St Mary Hoo to Cliffe
Saturday 8th August 2015
We had arrived at the big one. The walk we have been worried about for a long, long time. Various people have warned us about this walk, about how remote the area is, about the impossibility of getting help in an emergency. In the end it was all of those but nowhere near as difficult or scary as we had expected.
We set off early again and arrived in Gravesend at 8.45 on a beautiful Saturday morning. The railway line east of Gravesend was closed and a replacement bus service in place, so we decided the best move would be to fork out for a taxi from Gravesend to St Mary Hoo. There was a taxi base just outside the station, so after stocking up with food and lots of drink, we found someone to take us to the middle of nowhere. He was surprisingly unfazed by the request and we set off.
At 9.30 we waved goodbye to our driver and set off up the lane to the village of St Mary Hoo. I say village, two farms, about six houses and a church now converted a private house, so probably more of a hamlet, but a very pretty one.
Our route led past the houses and church and through one of the farms into fields beyond.
Here the land dropped away towards the river Thames and we were very excited to catch our first glimpse of Essex. Ok it was the Coryton Oil Terminal across the river but still Essex and a bit of a milestone.
We followed several field paths to the bottom of the hill then along the edge of a stream to the embankment at the bottom. This is Egypt Bay which was once a bay in the river but is now silted up and just rough pasture. The state of the footpaths here was appalling and the signage non-existent. But with some ace map reading and a lot of scrambling over uneven ground and clambering over locked gates, we finally arrived at the river proper.
We scaled the bank but there was not really a lot to see. The tide was out and there was nothing much moving on the river at all. We turned our faces west and began the walk along the bank.
The path petered out quite quickly but at the bottom of the slope was a wide track and it was on this that we walked for most of the day. There were occasions when the bank was wide and flat but mostly we were below it. The track was presumably used by tractors and the occasional lorry for maintenance purposes although for much of the time there were drainage ditches on the inland side so no access. At least it was grassy and kind to the feet.
It was easy walking but really rather tedious apart from negotiating all the locked gates, fences and broken stiles along the way. We passed through a construction site, although all the work was evident across the drainage ditch from our path and nothing was moving, presumably because it was Saturday. It was a very strange walk because we are used to a much more varied landscape where we are navigating carefully or at least know where the next point to check the route will be. This day was just about keeping going until the end.
As the morning on wore the sun became hotter and we began to look for a nice shady tree or even a small bush to sit under for lunch. The chance of finding any shade was looking remote when we spotted a small building in the distance. We decided to head for it and sit on the shady side of it for a good break. Once we got closer, we realised it was marking a sewage outlet, though whether it was a pumping station or quite what we were not sure. But it didn’t smell, there was ample space in the shade to sit and a rather splendid view of the oil terminal across the water. So we set up camp and had a good half hour break. As we sat there, we could see something moving way down the path and we realised it was a person. It then dawned on us that this was a first person we had seen, apart from a distant tractor driver, since we had left St Mary Hoo four hours earlier. The walker was equally surprised to see us and we chatted for a while until he carried on. His planned walk was much longer than ours, but then he did have very long legs!
Eventually we cleared up, topped up the sun cream and continued along the track at the bottom of the embankment. About two hours later, we were having another break when two cyclists passed us. Three people in six hours! Not bad for less than 40 miles from the centre of London!
We passed the remains of wartime buildings on the marshes. A decoy airfield was set up here to draw bombers away from towns like Gravesend and there has in the past been a gunpowder factory. Also here are the remains of practice trenches used to train soldiers in WW1 in the science of building sustainable trenches before they went to the front.
Finally, finally we reached the end of the path at Cliffe Creek. There was a bench here, high on the bank looking over the river which was a bit busier now as the tide was coming up. We had a good rest and plenty to drink as the prospect of a loo was quite close now!
It was not quite as near as we thought but we took the last lap of the walk at good speed in order to be at the village of Cliffe in time for the last bus back to Gravesend.
As we turned away from the river to follow Cliffe Creek inland, we began to meet more people. This was the site of the chalk quarries and the cement works which had once made Cliffe prosperous. Now the quarries have been made into a wildlife sanctuary and the paths are wide and easy to follow. It was a little further than we had expected and it was good to finally arrive into civilisation again. We knew that the bus stop and public toilets were outside the Six Bells pub and we followed the sound of children playing on a bouncy castle to find it.
The toilets were open and clean but slightly odd because once the cubicle door was closed there was no light so relief happened in pitch darkness. At least it happened! We had about twenty minutes to wait for the bus so we sat in the shade on the church wall and finished all the bottles of water we had with us. A lovely chatty bus driver took us back to Gravesend. It was never going to be one of those direct routes and every time we seemed to be getting somewhere we turned off the main road into yet another village. However, we enjoyed the ride and it was good to be sitting down in the shade. Coffee, tea and biscuits in Gravesend were very welcome before heading to the station to begin the journey home.
St Mary Hoo 09.30
Running total 648.8 miles