Cliffe has an important place in these walks, partly it was the first walk I did where I thought the pictures told a story, and were more about post-industrial and decay than your usual landscape drivel and where I first had the idea of the Coastal Walks and linking them to my existing River Thames walks. Also it was September 2009, the year I started the coastal walks, and this was an extension to those, even though I’d been walking the river since 1999.
I’m surprised it’s taken nearly 5 years to come back, especially since Gravesend is so easy to reach from London, but I got to Gravesend on the Greenhithe walk, so time to delve into the Isle of Grain.
Swans and man, 2009
So this is a rare thing a sequel walk, but also a continuation – I started way too late from Gravesend, missed all the buses home (something I did this time too, oh I wish the Hundred & Hoo Railway was still going) so I only got to the first fort, what I thought was Cliffe fort but actually is the Napoleonic era Shornemead Fort. This time I went onto St Mary Hoo – I was aiming for All Hallows and a mythical bus from Grain, but I had to abort as it got too late and too dark.
This one is quite detailed – it was the longest walk in a long while – over 18 miles, and two walks five years apart – but also a lot of post-research about things I found that I wanted to know more about. This isn’t a sign of a shift to professionalism, more an interest in the curious places and things I found.
I still refuse to research an area intentionally before I walk, apart from public transport access. I find it changes your first experience of a place to read guidebooks or sites, it narrows your visceral ‘in the moment’ feelings, findings, mistakes and stumblings down to ones other people have deigned ‘worthy’. Most of the times the enforced or unintentional detours, random finds and happy accidents and the in-between Edgelands areas that aren’t classically beautiful are more interesting than anything you’d find in a book. You can always go back to explore bits you missed or want to look at further anyway.
I did know about the Hans Egede though, randomly via Google Maps image, but all the rest from the first fort was new to me.
This post is brought to you by shopping trolleys, discarded broken plastic chairs, tyres and construction hats – there were so many, I wondered how so many get lost in the river, do workpeople just lose them at this massive rate?
Leaving Gravesend station as quickly as possible, I scurried to the pier. Yes Gravesend has a pier – several in fact. Compared to five years ago where I saw sunken barges and another crumbling wharf (I think gone now?) it seems the area has been tarted up a lot, or maybe it’s just the fact the tide is in hiding all the traffic cones, tyres and shopping trolleys. Confusingly what’s marked as Gravesend Pier on the map is actually a loading wharf, the pier on which you can alight on boats is this one, rather short and stubby, but a pier nonetheless:
Gravesend Pier, 2009
It’s not changed that much, so I won’t do the before/after…whereas if you were walking along the river front past the St Andrews Art Centre five years ago, you would come across the rather ruinous and derelict Clarendon Hotel, which I was surprised to find in 2014 has been done up and is all shiny and nice. For instance compare the overgrown garden of before:
Clarendon Hotel garden, 2009
Same place, 2014 – and the same gates!
Certainly seems like a lot has changed, for instance Fort Gardens has had a 2012 makeover since, and is actually a nice place to visit, whereas before it was rather bare, windswept and foreboding. Now it’s full of kids playing on those far too healthy-looking and gym-like machines that pass for a children’s play park nowadays – brainwashing from an early age, I guess? I don’t remember the Tea Rooms either, or the posh-looking gated estate to the North of the park, looking out of place, all Yacht Club pomp. I do remember a lot of mud, what I jokingly then called ‘Gravesend Beach’ – the bloke above talking on his phone on one of the staves precariously with avenging swans.
Shopping Canute, 2009
So onwards over the small gated bridge that opens into the Canal Basin (more of canals later) and over into a netherworld of old factories, graffiti, abandoned rubbish and old signs. This is Gordon Promenade, which I spent a long time photographing in 2009. This time I was more interested in the new graffiti, and surprised that people are working here, these factories are still in use. In 2009 it seemed like a ghost town…and yes the Saxon Shore Way runs right through them, although it seems a bit like you shouldn’t be there. Less abandoned rubbish this time, and less survivors from a bygone age – last time there was a whole sofa there. This sign is still there though:
Albion Marine Engineers 2009
There was this rather interesting sign, this seemed to be a local schools project that indicated the site of a WW2 plane crash – apparently the remains of the Hurricane plane and pilot, a Sergeant Eric E Williams is still buried in there.
Killer Bunny, 2014
The path eventually becomes a single person fenced path, offencive as John usually says, and a flurry of graffiti in this abandoned area. Not sure who ? is but he liked spraying his mysterious mark everywhere, like a Doctor Who fetishist. I hope he’s called Ron (Mister Ron…Mysteron? Geddit? Oh why do I bother…). I liked this one though – more appropriate as the walk was just before Easter. Killer Bunny indeed.
Wander through containerland, and enjoy the strangely happy giant head and then we find the remains of the Thames and Medway canal built in 1824. In 2009 this had a sign, but it’s now long gone. Turn the corner up Mark Lane past the marine debris of old anchors, chains, and a lightbuoy tower which seems to have been boarded over now, and looks a lot less photogenic – vandalism?
Past the Ship and Lobster which looks like a nice small pub, the small sort that used to be common along the river serving the Watermen, and onto the concrete sea defences. Still much rubbish here, and eventually ends abruptly with graffiti and abandoned shopping trolleys – well it did in 2009:
I guess Phatz (or is it Phats?) would be happy to know his yellow scrawling graffiti is still standing five years later, if rather faded…with a new addition to the side. Wasone? Wosine? Not sure. The shopping trolleys infest the whole area, less than before but still lurk around the odd corner.
So over the wall and onto the green yet rather pockmarked sea defences – too dry to be muddy thankfully. Signs of fires, wooden and plastic flotsam, discarded signs and collections of rocks almost like neolithic man had decided to remake huts again in this abandoned landscape. Passed a few people fishing – that’s new, didn’t see anyone five years ago. Dog walkers don’t seem to come here though.
These strange buildings are still here, if less colourful now. I wasn’t sure back then if it was some kind of Stalinist Holiday Camp, but I think it’s something to do with Milton Range. I half expected these to be gone, it looked like they were being demolished, but not so. There are a lot of ex-ranges near here – if Google Satellite is to be believed it looks like Milton Ranges is still used.
Shornemead Fort in 2009
On onto Shornemead Fort, which if you read the Wiki entry seems to been a bust, as forts go. Dating from 1790, you can still wander around it, although it’s crumbling. Also last time there seemed to be some work done there – apparently it was the RSPB blocking up the tunnels, which it got too late then to explore the fort, so I missed that chance. Sounds like they were flooded though. I remember in 2009, pre-Smartphone wandering for miles trying to find a bus, and eventually walked to one of the near train stations I think. I also didn’t have a torch and it got very dark, with no lights in the area…
Shornemead Fort in 2009
More spontaneous graffiti in front of the fort, 2014
And onto Cliffe Fort proper…walking along there was more signs of fires, I guess people come here at night for a BBQ or something – many tyres, bottles, rubbish, cones, and even more discarded construction hats.
Then I see a rather worrying sign – that the path is closed due to coastal erosion. I pressed on, half expecting at any moment to plunge into the murky depths. I had reason to go anyway – not only does it seem the other paths around there are flooded, but there was the wreck of the Hans Egede which if I’d known about back on 2009 I might have pressed on to see – certainly it was probably more intact then. But first I found a more modern wreck…a BMW? There aren’t any roads, and most of the area is flooded, so I really did wonder how they drove this here:
The Hans Egede was a 1920’s boat, which had been used as a hulk since the 1950’s. It eventually sank, and they beached it here. Although I was more worried about the state of the tide being too high, that wasn’t a problem it was the direction of sun that affected my shots of this…there are some rather strange ruins behind the wreck, bits of Nore Fort. This was a Maunsell army fort like the ones that became legendary in early pirate radio (e.g. Shivering Sands which became the tragic Radio City after Lord Sutch sold it, Red Sands was Radio 390), but a ship hit them and four of the stationed crew died, so they were eventually dismantled, then moved here.
This is all that remains of the Brennan Torpedo an early guided missile system. Cliffe Fort itself is private, part of the gravel extraction company lands. Amazed something hasn’t been done with it, given it’s size and apparent importance. It’s now flooded though, like quite a few forts in the area. I doubt the gravel extraction helps the erosion or the flooding!
The erosion actually turns out to be this small affair, which you can actually just walk around along the beach, or along the fence if you’re careful. I passed some giggling ramblers looking at a map who seemed rather bemused (yeah, I don’t get on with Kendal Mintcakes) so I felt the need to press on and prove them wrong. After that you reach a lot of gorse and scratchy bushes, remains of the rest of the fort and WW2 military ruins (which aerial shots show you how large it is in fact) which you can walk along the remains of the road and look at some of the parts outside the gravel works to the right of that aerial shot, which are I think more modern. Some have gone into the Fort, but given that it’s private and flooded I wasn’t going to do that. Disused buildings creep me out, anyway.
Continuing on past the muddy remains of Cliffe creek (I wonder if munitions ships docked here?) and onto what the RSPB called euphemistically the Flamingo Pools, or Cliffe Pools. These apparently are the remnants of diggings for the cement works, which along with the scary sounding asbestos factory in nearby Higham was the main industry in the area – and one other, which we’ll get to in a bit. There is strange flotsam around here, so much wood and plastic gets swept down here, you can see why people create fires along here since unusually there is so much timber and even the odd escaped sofa or surreally placed table:
And yes more of the escaped hats and cones…
After Cliffe Pools I was starting to get concerned about time, I’d judged the walk as being 12-13 miles but I was 6 miles or more from All Hallows…I decided to walk on, and eventually find an ‘out’ to try and connect to the bus later on coming from Grain. There’s only one big main road, and although the times were questionable I was sure the bus must pass through there. This turned out to be a mistake, since after Cliffe Pools and the map (Osmand/Open Source Map or Google Maps) suggesting you can escape at certain points, you can’t. There is water ditches and ponds, and large fences and Keep Out signs to make sure you don’t – I suspect some bits are leaky or accessible, including Mead Road, but it seemed the land owner(s) were trying their best to stop any kind of access to the path. This became more of a problem later.
So walking along precariously along the top of the sea wall, it’s pretty bleak, with only lambs and sheep for company (sometimes they break out and graze by the river, a strange sort of pastoral scene in the industrial landscape). The monotony is only broken by odd piles of rocks, I’m guessing to sure up the defences, and the equally neolithic monument marking the Eastern limits of the Company of Thames Watermen and Lightermen.
After a while you come across some really strange sets of ruins, initially looking like dead farms and barns, but after a while the serried ranks seem strange. This apparently is the remains of the Curtis and Harvey Gunpowder and Explosive works…yes like Foulness Island currently is, and other parts of the area munitions were made here until the 1920’s. A very dangerous place to work also! I guess it makes sense since it’s so remote, but the crumbling buildings are rather spooky. Looks like you might be able to get access or at least look closer via a road that runs up. On the other side, it wasn’t obvious HOW you could get out, or connect. Maybe I missed this in the twilight…there are paths marked, but as you got there, no sign of them. It’s a very large place – look it up on Google satellite maps. Tempted to go back and explore further, although apparently there is shooting here, so I will stick to tracks and roads unless it’s completely open.
Talking of which, it seems one of the landowners blocked the public right of way entirely with a large black vinyl fence,no stile or anything (later ones had a cut out area to do so, but not this one). No official signs about closing the path – which are needed, it’s a public right of way so I think a local byelaw or council ruling has to be passed before it’s stopped – nor sign of a detour, official or otherwise. So I swore and precariously stepped around as you can see it goes right up to the edge of the sea wall. No idea how the landowner can block a public footpath like this? I wonder if the Ramblers would be interested.
They seemed to be doing some works here, and had fishing (or shooting?) positions, but no sign of a way out inland – there was supposed to be a path where the black fence is above, but it seemed to be one long muddy ditch/stream. So I was starting to get worried, All Hallows the next reliable ‘out’ was many miles away and it was getting dark…and obviously would be missing the bus. But at least there were scenes like this to look at:
So eventually I found a way out, after Decoy Fleet (interesting name) the path branches inland at St Mary’s Bay towards St Mary Hoo. It was seriously getting dark at this time…fine as I had my torch (you can see my torch-enabled night photography below) but then the path went uphill sharply across furrowed if thankfully dry fields with no obvious path…so I ended up using my phone GPS and OSMAND ‘blind’ – left a bit, right a bit, like I was in an episode of Knightmare. Eventually I found a track, then the main street and onto St Mary’s Hoo, which looked nice if rather abandoned in the dark, very few lights. Early to bed people?
The walk to the main road was eventful also – I decided to walk down the Ratcliffe Highway which despite the name was one of those incredibly busy single carriage roads that carries far too much traffic even at that time of night…which like the walk to Southminster which I’ll detail in future was scary since without pavement or even verges it’s not always safe to walk along, day or night. Thankfully it was a short walk and got to the main road at Fenn Street. I saw from the map there was a pub which is partly why I went this way, to call for a taxi then wait in a nice warm pub…to find that the Fenn Bell Inn is no more. Signs are still there, but looks like it’s not a pub, or was closed (on a midweek night in the evening?).
So eventually found a taxi to come out, and took the taxi to Strood. I could’ve walked it, but as you can see this walk had already ballooned to 18+ miles (so much for the rough estimate of 13.5 that Maps Ruler 2 app gave!) and I didn’t want to walk the 3-4+ miles to civilisation across busy roads (although thankfully with pavements). Certainly looking at the map Higham might be better for Cliffe if I want to go back there, or investigate the peripatetic buses from Strood or Gravesend to Grain – there are buses to St Mary Hoo so I can get there, I found the bus stop near Fenn Street. That would be a weekday or Saturday event though, since Sunday buses are mostly fat chance in that area, apart from the main Grain bus. But I’d like to explore Cliffe more – the wreck and the works, and the walk to the failed sea-side town of All Hallows should be interesting also…but I think two separate visits.
You can see the photos from the 2009 Cliffe Walk, and the 2014 walk to St Mary Hoo – a lot more extra shots of the Hans Egede, the car wreck, graffiti, far too many shots of flotsam, the Explosive Factory and many many sunsets!