Gravesend to Greenhithe
Saturday February 20th 2016
Today was the first leg of our walk from Gravesend into London; an extension of the round the coast walk which has now crossed the river into Essex.
The weather forecast was not brilliant but as the incoming front was set to move across from the west we reckoned it would hit Kent last so decided to see how far we could walk before the rain set in. This was underpinned by the knowledge that we were walking alongside or parallel to the river and a few yards away at all times was the main road from Gravesend to Dartford with its buses running at ten minute intervals. And bus shelters.
So we caught the 7.34 train from Aldershot to Waterloo, had time at Waterloo to purchase breakfast and coffee before picking up the train to Kent at Waterloo East. By 9.45 we were in Gravesend and making our way to the river. We stopped at Tesco to buy lunch and the tourist information office for postcards before visiting the church to see again the statue of Pocahontas.
From our previous stopping point at the ferry terminal we set our feet westwards along a concrete wall which soon led us onto a boardwalk below some new flats. The path stopped and we were directed out onto the road for a short distance round the back of a landing stage. We soon regained the waterside path until a riverside industrial complex pushed us back inland a little. This was to be the story of the day; sections of riverside walking and industrial sites making use of the river forcing us to walk behind them.
We passed a beautiful old building called The White House which seemed rather incongruous situated as it was next to a bitumen landing dock. In a previous life it had been used as the offices of The Imperial Paper Mill which was then located nearby. A not unpleasant section of sea wall now unfolded in front of us and another beautiful old building, now sadly derelict.
This area is called Rosherville and is the site of a riverside resort built by one Jeremiah Rosher in the early 1800s. It had pleasure gardens, which included a lake, an archery ground, a maze and beautiful flower beds as well as a theatre, ballroom, hotels and restaurants. Londoners came in their droves to spend a day here in the middle years of the 19th century alighting from paddle steamers at a specially built pier. The attractions flourished until the end of the 19th century when new railway links opened up access to more appealing day trips such as seaside resorts and led to the decline of Rosherville. On September 3rd 1878, the paddle steamer Princess Alice hit a collier and sank on the way home from Rosherville with the loss of 640 lives. This tragedy also helped to deter people from visiting and gardens closed in 1900. The area was briefly revived in the early 1900s but was never again successful. The land was sold and by 1940 had been cleared and redeveloped for industrial use. The only remaining relic of the gardens is the bear pit, which has recently been excavated and is now a listed building.
Back on our route, the road ended at a yard full of cement mixers and a bit of uncertainly as to the way ahead. A friendly driver assured us that if we kept going along the shoreline we would be able to get out the other end. That is always good to know.
He was right and a very grim and empty track ended at a new narrow footpath at right angles to the river. The whole area was very run down, having been previously occupied by paper and cement industries. On the narrow footpath we encountered a dog walker who was very interested in our walk and proceeded to give us detailed instructions about the way forward which were so detailed we were lost after the first couple of sentences. He also told us that the reason all the sites around us had not been developed was that they were contaminated from the industry and would cost too much to clean up. What their future holds then is very uncertain.
We emerged from the footpath and turned right to walk along a quiet road between a cement terminal and an old chalk quarry in which had been constructed a vast Lidl distribution centre. Here we had a little adventure. As we walked along we could see the tower of a church on the hill and the contrast between it and two new shiny metal silos in the distribution centre just called out for a photograph. However we were just moving on when a man in a hi-vis jacket erupted out of the gatehouse and told us off for taking photos of his site. He muttered about security and ‘his’ towers. I informed him that we were not interested in his site but were looking at the church on the hill above. If only I could think more quickly in these situations, I would have told him that we were on a public road and entitled to take photos of anything including his silly towers. Maybe it was just as well that we just quietly apologised and walked away! However I did not delete the photos.
From there we had to go even further inland by climbing a footpath which skirted the edge of the old quarry and, as we climbed we had a beautiful view of the two shiny metal silos and indeed the whole Lidl site. So much for security! We emerged onto Northfleet High Street and a potential stopping point if we needed it but the weather was still fine so we decided to continue. The main road was busy with traffic and not particularly appealing so we were quite glad after a short distance to be able to turn back towards the river again.
This road was called College Road and we passed the entrance to Huggens College, which has never actually been a college but a community of almhouses dating from the mid-1800s. The road sloped gently downhill and became quieter as we reached the river again. Here we found the site of Northfleet Harbour, once thriving but now derelict. A group of volunteers are hoping to revive it and rebuild it as a marina with berths, shops and restaurants. The harbour is a natural river inlet where the Kent River Fleet meets the Thames. Excavations have found evidence of the harbour being in use from Roman times. A Saxon waterwheel was unearthed recently and there is evidence of several mills over succeeding centuries. It’s more recent history is again linked to the cement industry which was dominant here and which used the harbour to export its products. The walls are intact and it does look as though a restoration project could well succeed.
Our route continued alongside the inner harbour wall which was obviously very much older than the buildings on the other side of the lane. At the end we came out once again to our main road and options to finish the walk. In fact we had to make a proper decision here as the next part of the walk would take us out onto the Swanscombe Marshes with no way out if the rain came down.
We decided to go for it, so turned off the main road into yet another industrial estate. Even though it was Saturday there were a lot of lorries moving in and out and many of the sites were working. We passed the London Bus Company workshop outside which were parked several buses adorned for weddings, all polished up with white ribbons attached. The company restores old London buses and hires them out for events, filming and tours.
Just after the bus garage we spotted the sign for the footpath out onto the marshes and suddenly we were away from the noise and bustle of work and into a peaceful area where birds, insects and beasties have their home.
A picnic bench, sign boards and bug towers were all in evidence and the path was newly laid. So we followed it and it was lovely to be walking away from traffic fumes and noise again. It was not completely quiet as over the bank to our right lay a cement works and wharf, also working on Saturday. But there was grass underfoot and greenery all around and it was pleasant enough.
Sadly this area is the possible site for a new theme park with rides and attractions based on popular television programmes such as Top Gear and Doctor Who. There is much public opposition to the plan and we think rightly so as the amount of natural land in the area is tiny. While it would provide many jobs and bring in improved infrastructure in the form of new roads and railways, it just seems a shame to lose such a precious haven for wildlife. We enjoyed it while we could, finding our way across the marsh, soon reaching the river bank again and climbing up to walk on a grassy embankment.
All too soon the path came to an end at a development of new houses called Ingress Park. It is named after Ingress Abbey which still stands here and on whose grounds the estate is built. Our route took us along a concrete walkway at the bottom of some flats and eventually out into one of the beautiful paved paths of the development. Here we found a small square, complete with cobbled mosaic ship in the ground and seats around a sheltering wall. Lunch called and we stopped here for a while to eat.
After lunch we continued into Greenhithe High Street for a short while then back to the waterfront. Eventually we were forced inland and realised we had arrived at our next planned pit stop – Greenhithe Asda. We popped in to use the facilities then sat on a bench outside to consider our next move. And as if on cue it began to rain. Proper rain and a look westwards told us the promised bad weather had arrived and was probably set in for the afternoon. We had achieved our plan of walking from Gravesend to Greenhithe so were happy to stop but it was only 1.30. Time to put into action another addition to this walk upon which we had decided while we were walking along.
Last summer, we crossed the Thames by the crossing nearest the sea which is the Gravesend to Tilbury ferry. Now, as well as walking into London, we decided it would be fun to do all the crossings of the Thames as we make our way along, be they over, under or on. We had done the first one and could see the second – the QEII Bridge. But there were two more close by, the Dartford Tunnel and the High Speed Railway line from Kent into London. There is no pedestrian access to the Dartford Tunnel or the bridge but we knew that there was a bus from Greenhithe Station which ran through the tunnel to Lakeside Shopping Centre and back over the bridge to the station again. Greenhithe Station was just down the road so off we set.
As we got there an X80 Ensign Bus pulled in going to Bluewater so we asked the driver which bus we needed to get to Lakeside. She said that she was on her way to Bluewater then would come back to Greenhithe Station before crossing the river to Lakeside. And we could go with her all the way if we wanted to. So we hopped on and stayed on the bus when everyone else got off at Bluewater Shopping Centre. Then we travelled back via Greenhithe Station and under the Dartford Tunnel to Essex. On arrival at Lakeside the bus pulled into a bus station and everyone got off. As most of them had got on at Bluewater, we were slightly amused by this but there must be a reason. Anyway we had to get off too and wait five minutes for a bus going back the other way. We were ridiculously delighted to see a double decker arriving and we got the front seats upstairs. Crossing the QE2 Bridge on top of a double decker bus in torrential rain is not an experience I will forget in a hurry. It was great!
Soon we were back at Greenhithe Station and heading for the hat-trick of crossings. Our tickets back into London were valid on the high speed train but we had to return to Gravesend to pick it up. The trip back only took about ten minutes and we quickly changed onto the London bound train. The tunnel on this line runs under Swanscombe Marshes so we had actually walked over it earlier that day. In no time we were north of the river again and heading for St Pancras. It had been a fascinating day, nowhere near as boring as we had feared and with all sorts of little points on interest along the way. And we had the first four river crossings under our belt.