Cliffe Kent to Gravesend Essex
Saturday 15th August 2015
Today’s walk was scheduled to be much shorter than the previous one so we allowed ourselves the luxury of a lie in and caught the 7.04 train from Aldershot to Waterloo then out to Gravesend from Waterloo East. We arrived just before 9 and stocked up with food and drink before seeking out a taxi. Unfortunately the bus to Cliffe departed at 8.30 and the next one was not due until 1.30 so a taxi it had to be. The taxi dropped us off in the centre of the village and we decided to visit the church before setting off.
St Helens Church in Cliffe was built in 1260 and is one of the largest parish churches in Kent. It has a striking appearance being built of bands of coloured stone – knapstone and flint – and is grade 1 listed. A lady in the church gave us some leaflets and told us a little of the history. The parish magazine is full of local events and organisations and gives the impression of a strong, close community used to supporting one another.
The size and age of the church reflects the earlier prosperity of this large village. Once there were chalk quarries, cement works and gunpowder factories here. Now the area appears to be a lot less prosperous with many residents being employed in local towns. There are even three coaches a day directly to Central London for commuters.
After a good look round, we set our sights westwards and picked up the Saxon Shore Way, retracing our steps back towards the River Thames. We were able to appreciate our surroundings a little more this time as we were fresh and not hurrying to catch a bus.
Soon we came to a familiar crossroads in the tracks where the path from the wilderness had brought us into Cliffe the previous week. We turned left knowing that after a short distance we needed to turn right onto a footpath to take us to Cliffe Fort on the river bank. Or maybe not. We found the path but a closed gate and a sign made it clear that erosion had taken its toll. The sign read, “Warning. No Safe Route Beyond this Point. Alternative Route Through West Court Farm.”
The farm was clearly marked on the map and the path we had been about to leave led towards it so that had to be the way to go. Beyond the farm we could see an obvious route back to join the river bank slightly upstream.
The first path was very pleasant, winding along the top of a high embankment with fields on one side and a lake on the other. A ship suddenly appeared across the fields showing how frustratingly close to the river we were. The path ended on a road with a short terrace of houses on one side and the high fence of an industrial site on the other. Soon we turned right down another road – with good signposting so far. As the road curved to the right, there was a sign reading, “Warning. Lorries may be queuing round the corner.” Round the corner was the entrance to a huge gravel works whose gates were firmly shut with not a lorry in sight. We were lucky to be doing this walk on a Saturday, as it would undoubtedly have been much less pleasant on a working day
Just past the sign was the entrance to West Court Farm and, after a minor wrong turn, we spotted a footpath sign on a gate at the far end of the drive. When we got closer we realised that the gate had a stile and from there we could see more gates and signs clearly marking the route across the fields. Four stiles later, we emerged onto a road in the middle of the gravel works which had now acquired a railway line.
Across the road, a narrow opening beside the tracks was labelled “To River Thames”. It was fairly unpleasant at first; very narrow and overgrown with the gravel works on one side and more industrial sites on the other. The works had a strange beauty about them, their conveyer belts and heaps of stones sitting silently waiting for the end of the weekend. We were struck by the geometrical shapes made by the equipment and sand and took lots of arty photographs. After the last conveyer, the path turned left and
became hot and narrow with piles of earth and stones on one side and a high concrete wall on the other. In the end though, the wall fell away and the works petered out as we emerged onto the riverbank at last. Over to our right was Cliffe Fort across an inlet, tantalisingly close.
From here to Gravesend the path was easy and comfortable, as we followed a high, grassy embankment with good views in both directions.
The odd fence crossing proved challenging but we managed without incident. All the way along, we shared the grass with horses of all shapes and sizes but they ignored us and we ignored them as we slowly covered the miles. After a while, we declared a lunch break and found a patch of grass clear of horsey remains to sit down for half an hour.
Our scenic view for lunch was of Tilbury Power Station across the water. It was pleasant enough sitting there although we were a little disappointed at the lack of traffic on the river. Somehow we had expected it to be much busier but agreed that the sailings must be dependent on the tides, so maybe it would liven up later.
A few miles on, we arrived at the remains of Shornemead Fort, one of the line of defences built along the banks of the Lower Thames in the 1800s to guard London from French invaders. It was in use from 1795 until 1945 when the constant battle to stop it subsiding into the marshy ground was finally abandoned. It was later used for practice by the Army Demolition School thus there is very little of the building left. What is here is part of the nature reserve and being left to decay slowly and naturally.
We were approaching civilisation! We passed a rifle range, more gravel works, several anonymous factories and the Gravesend inshore lifeboat. We were puzzled by a strange set of buildings which looked like a two storey block of inner city flats, with walkways and doors but no windows. A look at the map revealed a Metropolitan Police Training School. Aha!
Just past the Port of London Authority buildings we were forced inland, up some steps, past the Ship and Lobster pub and out onto a road. The route then ran behind a series of industrial sites, which must run down to the river. At the end of this road a narrow footpath led out into a lane with industrial sites on both sites.
This appeared to be much older as it had setts instead of tarmac and the buildings had a more old-fashioned feel too. This road finished at a swing bridge over the lock of a canal and we realised we had reached the Gravesend end of the Thames and Medway canal.
Ahead of us we could see a lovely grassy promenade, almost a park, with seats and a fountain and café and lots of people enjoying the sunshine. We decided to join them and an ice cream and a sit down on a riverside bench was very enjoyable. This area is called Gordon Promenade, named after General Gordon who commanded the fort at Gravesend for a few years.
After our break, we turned away from the river as we had to pass behind several riverside buildings including some very lovely new flats. We almost missed the entrance to a ‘heritage centre’ with an open sign so went to have a look. This turned out to be Milton Chantry, which was built in 1322 as a chapel and has had a multitude of uses since including a public house and a WW2 gas decontamination station. Much of the original interior is intact and it also houses various exhibits about the local area.
From there a short walk brought us back to the riverside and along a promenade to the Three Daws pub. Next to the pub is the entrance to the ferry terminal and the end of the Saxon Shore Way which we have followed on and off since Hastings.
It was not quite the end of our walk however. After three years of walking the fiddly coast of North Kent, we had reached the crossing of the Thames nearest the sea so we took the next ferry over to Tilbury in Essex. We didn’t linger and came straight back, but it meant that we could travel out of London to Tilbury to start the next walk rather than coming back through Gravesend again.
Back on dry land on the Kent side, we could celebrate, not only the end of the walking for this summer and the conquering of the Hoo, but also our 50th walk, the end of the Saxon Shore Way and the beginning of a new county and a whole new adventure!
Running total 657.8