned us about this walk, about how remote the area is, about the impossibility of getting help in an emergency. In the end it was all of those but nowhere near as difficult or scary as we had expected.

We set off early again and arrived in Gravesend at 8.45 on a beautiful Saturday morning. The railway line east of Gravesend was closed and a replacement bus service in place, so we decided the best move would be to fork out for a taxi from Gravesend to St Mary Hoo. There was a taxi base just outside the station, so after stocking up with food and lots of drink, we found someone to take us to the middle of nowhere. He was surprisingly unfazed by the request and we set off.

At 9.30 we waved goodbye to our driver and set off up the lane to the village of St Mary Hoo. I say village, two farms, about six houses and a church now converted a private house, so probably more of a hamlet, but a very pretty one. 

Our route led past the houses and church and through one of the farms into fields beyond. Here the land dropped away towards the river Thames and we were very excited to catch our first glimpse of Essex. Ok it was the Coryton Oil Terminal across the river but still Essex and a bit of a milestone.

We followed several field paths to the bottom of the hill then along the edge of a stream to the embankment at the bottom. This is Egypt Bay which was once a bay in the river but is now silted up and just rough pasture. The state of the footpaths here was appalling and the signage non-existent. But with some ace map reading and a lot of scrambling over uneven ground and clambering over locked gates, we finally arrived at the river proper.

We scaled the bank but there was not really a lot to see. The tide was out and there was nothing much moving on the river at all. We turned our faces west and began the walk along the bank.

The path petered out quite quickly but at the bottom of the slope was a wide track and it was on this that we walked for most of the day. There were occasions when the bank was wide and flat but mostly we were below it. The track was presumably used by tractors and the occasional lorry for maintenance purposes although for much of the time there were drainage ditches on the inland side so no access. At least it was grassy and kind to the feet.


It was easy walking but really rather tedious apart from negotiating all the locked gates, fences and broken stiles along the way. We passed through a construction site, although all the work was evident across the drainage ditch from our path and nothing was moving, presumably because it was Saturday. It was a very strange walk because we are used to a much more varied landscape where we are navigating carefully or at least know where the next point to check the route will be. This day was just about keeping going until the end.   

As the morning on wore the sun became hotter and we began to look for a nice shady tree or even a small bush to sit under for lunch. The chance of finding any shade was looking remote when we spotted a small building in the distance. We decided to head for it and sit on the shady side of it for a good break. Once we got closer, we realised it was marking a sewage outlet, though whether it was a pumping station or quite what we were not sure. But it didn’t smell, there was ample space in the shade to sit and a rather splendid view of the oil terminal across the water. So we set up camp and had a good half hour break. As we sat there, we could see something moving way down the path and we realised it was a person. It then dawned on us that this was a first person we had seen, apart from a distant tractor driver, since we had left St Mary Hoo four hours earlier. The walker was equally surprised to see us and we chatted for a while until he carried on. His planned walk was much longer than ours, but then he did have very long legs!

Eventually we cleared up, topped up the sun cream and continued along the track at the bottom of the embankment.  About two hours later, we were having another break when two cyclists passed us. Three people in six hours! Not bad for less than 40 miles from the centre of London!

We passed the remains of wartime buildings on the marshes. A decoy airfield was set up here to draw bombers away from towns like Gravesend and there has in the past been a gunpowder factory. Also here are the remains of practice trenches used to train soldiers in WW1 in the science of building sustainable trenches before they went to the front.
Finally, finally we reached the end of the path at Cliffe Creek. There was a bench here, high on the bank looking over the river which was a bit busier now as the tide was coming up. We had a good rest and plenty to drink as the prospect of a loo was quite close now!

 It was not quite as near as we thought but we took the last lap of the walk at good speed in order to be at the village of Cliffe in time for the last bus back to Gravesend.

As we turned away from the river to follow Cliffe Creek inland, we began to meet more people. This was the site of the chalk quarries and the cement works which had once made Cliffe prosperous. Now the quarries have been made into a wildlife sanctuary and the paths are wide and easy to follow. It was a little further than we had expected and it was good to finally arrive into civilisation again. We knew that the bus stop and public toilets were outside the Six Bells pub and we followed the sound of children playing on a bouncy castle to find it.

The toilets were open and clean but slightly odd because once the cubicle door was closed there was no light so relief happened in pitch darkness. At least it happened! We had about twenty minutes to wait for the bus so we sat in the shade on the church wall and finished all the bottles of water we had with us. A lovely chatty bus driver took us back to Gravesend. It was never going to be one of those direct routes and every time we seemed to be getting somewhere we turned off the main road into yet another village. However, we enjoyed the ride and it was good to be sitting down in the shade. Coffee, tea and biscuits in Gravesend were very welcome before heading to the station to begin the journey home.

St Mary Hoo 09.30
Cliffe 16.35
28346 steps
11.27 miles

Walk 48
Strood to St Mary Hoo, Kent
Wednesday 15th July 2015

The terrifying crossing of the Hoo peninsula had been the cause of much discussion and planning over the winter. The Hoo is a squashed balloon shaped piece of land separating the Medway flowing north along its eastern edge from the Thames flowing east along the northern edge.
It is impossible to walk right around it as the eastern side is occupied by power stations and industrial sites so a route had to be chosen to bypass these. The other problem is that the northern edge of the peninsula is remarkably remote even though it is on the bank of a busy river. There is a path along the boundary but no access inland from it for many miles because of marshes. There are a few villages scattered across the landscape but public transport is limited and places to stay non-existent. We eventually decided that the best strategy for us would be to do it in three walks, two of about nine miles and one of about twelve. All would be possible as day outings; long days but easier and cheaper than staying over in one of the local towns.

Accordingly, 6.30 on Wednesday morning found us at Aldershot Station for the train to Waterloo. We had time at Waterloo to stock up on food and drink for the day before catching the next train to Strood. At Strood station we sought out a waiting taxi whose driver assured us that we would be able to get a mobile signal and phone to be picked up from our planned stopping place later that day. Had he said otherwise, we would have taken the taxi out there and done the walk backwards.

We had finished the previous walk on the bank of the Medway near the old Russian submarine so we found the same spot and took the beginning photos before setting off at exactly 9.15.

We began by walking along the edge of the river on a good promenade and over the entrance to what is left of the Thames and Medway canal. This canal was built in the early 1800s to link the two rivers via an inland route and was 43 feet wide to accommodate the sailing barges generally in use at that time. Just over two miles of the canal was underground and was 35 feet high to take the sails of the barges. In 1845, the new railway line between Gravesend and Strood was laid in the tunnel, partially on the towpath and partially on stilts over the water. A few years later, the South Eastern Railway company bought the tunnel, drained and filled the canal and laid a double railway track. The tunnel is still in use as part of the North Kent main Line but all that remains of the canal is this derelict lock gate on the Medway and a short stretch at the Gravesend side.

Soon our route turned inland and climbed steeply. At the top we emerged onto a lane and we should have passed a church but we missed it somehow and before long were heading downwards again via a long shallow flight of steps. Thankfully the dual carriageway at the bottom had a crossing and a clear sign on the other side pointed to an almost hidden track between a sewage works and a metal fence topped with razor wire. After a few hundred yards, we emerged onto a lane by the entrance to a military establishment. The guard on the gate pointed to the next path which soon brought us out onto the river bank again.

The military base is RSME Holdfast; part of the Royal School of Military Engineering, founded in 1812 to train engineers of all kinds. According to its website it, “provides training in all engineering disciplines, providing the unique range of skills that are fundamental to the Royal Engineer as well as delivering military working animals, handlers and maintainers, EOD (i.e, bomb disposal) Munitions and Search specialists, and musicians.” Like many other similar institutions, it is much smaller now than it once was and is partly run by civilians. 

A short walk along the foreshore brought us to the imposing walls of Upnor Castle. We had planned to stop here and by good fortune, arrived one minute after opening time. This meant we had the place to ourselves for most of our visit and enjoyed a thorough look round. The castle is small but fascinating with a rather quirky history.

It was built in the mid-1500s to protect the military installations along the Medway and manned by soldiers who were unsuitable for front line duties, those who had been injured, were approaching retirement or otherwise not particularly fit. They lived there with their families and it seems there was not a lot of military activity at any time in its history. The castle was altered, extended and reinforced several times over the centuries and was used as a prison during the civil war whilst in the hands of parliamentary forces. It saw action in 1667 when a Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames then unexpectedly turned sharp left into the Medway. They set to work to destroy the English ships moored there and the guns of Upnor fought valiantly to stop the invasion. The Dutch eventually withdrew having been prevented from entering Chatham Dockyard by the wrecks of the English ships they had sunk or damaged. The skirmish led to a revision of the defence of the Medway which resulted in other batteries taking over the task and the downgrading of Upnor. 

Its role from then on was mainly as a gunpowder store to supply these new forts built on the other side of the river to defend Chatham and the soldiers at Upnor were reduced to the task of protecting the gunpowder. Later shells were filled there and a shell store built. The gunpowder was brought by boat and a pulley system was used to lift the powder to the store room higher in the building. The pulley was at one time worked by a man jumping from the window at the top holding the rope, but that method was soon superseded. The rooms near the gunpowder store were designed with safety in mind. The handrail on the stairs has a lead coating and the floors have no nails so that there is no risk of a spark.

The castle continued as a defence base until the Second World War, after which it became a museum. It is also used as a wedding venue with a room set up in the very atmospheric old gunpowder store. We especially liked the old powder barrels used as seats.

We enjoyed a good hour looking round before resuming the walk. The way led beside the castle walls up Upnor’s beautiful sloping High Street. It is full of weather boarded cottages, higgledy-piggledy and very old, all bright with flowers and evocative names such as Toad Cottage and Admiral’s Haven. Unfortunately we struggled to take a decent photo as there was a lorry delivering to the pub which rather spoilt the view. The route now led along a couple of quiet lanes behind the castle and back down to the riverbank again.

We were now in Lower Upnor which is just a road of houses along the river front. The road soon curved inland slightly while the path wound on beside the river past a small car park, yacht moorings and the buildings of HMS Arethusa. This is part of a London charity called The Shaftesbury Homes and is now run as a centre for children’s activity holidays. The fascinating charity’s history is explained on their website, HMS Arethusa.

 At the end of the path we realised with a shock that we really should have planned this section a little more carefully. We were following the Saxon Shore Way, which at this point has an alternative route a little way inland, noted but not questioned by either of us. We had opted for the shore side route and it soon became evident that at high tide, this route would be impassable. Light dawned! The other route was there to provide a permanently open path across higher ground. However, we were lucky as the tide was out and we were able to pick our way along a beach of sorts. It was strewn with boulders, tree roots and rubbish as well as lumps of broken concrete and rails to launch boats. Immediately behind the beach was woodland and we reckoned that if necessary we could work our way between the trees but we were very pleased not to have to. We passed a few interesting features; a pill box whose foundations had been half washed away so that it appeared to have slithered down the hillside onto the beach with a nice bit of graffiti reading “Jack and Jill were here”. Also we passed lime kilns, long disused and crumbling away but still quite imposing. 

Eventually we clambered up to a concrete slab at the end of the beach. We had arrived at Hoo Marina, a community of houseboats and also a mobile home park. The residents were obviously not very keen for walkers to linger here as the path was fenced on both sides and many private, no trespassing and keep out notices were in evidence. We duly marched through the site and out the other side. The way continued to be well marked as we threaded through a busy industrial site, which was hot, noisy and fairly unpleasant.

Eventually we reached countryside again and thankfully climbed the grassy embankment and stopped for a break. A mile or so further on we finally bade goodbye to the River Medway as the path turned sharp left. For the rest of the day we would be walking inland to bypass the power stations and industrial sites on the eastern side of the Hoo peninsula. The path was clear and wide and easy to follow between fields.

Fairly soon we stopped on the edge of a cornfield for a lunch break and given that it was not on the sea, which we would have much preferred, it was a pleasant enough place for a break.

After lunch we took a right turn along another wide track to a quiet road across to an old lane, once tarmacked but now leading to just one farm and very neglected. Here we encountered a rather strange man with his dog who told us he was walking a bit of the Saxon Shore Way too. His conversation was rather odd and I was rather glad that he was going the other way and that there were two of us. Having politely refused his kind offer of a tangerine apiece, we set off uphill to the railway bridge over the line which brings in the coal to the power station.

The next landmark was a rather nice house with a garden filled with old cars, called Parbrook House. We were signposted along the drive, which is always a little disconcerting but we could see that the path continued down the side of the house so we took it quickly. Very soon after this, the Saxon Shore Way turned left but we continued onwards and downhill into a copse overgrown with brambles and nettles. We forged through and emerged triumphant into another cornfield. We decided to have a break here, so sat down on the edge of the field, enjoying the sound of the breeze rippling through the ripe corn as we consumed a drink and biscuit. The path from here should have been straight across but it seemed to have disappeared under the corn so we made our way round the edge of the field to emerge on an A road, the first we had seen since Strood. The traffic was whizzing along but there was a decent verge and we only had a short walk before the final path of the day led off on the other side of the road. This was easy to find as it ran dead straight through a plum orchard and came out at our final destination for the day, St Mary Hoo. We had elected to stop here at St Mary’s Cottages as there, in theory, was a bus stop to get us back to Strood.

Lots of umming and ahhing later, and following a chat with one of the local residents about buses, the decision was made to call a taxi as per plan A. Half an hour later, a blue and white taxi duly appeared and whisked us back to Strood town centre.

We took an hour to have a wander round the town along with restorative coffee and toast in the Wimpy before catching the train home. As we waited on the platform at Strood Station, the strange man with the dog appeared. He greeted us like old friends and we spoke briefly but when we got on the train by common and unspoken consent Jen and I rapidly disappeared into the next carriage. He only went one stop though and cheerily waved as he left. Our journey home through Waterloo East was uneventful and we can look back on a very pleasant day even though we seem to be an awful long way from coast walking for now.

Strood 09.15
St Mary Hoo 15.40
23036 steps
9.16 miles