There is a sign to the ferry and this directs me across a short wooden bridge, just wide enough to take a small car, and onto a large wooden jetty. There are cars parked here and a small kiosk. My heart sinks as I see the kiosk is closed. There are no signs telling me where, or when, the ferry will arrive.
I find a bench and sit and wait. This is the first seat I have come across since the pub many hours ago and I am grateful for the rest.
Then I see the ferry-boat. It leaves the far bank and is carried down stream, rapidly, by the flowing river. It turns to face upstream and struggles back up the river, heading towards the jetty. Larger than then any of the ferries I have been on so far, this boat has a small deck and a larger, enclosed cabin. It ties up alongside, close to where I am sitting. I am in the right place after all.
As the doors of the cabin open, I realise the ferry is full. I wait at the gangplank as the passengers disembark. There are older people, wrapped up against the chill of the evening, holding each other for support. Among them are a few families, with excited children pushing their way to get past the slower people and being chastised by their parents. And, almost last to disembark, are young party-goers, wearing high heels and smart dresses, and surely showing too much flesh for warmth. Following the young women are young men, in smart suits, lurching down the gangplank, laughing and showing off for their girlfriends benefit; clearly they have had a few drinks already.
For the journey back to the South bank of the river, I am alone. The man in the boat takes my money. He has grimy skin and long, unkempt, flowing hair. The captain sits, invisible, in an area somewhere above the cabin. The grimy man casts off and resumes his seat at a little desk inside the cabin. We head off into the river and are immediately picked up by the current and borne downstream. The boat chugs gallantly, facing upstream and making slow progress.
We reach the other side and there are a few passengers waiting on the wooden planking as we dock. I wonder what the attraction is in Tilbury; the passenger traffic seems one-way only today.
This little ferry stop has a run-down feel. I walk along a fenced off walkway, across a small jetty, through a derelict looking building and, eventually, emerge onto the street.
This is Gravesend. I have, finally, left Essex and I am now in Kent.
I am no longer in an area covered by my ordinance survey map (Landranger number 178). However, by heading Eastward, I will reach territory that is shown on the map, the eastern edge of Gravesend. By prior arrangement, I am meeting my husband at the end of a road, from where it will be easy to pick up the Saxon Shore Way for the next stage of my walk.
I phone him and learn he is running behind schedule and will be late.
Walking along the bank of the river, I reach another fort – Chantry Fort – the twin to the fort I have just seen on the northern bank. The fort is open to walkers and, beyond, the land opens up into a pleasant green park with wonderful view over the river.
Tilbury Power Station looks lovely in the setting sun. I take photographs of the power station, glowing in the yellow light of the low sun. I sit in the park and enjoy the last of the sun’s warmth. There are a few people out and they appear to be heading home; mainly solitary walkers, a single fisherman and one lone man with a camera. He takes photographs of the boats moored close to the river bank.
As the sun sets, I resume my walk. The Saxon Way is signposted. It begins here, at the far end of this park. But, to my dismay, I see the walk would take me behind derelict wharf buildings and through unfriendly alleys with high walls on either side. In the gathering gloom, the area seems decayed and unkempt. I notice the photographer is ahead of me. He has stopped and is taking photographs of something on the ground. I would have to pass him and he would see me heading down this unlovely path.
Hesitating, I am reluctant to take this route. I feel vulnerable and alone.
So, I decide to avoid the path and stick to the main roads. Hoping that I am heading in the right direction, I pass through a small marina and find a road just inland that appears to run parallel to the river.
I walk along the pavement. The road is quiet. I am walking through an area of light industry, with builders’ yards, a bus depot, distribution yards and shabby offices in Portakabins. I am passed by a few small cars, driving towards me and heading back into Gravesend. Their drivers look tired and I suspect they are heading home at the end of a long working day. Sometimes a white van passes me and sometimes the occasional decapitated lorry (just the cab, minus its container) heading out towards the industrial area. There are no houses, no residential buildings and no other pedestrians.
The light is fading. In my walking boots, and with my rucksack and poles, I stick out like a sore thumb. I do not belong in this area.
Reaching the point where I am supposed to meet my husband, I stop. He is nowhere to be seen. I phone him but there is no reply and I assume he is driving. I am waiting on a patch of untidy grass and mud, where a number of roads meet. There is a train line nearby and I can see the fence that protects the railway track. I put my rucksack down. I would like to sit down, but there is nowhere to sit except the dirty grass.
I wait. The sun has nearly set. It is getting darker and there are no street lights here. Another lorry cab passes by. It seems that the driver stares at me for just a little too long.
Eventually, before the light fades altogether, I give up waiting and head back into Gravesend, walking back the way I came. This is difficult. I am tired and it is unspeakably frustrating to be retracing my steps at the end of such a long walk. In addition, I am worried that my husband will not be able to find me. He is driving, at night, in a strange town and he has a lousy sense of direction.
I arrive back the Fort and stop in the small car park and wait, near the road.
Then I think I see his car go by. If it is his car, he hasn’t seen me – the car doesn’t stop. A few minutes later, he phones me. Where am I? In a car park, somewhere near the Fort. I would like him to pick me up, soon please. Near me there is a stationary car; a souped up hatchback with blacked out windows and loud music pumping. The driver is sitting inside and the engine revs menacingly. There is no one else around.
Then I see the photographer. He is walking through the car park and is examining the photos on his camera. I can see the screen is lit up. I am keen for some company as I am feeling increasingly nervous
“Any good photographs?” I ask him.
He has an Eastern European accent and shows me a pretty yellow flower on the screen. That is what he was bending down to do, earlier, – taking this photograph. I make admiring noises.
Just then, I see my husband’s car pulling in and, saying a hasty good-bye to the photographer, I forget my fatigue and sprint across the car park to meet him. In the safety of the car, my earlier fears seem exaggerated. I am so pleased to see him, I forget to be cross with him for his tardiness.
Miles walked = 15 miles,
Miles walked in wrong direction = 1
Wrong footpaths taken = 2
Broken poles = 1
Forts seen = 3
Ferries taken = 1
Fear factor = moderate.