Thursday, 22 January 2009

Saxon Shore Way Day 2 Strood - Swale

Rainham Riverfront
Due to various logistical reasons it was late September before I was able to complete the second stage of the Saxon Shore Way. I parked at Sittingbourne station, since there is no available parking at Swale Bridge and parking in the Medway Town is not an attractive proposition. There are regular trains from Sittingbourne to Rochester, and a half hourly service from Swale Halt to Sittingbourne at the end of the walk. Although it promised to be a beautiful day, my early start combined with the lateness of the season meant for a foggy start and I was unable to get any pictures as I passed through the historic city of Rochester. This was a pity since the castle, cathedral and main shopping street are all very photogenic.

Rainham Houseboat
The fog didn’t clear until I reached the Medway at Gillingham Strand, following a lengthy slog through the towns of Chatham and Gillingham neither of which are particularly good adverts for the Garden of England. Since I lived in Gillingham a number of years ago, there has been a lot of development mainly as a result of a new road built to serve the growing developments being built on former military docklands. The theme of the day would be one of dereliction and regeneration, an interesting mix but not an obvious backdrop to country walking.

Horrid Hill
The path soon leaves Gillingham behind and hugs the sea defences of the Medway estuary. Offshore is an interesting seascape of marshes, seabirds, rotting hulks and even a few boats still in use. This part of the coast has been protected and there are various interpretive trails and the installation of a new cycle path as part of the national cycle network. The curiously named Horrid Hill, so called because of the conditions experienced by French prisoners of war kept there during the Napoleonic Wars, soon dominates the view and by now there were lots of people here walking their dogs. The path by-passes the peninsula and continues along to the next peninsula at Motney Hill, passing several old wharves and docks no longer in use but hinting at the hive of shipping activity that must have once existed in this area. There are several old ships in various states of disrepair offshore that accentuate the neglect of the whole area.

Boat Graveyard
The path doglegs around Motney Hill, passing a sewage works and some pretty remote looking houses (they must enjoy the smell!) before heading along to Otterham Quay, a port that obviously is still in use. For the next couple of miles the path leaves the riverside and crosses a number of orchards, by now mostly harvested and full of the sweet smell of the fermenting apples left behind.

Otterham Church
Soon it’s back to the riverbank and on the way to Lower Halstow some more houseboats are passed. Although not very salubrious these are probably a huge improvement on conditions experienced in the past when people used to live on the rotting hulks that littered this part of the coast. One very famous resident of these parts was Sir Francis Drake, whose father swapped a hulk for the parsonage of Upchurch church. The dock at Lower Halstow is dominated by a barge undergoing restoration that would once have been a hive of activity with barges carrying away locally made bricks.

Lower Halstow Brick Works
At Lower Halstow the path leaves the riverside once again and skirts along the old shoreline, now some distance inland as the marshes have become more permanent over the years. A short distance away the path passes a brickworks, probably the source of the material shipped away from Lower Halstow but now carried out by road. The views across the marshes are quite surreal, with large cranes and power stations dominating the distant horizon, several old ships left to rot in the water and land devoid of much vegetation or human activity. In the distance the new bridge crossing the Swale looms large, although the gap in the carriageway suggested that only Evel Knievel could actually use the bridge at that time.

River Hulks
For the last couple of miles the path actually heads out over these marshes and it is only then that the true extent of the desolation becomes apparent. Apart from the graveyard of ships, there is one area of farm buildings that look like they have seen better days and, er, that is it. Other than that it is drainage ditches and rough pasture for almost as far as the eye can see. After looping round the marshes the path resumes its course alongside the river, which has now become the watercourse known as the Swale. This cuts the Isle of Sheppey off from the mainland and is currently crossed by a combined road and rail bridge that lifts to allow ships to pass through. The road bridge is being replaced by an enormous new bridge that is partly finished and will eventually improve access to the port of Sheerness.

Partially Finished Bridge
The final part of the walk proved a little awkward as I had to weave around the various obstacles created by the roadworks associated with the new bridge. I was relieved however, when a loud bell announced the opening of the old bridge, bringing the traffic to a halt so that I could cross the road safely. I watched the ship pass through and immediately I could see why the new bridge was being built, since it took nearly ten minutes for the whole operation. By this time the traffic had backed up way into the distance and effectively cut the island off completely for this period of time.

Road Closure
Shortly after the bridge re-opened my train appeared and within 10 minutes I was reunited with my car. This was a very easy section of the walk, albeit very lengthy. You may wish to avoid the urban section of the walk at the beginning and this will reduce the mileage to a slightly more manageable 16 miles.

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