OVER the weekend it started to occur to me that I might not be entirely well, a development that threatened my further perambulation around Kent.
I first suspected on Saturday when I was wrapped up in a jumper and coat and still shivering, while others passed me in t-shirts enjoying a balmy evening. Given that I normally am impervious to cold, this was a bad sign. Waking up on Sunday morning drenched in sweat after a night of surreal, feverish and oddly disturbing dreams (involving my OS map of North Kent, characters from the original Swedish series of Wallander and Harry Lime’s theme from The Third Man) was pretty much the icing on the cake.
‘Oh, deary me,’ I thought, ‘that’s a tad annoying. I’m ever so slightly miffed’1
Most annoying was that it meant that unless I awoke clear-headed and bursting with health on Monday morning, I wouldn’t be going on another walk, which is what I had planned to do.
So yesterday morning came and I awoke covered in sweat and feeling slightly dizzy, although that might have been confusion about the time my alarm clock was showing – the previous night I’d set the actual time to the alarm time and vice versa.
‘Still not well,’ I noted, ‘best call the whole thing off.’
Like hell, I did.
Returning to Strood
Once again, I missed my train by seconds but jumped aboard the next one and whisked my way across Kent to Strood. As the train whooshed by the flat, flat marshes, and the flat, flat fields I got an excellent view of Shornecliffe Fort just past Gravesend.
A short while later, as the train approached Strood, I got to appreciate something else I’d missed in darkness on my way home on Friday but now was able to appreciate in daylight by dint of that self-same daylight’s sudden absence:
The train approaches Strood through a two-and-a-half-mile tunnel that was dug through one of Kent’s most definitely non-flat bits in the 1820s.
The Higham and Strood Tunnel
The Higham and Strood Tunnel was originally dug as part of the Thames and Medway Canal and was the second longest canal tunnel in the UK and easily the largest by volume, being built to carry Thames sailing barges (with masts lowered). It is perfectly straight and opened in 1824 but closed briefly in 1830 while they cut a hole in the middle and made a passing place there to try to better facilitate two-way traffic.
Sadly for its shareholders, the canal, which had been stunningly economic to build (they were excavating chalk, which was worth money in itself) was an economic disaster when completed, being slow to use and only enterable with the tide.
In 1845 the South Eastern Railway put a track through the tunnel – partly on the towpath and partly on stilts – and shared the tunnel with the barges. The following year the canal company gave up and sold the tunnel to SER, who filled in the canal and put a proper double-track line through it.
It still has the gap where the passing place was so the train actually goes through two mile-and-a-bit tunnels in quick succession, these being the Higham and Strood tunnels, respectively.
Higham, unsurprisingly, is the station just before the Higham Tunnel. It’s also a small village in which Charles Dickens lived out his later years.
The above information churned in my head as we hurtled through the dark and then suddenly I was in Strood.
I stepped out of the station and could immediately see Rochester Castle looming over the Medway conurbation, rising above Medway’s image of appalling chavdom like an elderly but prim and proper statesman, all but forgotten in his retirement.
Although Rochester (including Strood), Chatham and Gillingham have now merged into one sprawling mass they are in fact ancient settlements.
Rochester, which I passed through first, was (as Durobrivae) one of the two principal settlements of the Cantiaci tribe of Celts who gave Kent its name. The other, unsurprisingly, was Cantiacorum or Canterbury as we like to call it today.
In Durobrivae, the Romans bridged the Medway, although the bridge was later lost (a new one was built in 960 and several versions of it since), while the Norman castle was built in 1127 on the site of fortifications dating back to Aulus Plautius, the first Roman governor of Britannia (from 43 to 47). Similarly, the Norman cathedral dates from 1130 but the Jutes built an earlier one in 604, having arrived with the Angles and the Saxons.
Over the years Rochester has been attacked and besieged many times, including by such luminaries as King John and Simon de Montfort. These days it keeps its historic core in extremely good nick (tourism being a pretty good earner) but outside of that it’s much like any other town in south-east England.
Town or City?
That Rochester is a mere town and not a city is a matter of some embarrassment and deserves a mention because it used to be one.
Rochester was first chartered as a city in 1211 and the charter was renewed over the centuries until 1974 when Rochester expanded to form a larger borough (merging with Strood and Chatham) called Rochester-upon-Medway. And even then the city’s then-current charter was carefully transferred to the new borough.
This was all well and good until 1998, when the current Borough of Medway was formed by merging Rochester-upon-Medway with Gillingham in an excited effort to gain unitary authority status. Well, complete success there but as Rochester no longer had a separate, named, corporate legal identity it should have appointed charter trustees to keep its charter in force. Alas, the outgoing administration forgot.
Indeed, it was only noticed four years later when the Lord Chancellor published a list of cities and Rochester was no longer on it. I don’t think any other city in the UK has ever de-citified itself, deliberately or otherwise.
Many red faces all round.
So, I strolled through Rochester and on into Chatham, which these days is the centre of the Medway Towns but which dates back to Domesday (listed as ‘Ceteham’), its name meaning ‘forest settlement’. Charles Dickens grew up there but Chatham is famed mostly for its naval dockyard (two thirds of which was actually in Gillingham) which closed in 1984 and which I believe is now mostly luxury flats.
The dockyard was defended by Fort Amherst, a massive set of fortifications constructed in 1756 (and subsequently expanded) to ensure that nothing as embarrassing as the Dutch sailing right up the Medway in 1667 and burning our fleet in anchor could ever happen again.
Chatham also contains a naval monument in the form of an obelisk, commemorating the dead of two world wars. While the surrounds are different, identical obelisks stand in Portsmouth and on Plymouth Hoe.
From there I moved on to another old Saxon town now general urban sprawl, namely Gillingham. Gillingham was actually a village until an outgrowth of Chatham dockyard—New Brompton—overtook and absorbed it but Gillingham got to give its name to the town that resulted.
Although it hosted more of the historic naval dockyard than Chatham did it is mostly infamous for two appalling disasters involving loss of life:
The Gillingham Fair Fire Disaster of 1929 saw something go horribly wrong with a firefighting demonstration in which fifteen participants burned to death while the crowd clapped and cheered at how realistic it all seemed.
Then, in 1951, the Gillingham Bus Disaster saw a double-decker bus on a poorly lit road plough into a column of the Royal Marine Volunteer Cadets (aged between ten and thirteen) killing twentyfour boys and injuring another eighteen. Its aftermath sparked a radical improvement in local street lighting and a decision by all three of the armed services to show a red light at the rear of columns marching at night.
Two Forts (Hoo & Darnet)
I suffered no disasters but I was getting a bit fed up of modern conurbation when my route returned me to the banks of the River Medway and the Riverside Country Park, which covers much of Gillingham’s Lower Twydall area. From there one could see across the river, including the various marshy islands, two of which hold Royal Commission forts.
The forts, being deliberately low in profile, were actually quite hard to spot as Kingsnorth Power Station on the opposite bank lay directly behind them and rather dominated the view. Kingsnorth lies just further along from Hoo St Werburgh and has its own railway line, which I passed over on Friday.
I ambled contentedly through this riverside park, trying to shield my neck from the sun’s intermittent rays. A sign claimed that seals live and feed there but I didn’t see any. I did see a lot of butterflies, mostly of blue or white varieties.
Jutting out from the shore into the Medway was a spit of land leading to Horrid Hill, which is only a hill in the sense that it may not be an island at low tide.
Nearby was the mouldering carcass of Waterloo, a Thames sailing barge built by Thomas Scott in 1891. The North Kent coast seems to be a graveyard for old ships and I saw several more as the day wore on, though I don’t know anything about them.
I followed the shoreline around until I reached the tiny settlement of Otterham Quay, situated at the head of Otterham Creek, where the path moved inland again and took me to Upchurch, at least in theory. In practice I more or less brushed past Upchurch without really seeing it.
While Upchurch is just a small Kentish village (or possibly a village of Kent—there is a strong historical subdivision between the Kentish Men from West Kent and the Men of Kent from East Kent, the dividing line being the Medway)—a hoard of Roman coins was found there in 1950. The Upchurch Hoard contained thirty-seven sestertii from the first and second centuries in surprisingly good condition.
Also, the village once had as its vicar Edmund Drake, the father of Sir Francis Drake. The Drakes fled to Kent from their native Devon as a result of the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, which convulsed Devon and Cornwall. Edmund served as vicar of Upnor until moving to Upchurch in 1560.
Lunch with a View
I paused at a convenient point just after Upchurch and took a break to eat sandwiches and rest my weary feet. I stopped in a place that to some extent afforded me a view back the way I had come. I also got my first glimpse of my destination, for lurking on the horizon on my left was the vast bulk of the 2006 Sheppey Crossing, beside which sits Swale Station.
It is a strange feeling after half a day of walking to see your destination on the horizon, looking so very far away, and to think ‘I’ll be there later. And I’ll have reached it on foot’.
For all that such moments are a mixture of daunting and exhilarating this is part of why I like walking. Because when you travel somewhere you really feel like you’ve travelled. You’ve personally covered every pace of the way—by, in fact, pacing it—and it gives an entirely different perspective on the slow transition from here to there than one gets from, say, whizzing through it down a motorway. And when you look at a destination that doesn’t seem all that far on a map in this age of easy transport but from where you are standing is many times indeed the distance from your front door to the shops and you realise that amazingly it is well within your ability to walk to it this afternoon, well, I like that.
After my brief break for lunch the route took me through several orchards of fruit—mostly pears but also apples—reminding me that Kent likes to self-identify as the Garden of England. I soon regained the Medway shoreline and followed it around to Lower Halstow, a small village whose church dates back in part to the seventh century and contains a rare surviving Norman lead font, which may be the oldest in the country.
The sky opened up at about this time and I took refuge from the rain under an enormous yew tree in the graveyard and rested my feet for a while.
Lower Halstow shares a part of its name with High Halstow but there is no link between the two villages—Halstow derives from halig stow meaning ‘a holy place’. The earliest recorded parish priest for Lower Halstow is John de London, a nephew of Thomas à Beckett.
The rain eased up (but didn’t stop) and I left Lower Halstow in good spirits and crossed through more orchards and a field full of horses, who paid me no attention whatsoever. Sadly, however my good spirits did not last. Firstly, my phone died, leaving me with no way of telling the time or of taking pictures, which was annoying. And secondly, well, let me address that in an open letter…
Dear farmer near Lower Halstow,
You may think you’re awfully clever ploughing your field across the footpath and planting it, without any space even to walk around the edges. You may think its sheer brilliance to allow the footpath gates in and out of your fields to fill up with waist-high nettles. I’m sure you think removing, breaking or in one case obliterating with red paint and then breaking the Saxon Shore Way signs leading onto your fields is a work of pure genius.
Wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong.
The footpath has been about since 1980 at the very least and falls under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I have a right to follow that footpath. Nettles do not deter me, nettle stings only make angry and hence more determined.
Planted fields, I would forgive, for leaving a path in the middle can be annoying and it’s not unreasonable to ask ramblers to go around the crop. Leaving no path at all, not even at the edge is however unforgivable.
The petty vandalism of waymarks in the hope that the path will go away is just childish. If my phone had not died, I would have taken pictures.
As it is, I shall find out to whom I should report these things and then I will do so. I hope they turn up in droves to inspect your handiwork and enforce the right of way, before prosecuting you until your eyes bleed.
A nettle-stung but prevailing Helpful Mammal
In the Marshes
I lost some time trying to work out if I’d emerged from this particular farmer’s fields in anywhere like the place I’d been expecting to, before trudging off, in the intermittent rain, along a narrow but in no way disused country road to where I’d actually expected to emerge. From there I swung back into the marshes to follow a trail that would eventually lead me, through a great many rabbits, some amazingly timid cows and about a billion more midges than I’ve ever seen in my life, to the banks of the Swale.
At one point the track crossed a road not on the OS map, which led to a complex of buildings not on it either, which was oddly pleasing. Fortunately, no men in black leapt out of the Secret Buildings of Doom to erase my memory with mind control machines. Although, maybe they did and I don’t remember it anymore…?
The Isle of Sheppey
The Swale is a channel of the River Thames that separates the Isle of Sheppey from Kent’s mainland. Or possibly I should say that Sheppey is an island that separates the Swale from the rest of the Thames Estuary.
Either way, Sheppey, which essentially means ‘Sheep Island’, shares northern Kent’s general topography of flat marshy bits with shallow hills that form islands of solid ground.
The Isle of Sheppey actually used to be three different isles, namely Sheppey, Harty and Elmley but the channels between them have long since silted up.
After a bridge in Edward I’s time was washed away by a tidal wave, the island was served by three ferries, none of which are still running, but a new bridge (the Kingsferry Bridge) was built in 1860 and replaced in 1906 and 1959.
Swale Station sits at the southern end of this bridge having been built originally as a staff halt called Ridham Dock. It was opened to public use in 1922 after a ship hit the bridge, making it impassable for trains. Instead passengers had to get off at the newly renamed King’s Ferry Bridge South Halt and cross the damaged bridge on foot to a temporary King’s Ferry Bridge North Halt on the other side. The bridge was repaired in 1923 and the halt renamed as Swale in 1929.
There is occasional talk about closing it and it is, I must say, a bit of an oddity of which Isembard Kingdom Brunel would approve. And by that, I mean that it isn’t anywhere. Yes, it’s by the bridge, but it isn’t in a town or village. The nearest settlement is Iwade, a small village at least a mile away.
In other parts of England, Brunel’s Great Western Railway had many such stations and usually either the nearest settlement grew to engulf the station or the station developed a village of its own. That hasn’t happened with Swale. It is in effect a station in the middle of nowhere.
Looming over the station, the Kingsferry Bridge and the surrounding marshland was the vast bulk of the Sheppey Crossing, a new four-lane bridge rising to 20m above the Swale. For much of the last hour of my walk, this loomed before me, a very visible destination. It was opened in 2006.
I arrived beneath the bulk of the Sheppey Crossing and, for one horrible moment, couldn’t work out how to get to the station from the footpath. Evidently, I eventually figured it out and was soon whizzing homewards on the first of the three trains needed to get me there. Perhaps surprisingly my feet aren’t upset with me; whereas last Friday left me broken for a day. Yesterday’s walk was about sixteen and a half miles.
All in all, I should have slept well after that. I actually had another feverish night, involving dreams about a flood of tomato ketchup. Just don’t ask…
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 33½ miles
1 Although this may in fact be a heavily bowdlerised version