Kent into The London Borough of Bexley
Saturday December 30th 2017
For our final walk of the year we decided to tackle the last stretch of the Thames before we hit the Thames Path proper. We were also keen to visit the river at this time because we had been following the journey up the River Darent by an old London sailing barge called the Decima. Since the closure of the paper mills in Dartford the river has been virtually unused and allowed to silt up so bringing a barge up river was a very courageous thing to do. It is moored for a few weeks at Dartford Lock and we wanted to go and see it.
We love winter walking but as it gets dark early we need to make the walks short in order that they finish before we lose the light so we set off soon after 7am from Aldershot. We knew that the journey would take longer than usual as we had to get to Victoria to catch a train to Dartford because Charing Cross and Waterloo East were closed over the Christmas holiday. We were lucky at Victoria and caught a train half an earlier than we had planned so arrived in Dartford just after nine.
Across the road from the station is the site of one of the many paper mills for which Dartford was famous. Over several centuries paper of all kinds from high quality writing paper to greaseproof paper, newspaper and many other types was manufactured here. The reason for paper making being so successful locally was the River Darent, which had clean pure water, necessary for the production of quality paper. The last paper mill closed in 2010 and modern developments have almost erased all evidence that they were ever there. A new shopping centre on the site of one of the old mills furnished us with food and water for the day ahead.
We had finished the last walk at the Bob Dunn Bridge over the river which carries the Dartford Northern by-pass so our first task was to reach the bridge again. We retraced our route via a footbridge to the riverside path on the eastern side and very soon spotted the Decima tied up in the lock.
The Decima is a restored Thames Barge built in 1899, in use as a cargo boat until 1978 and is the first boat of any size to have made it up the river for many years. Complicated calculations concerning tides and water level had to be made to ensure that the water was deep enough but that she would fit under the bridge. She just made it, although the crew on deck had to duck. She will be moored at Dartford until the New Year.
Having left the Decima behind, we soon reached the bridge and climbed up to the road. We were relieved to see a pavement beside the busy dual carriageway and easily found the path on the other side which led down to the western bank of the Darent to the beginning of the walk proper. We had been a little concerned about whether the paths would be very muddy, even impassable, as the weather had been very wet in the last few weeks but the track ahead looked fine.
The forecast for the day was dry and sunny and quite mild but the wind was surprisingly chilly and I was glad of my hat and gloves.
It was not long before we arrived at our first obstacle – The River Cray. The Cray is a very small tributary of the Darent but there is no way to cross it so we were going to have to follow it along to the road where there is a bridge then back down the other side.
The path continued to be clear but there was nothing to see apart from mud and reeds and the constant background roar of traffic and industry reminded us that the whole area is very built up. Soon the path narrowed and squeezed past a high fence beside a Highways Depot full of dustbin lorries and gritters. Various mechanics were working on them, changing tyres and checking engines. Soon the path dropped down to pass under the railway. Here there were signs of an old wharf, long abandoned. We soon emerged onto a busy main road and a bridge crossing the river.
The route to the other side of the Cray was through a series of industrial buildings, housing, among other sites, a crane company, a metal works, a tipper lorry operator and the local recycling centre! Complete with seagulls.
Back under the railway, we left the noise behind and emerged onto a remarkably tranquil river bank whose path (still dry) wound around until we reached the confluence of the Cray and the Darent and stood just a few yards from the corner on which we had paused over an hour earlier.
Finally we could turn left and make our way towards the Dartford Flood Barrier which was looming large ahead of us. But being the way of riverbank paths, the huge structure seemed to move as we followed the wiggly river course. At one point we stood back to let a couple of cyclists pass, then two more and we realised, firstly that we were now on one of the National Cycle Trails and, secondly that these were the first people we had met during the walk so far. It was a strange mix of remote and urban, this walk and, because of that, very interesting. We found one of the Millennium Cycle Mileposts which was very corroded and rusty. On it was this poem by David Dudgeon who designed the marker.
“Down the wandering path
I have travelled
Where the setting sun
Lies upon the ground
The tracks are hard and dry
The weather’s wear
My mind did move
With them that has
Before here been
Trodding down the ground
A track for me to follow
Leaving marks for others
A sign for them to follow”
David Dudgeon 1999
After a while we spotted a wooden bench type thing which may actually have been an old mooring post but there was room for both us of to sit down so we had a proper break and I ate my lunch, a little early. The view was of the River Thames with ships and the high QEII Bridge across the marshes. As we were about to leave two more walkers arrived and we chatted for a while.
As we approached the locked gates of the road that leads to the flood barrier we spotted this notice.
I suppose warning that when the red light is on the barrier is closed and it would be a good idea to stop is sensible if a little superfluous.
The path after this brought us briefly back to the River Thames and a very big scrapyard on our left. The yard was full of skips, dead lorries, buses and other vehicles and even the mixer bit of a cement mixer. Later we discovered the company running the yard was called Truckbusters! The clue is in the name!
The path wound around three sides of the yard and the final section was into the wind and very hard going indeed. But we could see Erith Yacht Club which meant we were approaching Erith town and so we battled on. Beside the yacht club we had to turn inland and walk behind several large industrial plants which fronted onto the river. The road was long and straight and very urban and we saw our first red London bus. Suddenly we were in the borough of Bexley and Kent was left behind.
On the eastern edge of Erith is a large Morrison’s and we were thankful to stop there for a long break, with coffee, tea, biscuits and toilets.
After a good rest, we found our way back onto the river front again with a path in front of some new flats. Soon we came to Erith Deep Wharf with its long pier out into the river and decided to make this our stopping place. We sat for a while on a bench on the pier and enjoyed a rather bizarre conversation with an elderly man out for stroll with two younger people. He was quite sure he knew us and some very quick thinking was called for to gently assure him that we didn’t but that we were very glad to have met him anyway. As they set off slowly down the pier, his carers were to be heard telling him off for chatting up strange ladies – again!
We said goodbye to Erith and the river and made our way to the station and began our complicated journey home. We had had the best of the day by then and it was good to be sitting on a warm train with no need to move for quite a while.