YESTERDAY, I had a plan to get up bright and early and perambulate part of the Saxon Shore Way from Gravesend to Strood in Kent.
Not out of the blue, you understand, but as part of a wider project. I have long wanted to walk the South West Coast Path, which is some distance from me (I live in London). But then, I wondered, could I walk to the SWCP?
From there it was a short mental step (and a promise of many physical ones) to wonder why I should stop there? A vague intention to walk the coast of Great Britain emerged. Well, more-or-less; I’m no purist about these things.
But first things first…
The Saxon Shore Way
What it is
The Saxon Shore Way is in part a coastal footpath, and in part an inland one as it follows the line of the coast in the third century, when the Count of the Saxon Shore (Comes litoris Saxonici per Britannium) was the Roman official charged with defending it. Whether he was defending it from invading Saxons, or defending a shore already settled by Saxons from anyone else trying to get in is contentious. But then the details of British immigration policy always are.
Whatever their initial purpose, the fortifications were indeed used by the Counts of the Saxon Shore to defend Britannia and to combat the Saxon and Frankish pirates that plagued the Channel in the fourth century.
And then, in the fifth century, the Romans recalled their legions from this far-off, rainy province to defend Rome itself, which pretty much put out the welcome mat to the Saxons, Angles and Jutes.
Of course, the Roman fortifications were all on the actual sea-facing coasts, so yesterday’s jaunt along the shores of the Thames estuary wasn’t going to feature much in the way of those. Still, I thought I had a good plan and set my alarm accordingly to ensure an early start.
Naturally, I slept right through it.
A hasty recalculation of walking times led me to conclude that if I left immediately I was up and dressed, I could still make it to Strood with fifteen minutes to spare before the daylight failed at quarter to eight (ish). I thus dashed down to the station to catch the 0922 to Gravesend.
Naturally, I arrived just in time to watch it pull out from the station
Ok, I thought. I’ve been quite generous with the walking time to assume a leisurely pace. If I up that to ‘brisk’, at least to start with – brisk not being easily sustainable over a distance of 17 miles – I should still make it to Strood station while there’s enough twilight to see by. Besides, once I get into the Medway conurbation (Strood is essentially a suburb of Rochester) there will be streetlights to see by. Aha, I concluded, I can still do this.
I should probably have concluded otherwise and tried again today.
So, the next train whisked me off to Gravesend and I found myself starting my walk at ten thirty, rather than at eight o’clock as I had originally planned. Oh well…
The Saxon Shore Way actually starts from Gravesend town pier, the oldest cast iron pier in the world, but I started from St George’s Church a few hundred yards further upstream, this being the church in whose grounds Pocahontas is buried.
The historical Pocahontas, who bears as much relation to her Disneyfied version as ducks do to their ancestral dinosaurs, had come to England with her husband, John Rolfe as what amounts to an advert for the Virginia Company that America’s natives could be ‘tamed’. Worse, she had only married John Rolfe after having been kidnapped by the Jamestown colonists for a year, during which she converted to Christianity (taking the name Rebecca). Even at best, Stockholm syndrome springs readily to mind.
Anyway, having been paraded about in England, including a meeting with King James I at Whitehall Palace, she and Rolfe set sail from London to Virginia in 1617. The ship had only got as far as Gravesend when she fell ill, was transferred to shore and died. No one knows what it was that killed her. They don’t know where in St George’s churchyard she is buried either but the Church, not wanting to miss a trick, erected a bronze statue of her anyway.
Returning to my own journey of yesterday, I departed St George’s church at about a quarter to eleven and made my way along the front, bypassing much of Gravesend.
These days Gravesend is a fairly typical southern English town, whose general ordinariness in no way suggests that it is one of the oldest market towns in England, with a charter dating back to 1268.
My route quickly took me past the town pier, thus starting the Saxon Shore Way proper, and on past a street affording a good view of Gravesend’s Clock Tower (built in 1887 in honour of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee) to the Fort Gardens, a park which cleverly incorporates the walls of the long-disused New Tavern Fort, built in 1780.
After that it all got a bit industrial, and then suddenly I was out in the fields with the River Thames on one side and Kentish fields and marshland on the other. I tried to ignore the lowering bulk of Tilbury Power Station across the water on my left and the uncomfortably warm feeling on my right as the brightly shining sun reminded me why dashing out of the house in such a hurry as to forget sunscreen is a bad idea when your natural complexion is ‘dead fish’.
After a couple of miles of this I came to the ruins of Shornemead Fort, a small gun emplacement built in the 1790s to support both New Tavern Fort and Cliffe Fort, which lies two miles downstream.
Between 1847 and 1853 the army built it up into an imposing pentagonal structure but hadn’t properly considered the difficulties of building such a heavy structure, designed to hold some very heavy artillery pieces, on a piece of salt marsh. As the fort began to sink and subside under its own weight they tore it down and started again, building a new fort in the shape of a letter D. It was disarmed in 1904 and now lies in ruins although not so much through the ravages of time as because the army allowed the Royal Engineers to use it for demolition practice.
I guess the fact that any of it still stands at all is a testament to the people that built Shornemead Fort version 2.
Originally, I planned to stop and rest at Shornemead Fort but instead I pressed on, passing one cormorant and several dozen horses on my way. The horses, which included a couple of enormous shires, watched me incuriously as I passed.
Two miles on lay Cliffe Fort, a much larger fort from the 1860s built as a result of Lord Palmerston’s Royal Commission into the nation’s defences. Together with Coalhouse Fort on the opposite (Essex) bank and Shornemead Fort, it was capable of turning this stretch of the Thames into a veritable triangle of death and destruction for any French ship that dared to come looking for trouble. Even better, in 1890 they added a Brennan Torpedo station (the Brennan torpedo was the first practical guided missile) the launch rails of which can still be seen.
Sadly, the fort is all shut up and sealed off and in a state of disrepair and lies within the grounds of a gravel quarry. The surrounding area comprises marshy wetlands and pools, much now owned by the RSPB, and building the fort must have been hell as the whole area was not only boggy but also rife with malaria until the mid-1890s.
Adding to the air of ghostly neglect around Cliffe Fort are the misshapen remains of Hans Egede, a Danish-built 3-masted ship launched in 1922. She was used as coal hulk for many years before breaking up under age and strain while being towed along the Thames in 1957. Taking on water, just off Cliffe Fort, Hans Egede was towed to the shore and ignominiously dumped where she has sat decaying ever since.
She was named for a Lutheran missionary who took Christianity to Greenland and, incidentally, gave us one of the earliest written accounts of a sea serpent.
After a brief rest at Cliffe Fort and a feast of wild blackberries (the brambles there were most generously bounteous) I turned inland, as the Saxon Shore Way did likewise.
We followed the banks of the Cliffe Creek for a while and then passed along side an RSPB nature reserve, although I didn’t see that many birds apart from the ubiquitous seagulls. I did however see more rabbits than I could comfortably shake a stick at; the little hoppity blighters were absolutely everywhere.
It was almost as though they’d spent the summer breeding like, er, rabbits.
It was about this time that I discovered that the well-established and waymarked Saxon Shore Way is not nearly as waymarked as I’d hoped. Certainly, my ability to follow a map appears to be much better than my ability to follow waymarks and, in future, when one does not accord with the other I am going to assume that I am right. Sadly, I did the opposite yesterday and lost an hour taking the wrong trail entirely until I got the map out, lined up the landmarks and swore a lot.
It was at this point that I knew I couldn’t possibly get to Strood before nightfall unless I cut the walk short. I also knew that being stuck on unlit country paths at night would be no fun at all. Naturally I pressed on, wondering why the hell I hadn’t thought to pick up a torch just in case.
Retracing my steps to where I went wrong, I found the correct path and eventually a waymark to prove it. This led me to Cliffe, also known as Cliffe-at-Hoo, being situated on the Hoo Peninsula. Cliffe is a small and ancient village – King Offa of Mercia built a church there in 774.
The current church is a more modern affair, having been built in 1260. Like its forbear it is dedicated to St Helen, which no other parish church in Kent is.
The village lays claim to being the ‘Clovesho’ at which the Archbishop of Canterbury held several important councils between 742 and 825. It definitely was a thriving port in the middle ages until silting made navigation impossible.
A farmer named Henry Pye was instrumental in draining the marshes in 1895, ending the ravages of malaria, its vector of transmission having been identified in 1890. A little research reveals that while marsh drainage tipped the balance far enough to eradicate the Plasmodium parasite, it didn’t do the same for the Anopheles mosquito, which still survives in reduced numbers. Of course, without the parasite, Anopheles bites are just itchy rather than dangerous; I was much relieved to know I wasn’t going to be the first person to contract malaria in Kent for over a century.
I paused in Cliffe to have a drink and a rest and I called into a tiny, little shop with a tiny, little, old man running it who gave a huge thumbs-up and a wink in a strangely conspiratorial manner, as if to say ‘we know what we’re about, eh?’ I bought an ice cream, some water and some snacks and he shuffled over to the till and proceeded to add up the prices with a paper and pencil, which I haven’t seen anyone do in a shop for years. But then, I find that Kent tends to do this – you don’t have to head too far east to find the Village That Time Forgot.
So, onwards I trekked, now racing against time. Out from Cliffe into the fields of Kent. Before long I passed through the tiny village of Cooling, which is home to Cooling Castle, built in 1381 to defend Cliffe from raids by the French. It was built by Lord Cobham who employed the stonemason Henry Yverle, who also worked upon the Tower of London and the original Palace of Westminster.
The castle had a stormy history of rebellion and capture. It was used by Sir John Oldcastle the Lollard (i.e. reformist follower of John Wycliffe or, in the eyes of the established church, a heretic and traitor) upon whom Shakespeare’s Falstaff was based and later by the leaders of a Kentish rebellion against Mary I. These days it is owned by Jools Holland.
Church of St James
The path led me next past Cooling’s Church of St James, in whose graveyard are a series of children’s graves that strongly affected Charles Dickens (who lived in nearby Higham) and are believed to have inspired the opening scene of Great Expectations where Pip visits the graves of his parents and in doing so encounters Magwitch. It then swung out into wide open fields and eventually took me up a hill—a hill! In the flat, flat marshes!—I don’t know which was greater, the excitement of finding an actual topological feature, or my dismay at the alarming unfitness that climbing up it revealed.
At the top of the hill was a seat, allowing an excellent view of the North Kent Marshes (with the ugliness of Tilbury Power Station still lurking in the distance). Also at the top of the hill was a wood, with the path snaking charmingly through it. Smiling to myself, I followed it through the trees, which was unfortunate because when it emerged it didn’t seem to be doing so where the map thought it would. No problem, thought I, looking at the row of houses before me. The path is meant to skirt the top of High Halstow. This is obviously High Halstow in front of me. All I have to do is go into the village and head north. How hard can it be?
Not that hard actually, I’m pleased to say. Although when I found the path I was less than impressed— it ran between two fields with a hedgerow on either side. This should have been idyllic except the brambles obviously wanted to get in on the whole Saxon Shore way thing and it was almost impassable without the aid of a machete. I say ‘almost’; if I end up with tetanus from the scratches I shall be most unimpressed. Oh, and most painfully dead. Let’s keep our fingers crossed then…
Hoo St Werburgh
I left High Halstow behind—its Church of St Margaret is listed in Domesday (although in this part of Kent, what isn’t?) and is built on the highest point of the Hoo Peninsula—and charged on towards Hoo St Werburgh, aware that sunset was now half an hour away at best. I skirted the village, named for Werburgh, who was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and born in about 640, noting, as I passed its church, that I’d read that it contains the Royal Arms of both Elizabeth I and James I, which is apparently unique. Although I’m not sure how, exactly. At Hoo St Werburgh I joined the River Medway, which has long been associated with the Royal Navy.
Putting on a hectic pace now, for all that my feet were tired, I bombed along the quaysides and river banks, soon reaching Lower Upnor at which two stones on the shoreline mark the limit of the charter rights of London fishermen. The older stone is dated 1204. I passed what looked like an old WW2 pillbox, but so undermined by the river that it now rested on the beach at a crazy-looking angle. Shingle crunched under my feet as I stomped along by the gently lapping waters of the Medway.
For all that time was of the essence, I stopped to speak to a couple of gents outside a yacht club, confirming my route as I didn’t want to get lost in the impending dark. They seemed impressed in a strangely pitying way that I’d walked all the way from Gravesend and put my chances of getting to Strood station by nightfall as ‘you haven’t a hope’. I looked hopefully at the sun, now touching the horizon. I looked at the time.
It’s five minutes to sunset, I thought. I have two and a quarter miles to go. There’s at least twenty minutes of twilight, possibly a good half an hour. I’m game.
At this point I made a decision that left a slightly sour taste in the mouth. Although I had wanted to continue along the shoreline, past Upnor Castle and through Upper Upnor, I came to the conclusion that navigating obstacle-strewn beaches and tiny footpaths and alleyways at night was not a good idea. So, with some reluctance, I chose instead to walk along the road, which at least was lit. Until the edge of Lower Upnor.
‘Great,’ I thought, as I walked along an unlit, tree-flanked country road, diving out of the way of the occasional passing car. ‘Marvellous.’ Fortunately, I had, for some unknown reason, chosen to put on a white shirt that morning instead of my customary black so at least I had some chance that drivers might see me in time to slam on the brakes.
The road skirted around the back of Upnor Castle, which was built in 1564 for the cost of £3,621. It was seized by Parliament in the Civil War then briefly taken by Royalists in 1648 but recaptured. When the Dutch, in 1667 during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, sailed up the Medway to burn the English fleet at Chatham it opened fire upon them to very little effect and ran out of ammunition almost immediately. In the same raid the Dutch had razed Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey and occupied that island for several days.
All this information was moot however because by now it was getting pretty dark and I couldn’t have seen anything anyway.
I more-or-less bypassed Upper Upnor, which apparently has many houses clad in Kentish weatherboarding, and struck out towards Strood by connecting with a brightly lit A-road.
The last hour of my walk, which involved me wandering tiredly through what felt like too many of the industrial and residential streets of Frindsbury (a part of Strood), was not entirely a highlight and by now I just wanted to sit down and never walk again. My original plan had featured many rest breaks and a general pace of ‘leisurely amble’. The walk, as completed, had involved some improbably sustained briskness and only a couple of stops.
When I reached Strood Station, sunburned and footsore, a bench on my platform seemed like the best invention ever as I awaited a train to whisk me home.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 17 miles