Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Saxon Shore Way Day 1 Gravesend - Strood

Town Pier
When is a coastal walk not a coastal walk? When it’s the Saxon Shore Way, a 165-mile trail from Gravesend to Hastings, which wends its way around the shoreline that existed over 1000 years ago. As with much of the coastline of Britain this is a constantly changing place, with some areas disappearing in this timescale and others growing enormously. Hence in some places the path is actually some distance from the present day shoreline, especially around the Isle of Thanet and Romney Marsh. This is a fascinating coast, for so often at the frontline of British resistance to foreign invasion and full of history. There are many unique features along this stretch of coast, and surprisingly desolate in places despite the proximity of seaside resorts and major ports.

Gravesend Town Clock
Fresh from my expedition to the Isle of Wight I felt full of stamina, which was just as well since most of the days are quite long, although the going is mostly easy. The path runs along the Thames Estuary from Gravesend to the Medway Towns, then along the coast facing the Isle of Sheppey and on to the resorts of the Kent coast. It turns inland at Reculver, following the old shoreline before siltation caused the joining of the Isle of Thanet, to Sandwich. The path then climbs up onto the White Cliffs beyond Deal and follows the chalk ridge to Sandling where it crosses the north end of Romney Marsh to Rye and finally crosses the sandstone cliff that mark the end of the Weald before dropping into Hastings. As with the Isle of Wight walk I did not follow the path sequentially for logistical reasons, although I will report it as though I did for clarity.
Riverside Park
The start of the walk is in a familiar town to me, Gravesend, where I worked at Gravesham Borough Council before joining Worthing. Gravesend is an unexpectedly attractive town, which has benefited from a lot of investment in recent years to make the most of the historic town centre. I came by train from Strood, a 20 minute train ride and from the station headed down to the start of the path at the Town Pier, stopping briefly to reacquaint myself with the statue of Pocahontas, the famous Indian princess who is buried in the nearby churchyard after dying of pneumonia offshore in 1617. The Town Pier is billed as the oldest cast iron pier in the world and has recently undergone a complete refurbishment.

Riverside Band Stand
From the pier the walk heads eastwards past the Riverside leisure area and canal basin. All along this stretch of the Thames estuary is evidence of the necessity to defend the entrance to the Port of London, with forts, gun batteries and look out points still present. Chantry Fort in Gravesend has now become the focal point for some very attractive gardens. Within the gardens is a statue of another of Gravesend’s famous residents, Gordon of Khartoum, the distinguished Victorian military campaigner.
Once beyond the canal basin there is a bit of a shock in store as the path weaves its way around a large area of derelict industrial buildings. The industrial blight in this part of Gravesend will surely take a lot of cleaning up before it is suitable for redevelopment. At the junction of a road I passed the end of the Thames and Medway Canal, the scene of another restoration project completed a few years ago. Never a commercial success, the canal linked the two rivers without the need for ships to take the long way around the Hoo peninsula that divides the Thames from the Medway. From here I took advantage of the refreshment bar, which sold bottles of cold water before climbing on to the sea wall at the very edge of town.

River Hulk
From here the way ahead was a scene of desolation and big skies. Across the river was the huge power station at Tilbury, which dominated the skyline and the river itself acted like a conveyor belt for ships plying up and down. The weather was fabulous on this mid-April day, with a helpful breeze to keep me cool. The next three miles took me along the river bank of the Thames and passed the old forts at Shornemead and Cliffe, both now abandoned and forgotten by all except the few walkers that pass by. This is a lonely stretch of the path, with few walkers in evidence and the only sounds came from the odd passing ship and the distant horns of the trains.

Cliffe Fort
After a spot of lunch at Cliffe Fort, the path headed away from the river and crossed an area of old gravel pits that were alive with seabirds. In the distance I could still see the ships travelling on the Thames, but from this angle they looked very strange as it appeared that they were actually crossing the fields because of the flat terrain. Just before Cliffe village, I came across what was clearly the old shoreline, now stranded a mile away from the river estuary. Cliffe village was largely deserted and the shop was shut for the lunch hour. The High Street is an attractive feature of the village, but the rest is rather spoiled by the mostly 1960’s housing estate that forms the bulk of the remainder.

Cliffe Village
Between Cliffe and Cooling the path crosses fields that were full of foreign workers picking the early crops of vegetables. Cooling Castle is a surprise, with a large fortified gateway by the road protecting the manor house behind. The church, a little further beyond, was made famous in the Charles Dickens novel, Great Expectations, where young Pip meets the convict Magwitch. There are a number of orchards in this area, reminiscent of the Greensand Way although this time I was lucky enough to see them in full blossom.

Cooling Castle
Beyond Cooling, the path actually climbs a hill! This is a bit of a surprise after the largely flat countryside encountered thus far. At the top of Halstow Hill the view back to Gravesend is spectacular and was a very welcome place to catch my breath. At the top of the hill the path disappeared into woodland that was now full of bluebells just coming out into bloom. Once through the woodland the countryside was quite different and no longer influenced by the Thames Estuary. The path passed by the village of High Halstow, which was clearly in the grip of a great deal of housing development. I had my first problem with navigation here and ended up on a road some distance from where I should have been. It didn’t have any major effect on my progress as I soon put myself back on track and continued on to the busy main A228 road, which I crossed with some difficulty.

Cooling Church
The next section had clearly not been walked for some time as it was pretty overgrown, unusual for this early in the season. By now I was getting pretty tired as I had already covered 16 miles and I found the section between High Halstow and Hoo St Werbergh pretty uninspiring. Luckily as I was beginning to flag, my spirits were raised by the approach of the River Medway. The path weaved its way around a large and interesting boatyard, full of all sorts of vessels before continuing along the beach like banks of the Medway to Upnor. This section can only be walked at low tide, so it is worth checking the tides before attempting the next couple of miles. An alternative route exists at the top of the hill if you can’t avoid high tide.
High Halstow Bluebell Woods

Upnor village is actually a very convenient place to park as there is a free car park just outside the village. From here it is a couple of miles to Strood station. This is where I parked and was very pleased to retrieve the car. From Upnor, the path continues down the picturesque High Street and past the castle, owned by English Heritage and open for visits if you so wish. From the castle the path weaves around old military controlled land from where you get occasional good views of the final meander loops of the Medway and across to the town of Rochester.

Hoo Lightship

Although a very long section of walking the flatness of the terrain makes for pretty easy going and the mileage is ticked off pretty quickly. I completed this section in a little over six hours. The main problem is the remoteness of the countryside, with very few shops en route (there is one at Cliffe) and only a couple of pubs. If you get too tired there is a bus service that links Cliffe with Rochester and another that calls at High Halstow.

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