Tilbury to Stanford-le-Hope
Saturday April 16th 2016
Our first foray into Essex would take us along the north bank of the River Thames heading optimistically for the sea again.
Having decided to walk today the first decision was how to get back to the ferry terminal at Tilbury to pick up the walk. Until 1992 there was a railway station at Tilbury Riverside; a branch line from the main line at Tilbury Town. The service has been replaced by a bus which connects with the train from London. But not early on Saturday mornings. Somewhat reluctantly we decided that the quickest route was to go back to Gravesend and cross by the ferry once again. So that is what we did and after an easy journey via Waterloo Main and East, Tesco in Gravesend High Street and the first ferry of the morning, at 10:15 we were at Tilbury ready to depart.
Initially, the path was obvious and very easy, alongside a road ending at The Worlds End pub thereafter joining a concrete wall for the short distance to Tilbury Fort.
Tilbury Fort is one of a number of defences built to defend London from attack from the sea. The first fort was built here in 1539 by Henry VIII and was extended in the 1580s during the Spanish Armada. As part of that defence a boom was constructed across the river. It was fairly crude, being made of chains and cables attached to boats, but no doubt effective. One story suggests that it was at Tilbury that Queen Elizabeth 1 gave her famous speech about having the body of a weak and feeble woman but the mind of a king but that is not confirmed. What is known is that in the 1740s, prisoners were brought to Tilbury after the battle of Culloden and there is a memorial to them here. Over the years the fort was upgraded, left to decay and upgraded again and the soldiers here were credited with the shooting down of a zeppelin in the First World War. The fort was demobilized in 1950 and is now in the care of English Heritage. Unfortunately the site was still closed for the winter and a closer look at the sign revealed the frustrating news that the first opening day of the new season would be tomorrow.
From Tilbury the wall continued and we enjoyed spotting landmarks from last summer across the river. Looming ahead of us was the not very attractive sight of Tilbury Sewage Works on the river’s edge and the power station behind. We were under the impression that there were two paths around these works, one on the river side and one inland. However, when we got there we were confronted by a set of steps crossing the wall and a sign to the effect that the sole path was on the river side and, incidentally, was only passable at low tide. With some trepidation we headed towards the river below the high wall enclosing the sewage works and peered around the corner. To our relief the tide was out and there was an obvious track across dry land. The pleasure was short lived as we realised that the path was not all that dry and we had to pick our way through rubbish left by the retreating river. What we were walking through does not bear thinking about; suffice it to say we were very glad to reach the other end and climb back onto the concrete wall again.
This wall was to be our companion now for most of the day. It must act primarily as a flood defence as in some places the drop inside was very high. We kept walking along the wall, pausing at a jetty being used to load some kind of quarried material and to look a sign which must have blown off a cruise ship. It read “Ibiza Loves You!” Also on this stretch was a hexagonal radar tower dating from World War 2.
Soon after the radar tower, the path turned inland as we approached the second military installation of the day at Coalhouse Fort.
This complex is much larger than Tilbury but is similar in that it dates back to the 1500s and has seen many rebuilds and reuses. It is located on a sharp bend in the river and operated at various times in conjunction with Cliffe and Shornemead Forts on the southern bank to defend the Thames on the approaches to London. It fulfilled this role though the Napoleonic Wars, the threats of French invasion in the mid-1800s and into World War 1, when the fort was manned by the Royal Garrison Artillery. A minefield was laid in the river, with mines which could be detonated mechanically in the shallower parts of the river and remote controlled devices in the deeper part. Thus legitimate shipping could pass but the mines could be set off if an enemy ship approached. Another brief for the troops here was to fire at any ship which did not stop when challenged. The fort played a similar role in WW2 but towards the end of the war was downgraded and acted as the base for the local Home Guard Coastal Battery detachment. The fort is well preserved and open to the public on occasions, while its grounds have been turned into a riverside park by its current owners, Thurrock Council. From our point of view, it had toilets and a café and we were glad to make use of both.
After a pleasant stop we found our way back onto the concrete river wall again. At this point we took a bit of a risk. The older maps and guides routed us inland soon after the fort as ahead of us lay Mucking Marsh. Mucking was, until recently, the landfill site for London and barges would arrive regularly at the small jetty to unload their cargoes. Most of the marsh is now a nature reserve and, according to more recent information, it should be possible to walk from the end of the river wall over to the nature reserve.
We continued along the wall, past the end of the footpath inland. We were very amused by a series of duck slopes built into the wall, presumably enabling water birds to access the river.
At intervals there were ladders with one end in the river and the other on the inside of the wall for people. We met a dog walker and stopped for a chat. We mentioned that we hoped to get through to the nature reserve and he assured us that, although he had never done it himself, there was a people-made path at the end of the wall. We continued and once we had spotted the well-trodden path, found a place to stop and enjoyed watching the traffic on the river while we had our lunch.
Refreshed and rested we set off. All was well to begin with but we soon lost the obvious track and the land underfoot became rather soggy and not long afterwards turned to thick and deep mud. It was not universal mud, however, and we managed to pick our way carefully from one higher spot to another. In parts there were remains of a road, although that was flooded right across in places. At one point I lost my footing and sat down, coating my behind in greyish mud. Jen was leading the way and headed for a wide path which looked solid but, as she discovered, was anything but and she went in over her ankles.
We ploughed on and eventually could see the nature reserve’s visitor centre above us, so we turned a little inland and clambered along the slopes above a flooded track at right angles to the river before emerging onto a proper new pathway and into the nature reserve. It was a huge relief to be safely on solid ground and we headed for the visitor centre. We later found out that the Gravesend inshore lifeboat had rescued two people from the mud in the area that afternoon and were thankful to have got through safely.
The centre had a café, loos and a shop and it was a relief to sit down and have a hot drink. I suspect that we left a trail of mud everywhere but that couldn’t be helped. The visitor centre itself is interesting as being built on an old landfill site it has to be flexible enough to move as the land settles. So it stands on three legs containing hydraulic jacks which can be adjusted over time as the rubbish decays and the land shifts. After a good rest we climbed to the viewing point on the roof to look back at Tilbury and Gravesend, forward to Southend and across the river to Cliffe.
Our route now lies inland for a while as we skirt Canvey Island so we made our way out of the nature reserve along the access road and into the village of Mucking. It is a tiny village and there was not a soul in sight. The church is now a private house with the front garden planted around the gravestones. We consulted the maps then for the best route into Stanford le Hope and worked out a place to end the walk which would also work well as a beginning next time. This meant finding a path near the church which proved ridiculously tricky but it was there and easy once we had started along it. At the other end, we declared to walk over for the day.
From that point it was a short walk into the centre of Stanford-le-Hope and the railway station. The fun transport bit then followed to get home and although the morning’s journey in reverse sounded a bit complicated it worked because the transport all connected. From Stanford-le-Hope we caught the train to Tilbury Town, then the connecting bus to the Tilbury Ferry. The ferry was waiting for the bus and it was a quick hop over to Gravesend where we caught the high speed train to St Pancras. From there we took our well-worn route of tube to Oxford Circus then to Waterloo and home to Ash Vale where Glyn picked us up.
So we have begun Essex and can look forward to seeing some proper coastal walking again in the not too distant future.
Tilbury Pier 10.15
Running total 666.9