Finally, a Saturday with no rain forecast and the temperature above freezing. Here we are, in the car park of “The British Pilot” pub in Allhallows. It is 5 months since I last walked the coast and I am dying to get on with my trek.
It is a grey day with low cloud. I take the footpath across the field towards the bank. Here I stop to admire the view – scenes of where-I-have-been-before are spread out on the other side of the Thames estuary. Looking left, past Allhallows itself, I see the refineries of Canvey Island. Across the water is Southend-on-Sea. To my right, my path for today extends Eastwards along the deserted bank.
I set off with water on my left-hand side and small waves lapping against the bank. Is it a sea bank or a river bank? I am not sure. This is the junction between river and sea, the in-between area.
I have not gone far before I turn southward, following the bank as it follows the course of Yantlet Creek. On the other side of the Creek is the Isle of Grain (misnamed now, as no longer an island, just a peninsular – the gap between has silted up – although there was a time when you could sail a ship through here, avoiding open sea).
I notice a beacon out in the water and beyond that a stone monument. Later I learn this is one of the ‘London Stones’, marking the boundary of the jurisdiction of the City of London.
Across the water in Southend is another London Stone, the Crow Stone. (I photographed it in September, when I walked through Southend, not knowing what it was.) The line between the two stones, running across the mouth of the River Thames, is called the Yantlet Line and defines the limit of jurisdiction of the Port of London Authority. I suppose this is the line beyond which the River Thames officially becomes the North Sea.
The sun comes out. There is nobody around. Across the fields I see the distant industrial structures of the Isle of Grain.
There is nobody around. I wonder why. Allhallows-on-Sea hosts a large holiday camp and I would expect people to be out, walking dogs, etc.
I have done my research today. The footpath follows the bank ahead but ends abruptly. I couldn’t find any ‘right of way’ connecting the path to a track or road. So, I have decided to strike off inland, following a footpath to Binney Farm and then into Allhallows itself.
I nearly miss the footpath, the signs are destroyed. And the path is very muddy. Obviously hordes of cattle have travelled this way. The bank is covered in cow pats but, worse still, the footpath itself is churned up by hundreds of deep footprints. I make my way, with great difficulty, across the marshy field. I wish I had my poles, I think, as I leap from one muddy area to another
Then I reach a section where I must cross a narrow spit of land, surrounded by water on either side. I know this is the footpath – I can see Binney Farm ahead. But the crossing consists of deep, sticky mud. Worse still, it is pockmarked with huge, water-filled, cow footprints. I can’t go forward. On either side are watercourses. There is no way around. Mud has reached past my laces to the tops of my boots. With each step, I feel my boots being tugged downwards. I am in danger of sinking to my knees – or ending up barefoot.
I crisscross the muddy field, trying to find an alternative route, but water ditches impede my progress, too wide to jump.
Eventually, with considerable frustration and a heavy heart, I admit defeat. There is nothing else to do. I turn round and retrace my steps back to Allhallows-on-Sea, back to The British Pilot pub.
On my way back, I pass a monument that I failed to take much notice of first time. This is a grand monument, erected by the Southern Water Authority, Kent, to commemorate the completion of the Thames flood defences (1975 to 1985).
The monument is leaning at a rakish angle. The river refuses to be tamed and is already claiming victory. Nature is having the last laugh.
From the pub in Allhallows-on-sea, I follow the road to Lower Stoke, where I am meeting my husband for lunch. I leave a trail of muddy footprints along the pavement.
I worry about lunch. It is too cold to sit outside, but my boots are very muddy. I needn’t have worried. The pub is run down, unloved and uncared for. There are a couple of old boys at the bar, otherwise the place is empty. It is Saturday lunchtime but they don’t do food. However, the bartender is happy for us to buy food from elsewhere and eat it in his pub. A nearby convenience store is staffed by a Chinese Lady who cooks hot food to order! How wonderfully convenient.
From here onwards, I stick to footpaths, crossing fields to pass by the small village of Stoke, on to Tudor Farm and continue via a bridleway, grandly called North Street on the map. In the distance, Kingsnorth Power Station comes into view and grows steadily larger as I walk southwards.
Now I cross over railway lines. As I hesitate (stopping, looking and listening – as instructed by the signs), I see ahead of me a path with a tall hedge on one side and just get a glimpse of a figure; a man appears to leap into the hedge, just out of sight.
I feel a momentary flash of anxiety. Why is a man hiding in the hedge?
But I have braved cows, snakes and mud. And, I have no choice but to continue. So I do.
As I walk along the path, he comes into view, standing on the side of the track, almost in the hedge. He is youngish, and he has a shot-gun slung over his arm. After another flash of anxiety, I realise he also has a sheepish look on his face. He doesn’t look menacing – he looks guilty.
I nod and say ‘hello’ and he returns my greeting. I feel slightly uneasy as I pass and walk onwards. With my back towards him, I can no longer see him or the gun. But I notice the ground on either side of the path is full of rabbit holes and I am pretty sure that explains his purpose today.
There is a line of pylons on my right. I can hear electricity crackling in the air around them.
Approaching the power station and surrounding industrial estate, the footpath becomes littered with the debris of untidy humans – crisp packets, tissues, empty bottles, cigarette butts, etc. But, apart from the man with the gun, I meet nobody. It is Saturday and the place is a ghost town.
I walk past one entrance to the power station, manned by a bored looking guard. The footpath continues onwards across fields, under another line of marching pylons and towards Hoo St Werburgh.
Looking at the map, I realise I am on the official Saxon Shore Way, one of our long-distance footpaths. Now I meet more people, walking dogs and riding horses. I cross a road and walk through the church yard to the front of the church.
I am early and my husband is late. It has been too muddy to stop anywhere for a snack. Now I sit on a wall and drink my water and eat all my chocolate bars.
This has been a day of ups and down. For the first time, I have been defeated by mud. Walking along rivers and estuaries can be very frustrating, with constant detours inland. Having started off so close, I am now, it seems, some way away from the sea.
But at least I am making progress. And tomorrow is another day ….
Miles walked = 10 miles
Interesting sights seen = The London Stone, man with a gun, Kingsnorth Power Station, industrial landscape, tons and tons of mud.