I start my walk at a crossroads in the Milton Industrial Estate, Gravesend. Last time I was here, in the fading light at the end of a long day, I was uneasy and unhappy. Now, in the cold, grey light of day, the place has lost its sinister menace. There is nobody around. It is Saturday.
My husband is interested in the long, flat cycle route, stretching from here, inland, through an area marked on the map as “Danger Area”. But I am not taking that route. My route is the Saxon Shore Way. This starts as an unpromising alleyway, running between industrial wharves on my left and storage yards on my right, through an uncared-for looking pub forecourt and then passes through a high metal gate.
Now the path rises up, I am past the wharves and am walking on the river bank itself. There is a wonderfully spooky view of Tilbury Power Station, rising as a pale ghost on the other side of the River Thames. Last time I was in this area, the power station was glowing in the light of the setting sun. Now, in the daylight, I can barely see it through the murky mist of this October day.
To my right, just inland of the bank, is a power relay station; I don’t know what the technical word for the structure is. This is where, I presume cables carrying electricity from Tilbury emerge after their journey under the Thames. From here pylons march across the fields, carrying their electric charge to homes and businesses.
There are a few fishermen out today but this bank of the Thames is otherwise deserted. I notice some burnt patches in the grass where people have lit fires, surrounded by makeshift seats of breeze blocks and old wooden planks. Scattered around the burnt areas are old beer cans, plastic bags and cigarette butts. Whether it is fishermen enjoying the results of a day’s fishing, or groups having impromptu parties, it is unclear who has left this mess.
The further I walk, the less signs of human litter.
Up ahead are a group of ponies. They come charging down an incline, towards me. I am no longer afraid of horses. This is what I tell myself. There are young ones among the group. They are very skittish and give me a wide berth.
After circling around me, the ponies disappear off into misty fields, heading inland.
I am using my poles today and making rapid progress. Although I know I am moving quickly, I am surprised to see an old fort, rising out of the gloom ahead. This must be Cliffe Fort, the twin to Coalhouse Fort across the Thames, invisible in the mist. I have arrived an hour earlier than I expected.
I climb up a grassy incline to the fort structure. There is a semicircular wall with gaps where guns would have sat. On top, there are remnants of larger gun placements. Behind the fort are ruined buildings.
Believing I am at Cliffe Fort, I spend some time looking round and taking photographs.
Then I see a sign. The sign tell me this is Shornemarshes nature reserve and the fort is Shornemead Fort, unmarked on my map – not Cliffe Fort. There has been a fort here since 1796 but the structure I am standing on now was built in the 1870s to provide cross fire with Cliffe Fort and CoalHouse Fort, to defend against new iron-clad French warships.
There are some huge metal screws on the inside of the gun placements. These are the width of my forearm, or wider. Some of the metal work here must have been made of copper, because there is beautiful copper staining on the old stonework of the fort. I can’t resist taking photographs.
Behind the fort are ruined brick buildings, blown up in the 1960s by the army for demolition training. I wonder if this is why the area is marked “Danger Area” on the map and the fort itself is unmarked.
Realising I am now running late, I leave the fort and walk as rapidly as I can along the river wall, heading for Cliffe Fort. A wide road leads up to the wall and I pass some old plank structures on the river side. Apparently, there was an embarkation area here, built in the preparations for D Day, but never really used.
Later, I learn that Dickens set his wonderful story, Great Expectations, in this area of Kent – the Hoo Peninsula. The book mentions a “battery” on the bank of the river and several scenes from the book are set here.
Most people believe Dickens’ battery was Cliffe Fort. But I like to believe it is this smaller fort, Shornemead Fort, where Pip brought food to the convict, Magwitch, on “a rimy morning and very damp”; somewhat like today.
Cliffe Fort itself is almost invisible from the river bank when you get close, so overgrown is it with bushes and trees. The fort is not open to the public and has fencing around it, but people have piled stones against the fencing to make steps over. There are a father and son climbing among the old fortifications.
Because of the overgrown bushes, I cannot take good photographs. I wonder halfheartedly whether I should climb over the fence for a closer look. But I am tired and running late.
For those interested, there are some great photographs of the Fort on the Derelict Places website.
As I neared Cliffe Fort, I come across the wreck of the Hans Egede schooner. This old ship was used to transport goods as a barge. After it ran aground and its hull was breached, it was towed here – out of the main river thoroughfare – and abandoned, probably in the 1960s.
There is another amazing relic to be found here; the remnants of the launch slipway for the Brennan Torpedo. This was one of the first ever “guided missiles” and would have been launched to intercept any invading warship coming up the Thames. Installed here around 1885, it was decommissioned by 1905.
I was unable to take a decent photograph of the rails because of the poor light, but there is a great one on Flicker by Richard Best.
Neither the fort, nor the torpedo, ever saw real action here. The only ship that was sunk was a cargo ship, sunk by mistake. And the only deaths have been due to accidents; young people playing on the abandoned site.
Continuing along the river bank, skirting round the fort, I come across an industrial yard with huge piles of gravel. There is a wharf where barges can come alongside and a long conveyor belt to carry stuff from the boats onto the site. Initially I believe that there is gravel quarrying here, but then I realise the boats are bringing gravel here, where it is piled for storage.
There is nobody working here today.
The footpath, with fencing on either side, runs through the site, crosses a road and passes under the conveyor belt. This seems really surreal, to be walking under this huge industrial structure.
As I walk further along the bank, past flooded pits (old gravel pits, I wonder?), I can look back and see the far end of the conveyor belt, rising into the air with a huge pile of gravel beneath it. Beyond is the fort. In front are green pools of water.
Now the path turns inland. I walk along wide tracks that run, straight, between large, featureless pools of water. This turns out to be a RSPB nature reserve Cliffe Pools, an important site for migrating birds. There are not many birds here today.
I am heading for the village of Cliffe, where I am meeting my husband for lunch. It is obvious where the village got its name. Just beyond the featureless marsh area, rises a chalky looking “cliff”.
Walking along a potholed road, I am constantly having to make detours to avoid water filled holes in the surface. This makes the going difficult. I meet a group of walkers, the first I have met all day. They are all male, of different ages, from elderly to young. One of the young boys seems to have had enough. He is standing near the edge of the road, crying, and his dad is examining his ankle.
I pass the group and reach the pub. The door is locked. Through the window I can see the bar with pumps. It is after 12. Why is the pub shut? Then I realise, it is no longer a pub, despite the misleading bar visible through the window. It is a private house. Probably a good idea to keep the door locked as, otherwise, I would be sitting in their living room demanding a cider.
Is this the only pub in the village? If so, I am going to remain hungry. Telephoning my husband, I discover he is in a real pub, further up the road. There is good news and bad news. The good news; the pub is open. The bad news; it does not serve food.
We buy sandwiches from the village shop (just in time, it closes at 1pm) and the barmaid is happy for us to eat our picnic lunch in her pub. So we do.
The only other people in the pub are some smartly dressed men in suits, who are already rather merry. Then we realise. There is a wedding in the neighbouring church. Suddenly, a siren sounds and keeps sounding. I go out to see what is happening. The bridal car is arriving but there is a fire engine blocking her access to the church. The firemen wave at the car. The bride laughs. It is all a joke.
I wonder if she is marrying a fireman. Or do the local fire crew always play this prank on wedding days in this village?
After lunch, I head off back into the Cliffe nature reserve to rejoin the river bank. I know this walk will be long. I didn’t realise quite how featureless it would be.
The rough road stretches endlessly ahead. There are featureless pools of water on my left and featureless open fields on my right. I see someone else in the distance walking ahead of me and, after a little while, I meet him as he walks back. I carry on.
A post office van passes me, bouncing along the rough track. The sight of the red van, so far from anywhere, seems strangely incongruous. Later I pass a small farm-house and, I guess, this is where the van has come from.
After that, I meet nobody for miles. I pass some farm houses, but they are deserted, boarded up and decaying.
It is a relief when this track comes to an end and I meet a steep bank, leading up to the edge of the river. At the top of the bank is a wall. Beyond the bank is a rough, muddy shore and the river itself. This is the mighty Thames, wide and deep, as it empties into the sea.
Behind me, the village of Cliffe is 2 miles away. In front of me lies a 10 mile walk before I reach the next village on the coast, Allhallows-on-Sea.
Now I have a dilemma. Do I walk along the top of the bank, looking over the wall at the river, despite the fact the ground here is rough and there may be snakes? Or do I walk along the flat, easy track at the bottom of the wall, with no river view and only marshes and farmland for scenery? In the end, I do a bit of both. Staying up at the top of the bank whenever I can, but walking along the grass track at the bottom if the going becomes obscured by bramble, the bank too narrow or the way too overgrown and treacherous.
I pass a small light point, called Lower Hope Point. Just beyond, in the field, are rows of symmetrical, rectangular buildings. So orderly do they look, I am sure it must be a military structure. As I get nearer, I see this place, whatever it is, has long been deserted and the windows are empty holes with roofs missing in places. Maybe it was a pig farm? I don’t know. The only sign of a life is a large 4×4 car, parked alongside one of the buildings, with no sign of the driver.
That is as exciting as it gets.
Across the grey river, through the grey mist, I see the grey buildings of a grey industrial complex. I realise I am opposite the oil refinery near Fobbing. Strange to think I was over there, only one day of walking ago, on the other side of the refinery and trying to make my way to Tilbury, but lost in the fields because I was denied access to the river bank.
I carry on walking. It is getting late and I will not make Allhallows this evening. I am planning to cut my walk short by coming off the river wall and heading through Halstow Marshes to meet a track, leading to a road, where, hopefully, my husband can drive the car and pick me up.
Then I round a corner and come across a beautiful sight.
Here is a perfect little horseshoe bay. Across gleaming mud, long slow waves are flowing gently inland, with graceful white crests. Standing in the mud, facing the incoming tide, is a mass of sea gulls; standing still and quiet. This is Egypt bay, as marked on the map, and it is beautiful.
Beyond the bay, I head inland, following a poorly signposted footpath and having to fight my way through bramble bushes. I put on my gaiters to protect against snakes and I am grateful for my sticks, as I stumble through long grass and weeds, trying to keep out of marshes and narrowly avoiding hidden rabbit holes. The light is fading and I am worried I won’t find the path out of the marsh.
But then I spot the track, clear and wide and recently used by horses. The gravel hurts my tired feet. I see nobody. After a mile, I am at a farm, unpleasantly marked as “Swigshole” on the map. The track is barred by a locked gate. I had thought this was a public bridleway, but the landowner is obviously determined that no other horse riders should enjoy his property.
To the side of the gate is a style and I climb over. Further down the road, too far for my tired feet, I meet my husband. There are no turning places on this tiny road. He has to drive along, taking me back to “Swigshole” and we turn around in their driveway.
Old Forts = 2
Sunken boats = 1
Torpedo slipways = 1
Weddings = 1
Miles walked = 15