Strood to St Mary Hoo,
Wednesday 15th July 2015
The terrifying crossing of the Hoo peninsula had been the cause of much discussion and planning over the winter. The Hoo is a squashed balloon shaped piece of land separating the Medway flowing north along its eastern edge from the Thames flowing east along the northern edge.
It is impossible to walk right around it as the eastern side is occupied by power stations and industrial sites so a route had to be chosen to bypass these. The other problem is that the northern edge of the peninsula is remarkably remote even though it is on the bank of a busy river. There is a path along the boundary but no access inland from it for many miles because of marshes. There are a few villages scattered across the landscape but public transport is limited and places to stay non-existent. We eventually decided that the best strategy for us would be to do it in three walks, two of about nine miles and one of about twelve. All would be possible as day outings; long days but easier and cheaper than staying over in one of the local towns.
Accordingly, 6.30 on Wednesday morning found us at Aldershot Station for the train to Waterloo. We had time at Waterloo to stock up on food and drink for the day before catching the next train to Strood. At Strood station we sought out a waiting taxi whose driver assured us that we would be able to get a mobile signal and phone to be picked up from our planned stopping place later that day. Had he said otherwise, we would have taken the taxi out there and done the walk backwards.
We had finished the previous walk on the bank of the Medway near the old Russian submarine so we found the same spot and took the beginning photos before setting off at exactly 9.15.
We began by walking along the edge of the river on a good promenade and over the entrance to what is left of the Thames and Medway canal. This canal was built in the early 1800s to link the two rivers via an inland route and was 43 feet wide to accommodate the sailing barges generally in use at that time. Just over two miles of the canal was underground and was 35 feet high to take the sails of the barges. In 1845, the new railway line between Gravesend and Strood was laid in the tunnel, partially on the towpath and partially on stilts over the water. A few years later, the South Eastern Railway company bought the tunnel, drained and filled the canal and laid a double railway track. The tunnel is still in use as part of the North Kent main Line but all that remains of the canal is this derelict lock gate on the Medway and a short stretch at the Gravesend side.
Soon our route turned inland and climbed steeply. At the top we emerged onto a lane and we should have passed a church but we missed it somehow and before long were heading downwards again via a long shallow flight of steps. Thankfully the dual carriageway at the bottom had a crossing and a clear sign on the other side pointed to an almost hidden track between a sewage works and a metal fence topped with razor wire. After a few hundred yards, we emerged onto a lane by the entrance to a military establishment. The guard on the gate pointed to the next path which soon brought us out onto the river bank again.
The military base is RSME Holdfast; part of the Royal School of Military Engineering, founded in 1812 to train engineers of all kinds. According to its website it, “provides training in all engineering disciplines, providing the unique range of skills that are fundamental to the Royal Engineer as well as delivering military working animals, handlers and maintainers, EOD (i.e, bomb disposal) Munitions and Search specialists, and musicians.” Like many other similar institutions, it is much smaller now than it once was and is partly run by civilians.
A short walk along the foreshore brought us to the imposing walls of Upnor Castle. We had planned to stop here and by good fortune, arrived one minute after opening time. This meant we had the place to ourselves for most of our visit and enjoyed a thorough look round. The castle is small but fascinating with a rather quirky history.
It was built in the mid-1500s to protect the military installations along the Medway and manned by soldiers who were unsuitable for front line duties, those who had been injured, were approaching retirement or otherwise not particularly fit. They lived there with their families and it seems there was not a lot of military activity at any time in its history. The castle was altered, extended and reinforced several times over the centuries and was used as a prison during the civil war whilst in the hands of parliamentary forces. It saw action in 1667 when a Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames then unexpectedly turned sharp left into the Medway. They set to work to destroy the English ships moored there and the guns of Upnor fought valiantly to stop the invasion. The Dutch eventually withdrew having been prevented from entering Chatham Dockyard by the wrecks of the English ships they had sunk or damaged. The skirmish led to a revision of the defence of the Medway which resulted in other batteries taking over the task and the downgrading of Upnor
Its role from then on was mainly as a gunpowder store to supply these new forts built on the other side of the river to defend Chatham and the soldiers at Upnor were reduced to the task of protecting the gunpowder. Later shells were filled there and a shell store built. The gunpowder was brought by boat and a pulley system was used to lift the powder to the store room higher in the building. The pulley was at one time worked by a man jumping from the window at the top holding the rope, but that method was soon superseded. The rooms near the gunpowder store were designed with safety in mind. The handrail on the stairs has a lead coating and the floors have no nails so that there is no risk of a spark.
The castle continued as a defence base until the Second World War, after which it became a museum. It is also used as a wedding venue with a room set up in the very atmospheric old gunpowder store. We especially liked the old powder barrels used as seats.
We enjoyed a good hour looking round before resuming the walk. The way led beside the castle walls up Upnor’s beautiful sloping High Street. It is full of weather boarded cottages, higgledy-piggledy and very old, all bright with flowers and evocative names such as Toad Cottage and Admiral’s Haven. Unfortunately we struggled to take a decent photo as there was a lorry delivering to the pub which rather spoilt the view. The route now led along a couple of quiet lanes behind the castle and back down to the riverbank again.
We were now in Lower Upnor which is just a road of houses along the river front. The road soon curved inland slightly while the path wound on beside the river past a small car park, yacht moorings and the buildings of HMS Arethusa. This is part of a London charity called The Shaftesbury Homes and is now run as a centre for children’s activity holidays. The fascinating charity’s history is explained on their website, HMS Arethusa.
At the end of the path we realised with a shock that we really should have planned this section a little more carefully. We were following the Saxon Shore Way, which at this point has an alternative route a little way inland, noted but not questioned by either of us. We had opted for the shore side route and it soon became evident that at high tide, this route would be impassable. Light dawned! The other route was there to provide a permanently open path across higher ground. However, we were lucky as the tide was out and we were able to pick our way along a beach of sorts. It was strewn with boulders, tree roots and rubbish as well as lumps of broken concrete and rails to launch boats. Immediately behind the beach was woodland and we reckoned that if necessary we could work our way between the trees but we were very pleased not to have to. We passed a few interesting features; a pill box whose foundations had been half washed away so that it appeared to have slithered down the hillside onto the beach with a nice bit of graffiti reading “Jack and Jill were here”. Also we passed lime kilns, long disused and crumbling away but still quite imposing.
Eventually we clambered up to a concrete slab at the end of the beach. We had arrived at Hoo Marina, a community of houseboats and also a mobile home park. The residents were obviously not very keen for walkers to linger here as the path was fenced on both sides and many private, no trespassing and keep out notices were in evidence. We duly marched through the site and out the other side. The way continued to be well marked as we threaded through a busy industrial site, which was hot, noisy and fairly unpleasant.
Eventually we reached countryside again and thankfully climbed the grassy embankment and stopped for a break. A mile or so further on we finally bade goodbye to the River Medway as the path turned sharp left. For the rest of the day we would be walking inland to bypass the power stations and industrial sites on the eastern side of the Hoo peninsula. The path was clear and wide and easy to follow between fields.
Fairly soon we stopped on the edge of a cornfield for a lunch break and given that it was not on the sea, which we would have much preferred, it was a pleasant enough place for a break.
After lunch we took a right turn along another wide track to a quiet road across to an old lane, once tarmacked but now leading to just one farm and very neglected. Here we encountered a rather strange man with his dog who told us he was walking a bit of the Saxon Shore Way too. His conversation was rather odd and I was rather glad that he was going the other way and that there were two of us. Having politely refused his kind offer of a tangerine apiece, we set off uphill to the railway bridge over the line which brings in the coal to the power station.
The next landmark was a rather nice house with a garden filled with old cars, called Parbrook House. We were signposted along the drive, which is always a little disconcerting but we could see that the path continued down the side of the house so we took it quickly. Very soon after this, the Saxon Shore Way turned left but we continued onwards and downhill into a copse overgrown with brambles and nettles. We forged through and emerged triumphant into another cornfield.
We decided to have a break here, so sat down on the edge of the field, enjoying the sound of the breeze rippling through the ripe corn as we consumed a drink and biscuit. The path from here should have been straight across but it seemed to have disappeared under the corn so we made our way round the edge of the field to emerge on an A road, the first we had seen since Strood. The traffic was whizzing along but there was a decent verge and we only had a short walk before the final path of the day led off on the other side of the road. This was easy to find as it ran dead straight through a plum orchard and came out at our final destination for the day, St Mary Hoo. We had elected to stop here at St Mary’s Cottages as there, in theory, was a bus stop to get us back to Strood.
Lots of umming and ahhing later, and following a chat with one of the local residents about buses, the decision was made to call a taxi as per plan A. Half an hour later, a blue and white taxi duly appeared and whisked us back to Strood town centre.
We took an hour to have a wander round the town along with restorative coffee and toast in the Wimpy before catching the train home. As we waited on the platform at Strood Station, the strange man with the dog appeared. He greeted us like old friends and we spoke briefly but when we got on the train by common and unspoken consent Jen and I rapidly disappeared into the next carriage. He only went one stop though and cheerily waved as he left. Our journey home through Waterloo East was uneventful and we can look back on a very pleasant day even though we seem to be an awful long way from coast walking for now.
St Mary Hoo 15.40
Running total 637 5 miles