Gravesend to Blyth Sands Isle of Grain
Its Monday 24th September 18 and myself, David Beech, Dave Evans & Danny Palmer, who's made his way down to Gravesend from Enfield in London to join us, are walking from Gravesend to Blyth Sands, which sits on the very tip of the Isle of Grain Peninsula in Kent. This is an area that many people would not have heard of before or visited being quite remote, but I know this area very well due to another hobby I have as a Mudlark on the River Thames. Following part of the Saxon Shore way, our walk today will commence on the River Thames at the Town Pier and follows the Saxon Shore Way beside the river to Cliffe Creek before we turn north following the river coarse around Cliffe Marshes. This is the area many do not get to see and it must be the remotest place in Kent to walk. There are only a few access and exit points to this area and our walk will see us exiting at Blyth Sands via Cooling Marshes into the village of Cliffe.
Gravesend was first recorded as Gravesham in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it belonged to Odo, Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. Close to the Roman road of Watling Street and close to Vagniacae, the Roman Town now Springhead (the source of River Ebbsfleet), there has been evidence of settlement in this area since the Iron age. It has one of the oldest surviving markets in the country which dates from 1268, granted a charter along with Milton just along the road now a suburb of Gravesend by King Henry III. During the Hundred Years War, Gravesend suffered being sacked and burned by the Castilian Fleet in 1380 and there are the remains of a Tudor fort built by command of King Henry VIII in 1543.
Buried in an unknown grave at St George's Church Gravesend is Pocahontas (real name Amonute),a Native American woman born c1596. She was the daughter of the powerful Chief Powhatan, the ruler of the large Powhatan tribal nation and associated with the colonial settlement of Jamestown Virginia. She is remembered today due to the animated romantic musical film produced by Walt Disney in 1995. It is said she saved the life of Colonist John Smith in 1607, who was being held captive by her tribe, by placing her head upon Smith's when her father raised his war club to execute him. Later in 1614 she married John Rolfe and had a son but not before converting to Christianity and changing her name to Rebecca. However it is believed that her life was less romantic than the film would suggest and historical fact have now cast doubts over the events of her story. What is known is that she was presented to English society and may have even met king James I and Queen Anne, settling in rural Brentford. The romantic myth of Pocahontas endured to show that two cultures can find common ground, but in reality her story may have been used as a propaganda stunt in the day to make the white man feel better about themselves and their treatment of Native Americans. In the minds of the time Pocahontas may have been used to justify the changes they were making to the Native Americans lives and even seen as helping them change from savages to a civilised people. Sadly, whilst trying to return to Virginia, she was taken ill at Gravesend aged at just 20 or 21 she died and was buried there. Personally I hope aspects of the film are true and in reality she was in love, happy and treated well.
I must mention the large Sikh community in Gravesend that has steadily grown here since the 1950's. They have settled well here escaping poverty and have bought charm and a splash of vibrant colour to this maritime town. Today, three generations on, they are proud to call Gravesend and Britain their home and are working hard to break down barriers within the local community. In 2010 they opened the impressive Guru Nanak Temple a Sikh Gurdwara, which can be seen from the Thames estuary. Built at a cost of £15 million pounds. Impressively £12 million was raised and paid for by the local Sikh community, it is run by volunteers. For me Gravesend would not be the same without the Sikh community.
Town Pier is the oldest surviving cast iron pier in the world built in 1834
The Gravesend - Tilbury ferry service is the last public foot crossing point before the Thames reaches the sea. Nobody knows how long a ferry service has been operating here, but its origins are believed to be early. A sketch map from 1571 shows evidence of two jetties and houses either side, so it was probably well established by then. Personally, with the two markets established in Gravesend by King Henry, you would think that some sort of ferry service would be in use transporting animals and wool to here for the markets and further afield. A car ferry service was introduced in 1927, but discontinued in 1964, following the opening of the first Dartford Tunnel in 1963. Today the ferry runs every 30 mins Monday to Saturday from 6am to 7pm.
Close to the Town Pier in St Andrews Gardens is a statue of Mahinder Singh Pujji who was a distinguished Royal Air Force fighter pilot and one of the first Indian Sikh pilots to volunteer with the RAF during the second world war. Erected in 2014 it commemorates the life of the squadron leader who survived several crashes and flew combat missions throughout the war in Britain, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Burma and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He lived and died in Gravesend in 2010 aged 92 and his statue is said to represent all those from across the world who fought for Britain in conflicts since 1914. It just amazes me that he did this all as a volunteer and how fitting that this magnificent statue sits in the spiritual home of the Sikhs in Britain, truly an amazing man.
As everyone knows, I like a bit of maritime history and for me a lightship just ticks the box. Here in St Andrews Gardens sits another gem, the large red Light Vessel (LV) 21 built in 1963. It is a unique 40 metre steel-hulled lightship, the last of the renowned Philip & Son’s ships to be commissioned by Trinity House. LV21 saw most of her service off the Kent coast on the Varne, East Goodwin and Channel stations. In 1981 she was involved in the worst Light Vessel collision with the "Ore Meteor" in which the Light vessel survived. She was retired from service in 2008 and after a spell moored at Gillingham Pier she now has a new berth here in Gravesend. Quoting from the net "she is now used as a floating art space and performance facility, designed to provide a range of services promoting and supporting the creative industries while celebrating and honouring the maritime traditions of the vessel. LV21 is a unique venue with an individual and distinct identity, one of Kent’s prime platforms for cultural activities across diverse artistic disciplines".
The mission house formerly the "Spread Eagle" public house built in 1840, was taken over and used for service by the priest of the local Trinity church, Rev C.E.R Robinson. The Reverend provided spiritual and moral instruction to the floating community moored here on the Thames. He began visiting the boats and looked upon the crews as his parishioners, but also extended his services to the emigrants who lived on board the ships, often in appalling conditions. Services were held in the bar and classes taught in a small adjoining hut while the reverend appealed for donations via the London Church newspaper to build a proper mission hall. Thankfully the Daughter of Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort KBE (the same Francis Beaufort who invented the scale for measuring wind speed) responded, along with other notable benefactors that included Charles Dickens. So on St Andrew's Day in 1871, St Andrew's Church next door was completed.
The plaque on the Mission house wall commemorates "General Gordon" a national hero in 1865. It goes on to read for his exploits in china and who became known as "Chinese Gordon" and that he was also remembered for his ill fated defence of Khartoum in 1885 against Sudanese Rebels. Later the British public reacting to his death acclaiming him "Gordon of Khartoum". A resident in Gravesend for five years while commanding the Corps of the Royal engineers, he worked to improve conditions for the poor and was a regular teacher at the Sunday school held in this Mission House.
At Anchor Cove, Bawley Bay is a memorial to the "Watermen and Tugmen" of the River Thames and another to the Seafarers who gave their lives whilst serving in the Merchant navy. Made using a small collection of boat anchors collected from various river craft that have plied their trade on the River Thames.
The remains of the Gravesend Blockhouse built has part of Henry VIII's Device Plan of 1539. It was built in response to the fears of an imminent invasion of England by France and the Holy Roman Empire. Located at a strategic point on the Thames it worked in conjunction with Tilbury Fort on the other side of the river. Repaired in 1588, to deal with the threat of Spanish Invasion and again in 1667, after the Dutch Navy raided the Thames. It was eventually demolished in 1844 due to the building of the newer modern New Tavern Fort just along the road.
The Port of London Authority (PLA) London River House Gravesend. The PLA is a self-funding public trust established by the Port of London Act 1908 to govern the Port of London. Its responsibility extends over the Tideway of the River Thames and its continuation (the Kent/Essex strait). It maintains and supervises navigation, and protects the river's environment.
Gravesend's elegant Customs House was built in the early 19th century for the HM Customs and excise service. It sits on the site of the earlier "Fountain Tavern" demolished in 1816. It's most impressive feature is that there is a lookout room built on the roof giving an unrestricted view of the Thames. Today it houses a museum displaying a wide variety of seized goods and historical items, dating back to Edward III.
The Bandstand within the ramparts of New Tavern Fort, which dates mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is an unusually well-preserved example of an 18th-century fortification and remained in use for defensive purposes until the Second World War. It was built during the American War of Independence to guard the Thames against French and Spanish raiders operating in support of the newly formed United States of America. It was redesigned and rebuilt in the mid-19th century to defend against a new generation of iron-clad French warships. By the start of the 20th century, the Thames defences had been moved further downriver to the estuary and the fort was disarmed. Its grounds were opened to the public as pleasure gardens, but the fort was taken back into military use temporarily during the Second World War. Today the fort and its magazines and other underground structures have been restored and are open to the public. It is unique in the UK for its display of guns and emplacements ranging from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
The Gravesend Rowing Club was founded in 1878 by Mr F.W.Simes, a wealthy corn and seed merchant, who had moved to the area from the south coast. As a keen rowing enthusiast and club member there, he wanted to set up a similar club on the banks of the river Thames. The club prospered and soon a proposal to build a boat shed and later a clubhouse at the western end of the promenade were sought, however there was a snag, the land here belonged to the War office and was part of New Tavern Fort, but permission to build was finally given (fortunately the Commanding Officer was a club member) in around 1908. Interesting the clubhouse pictured used to have a smaller roof being limited to just 11ft, so that the coastal defence guns in the fort would have a clear field of fire over the top, this gave the building an unwelcome squat appearance, but when the height restrictions was lifted in 1912 this fine lantern roof was added.
On the opposite bank at Tilbury is the drill ship Sertao built in 2012. Drill ships are used in deep water exploratory offshore drilling of new oil and gas wells or for scientific drilling purposes. She is capable of drilling wells up to 11,400 meters and in water depths of up to 3000 meters. Currently she is in "warm layup or stacked" meaning she is idle, but can be bought back into service at short notice. She is expected to be part of the Tilbury skyline for sometime, because she is under arrest of the Admiralty Marshal of the Courts of Justice of England & Wales. She currently is in the hands of brokers to be sold at Auction due to the Brazilian firm Schahin Group, which in April 2015 filed for bankruptcy after racking up billions of dollars in debt.
This small entrance into the Gravesend basin is at one end of the Thames and Medway Canal, which ran to Strood on the Medway river. The canal was first mooted by engineer Ralph Dodd in 1778 as a shortcut for military craft from Deptford and Woolwich Dockyards on the Thames to Chatham Dockyard on the Medway, avoiding the 74 km (46 mi) journey round the peninsula and through the Thames estuary. Built in response to fears that enemy ships might venture into the Thames estuary and attack the navel dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich, and Chatham. It was also intended to take commercial traffic between the two rivers. Sadly the canal was never the success it was hoped and revenue was low, the coming of the railway meant canals were yesterday's means of transport and it was officially abandoned in 1934.
The inner lock gate of the Gravesend Basin.
At the Port Of London Authority Denton Wharf sits the original Shornemead Lighthouse, one of the last actual lighthouses to be built on the River Thames. It was built in 1913 to mark the muddy banks on a meander in the Thames, just East of Gravesend and South of Tilbury Fort. The skeletal Lighthouse was designed by Sir Thomas Matthews for Trinity House, who operated the light until the Port of London Authority assumed responsibility for the Light. The metal tower was originally 14 metres high and painted red, showing a white acetylene Powered light from a circular lantern; this was turned on and off automatically by a sun-valve at day and night. The Lighthouse was cut off of its base and 3 metres of lower part of the tower had to be removed in order for the rest of it to be salvaged from the concrete platform on which it stood. Since the tower's removal, it has been stored at the Port of London Authority's depot at Denton Wharf, Gravesend, presumably where it will stay until a better home for it can be found.
The Ship and Lobster public house was built on the river wall at Denton in the early 19th Century and is the first pub on the river entering London. As such it became a favourite haunt of the most notorious smugglers, all sorts of contraband would exchange hands here. Imagine all that history going through the front door, ale being drunk, clay pipes being lit, it conjures up all sorts of images. Featured in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations under the pseudonym The Three Jolly Bargemen and visited by Constable, who came here in the 1820's, before travelling on to draw Chalk Church, it is still a working pub today. Sadly due to the encroaching industrial surroundings it's not in the prettiest location, but if visiting this area please pay it a visit, as it is constantly under the threat of closure and the old saying "use it or lose it" is not more apt than here. Enjoy a pint over looking the river, it would be a shame to lose this historical pub and it looks lovely inside. Although unlucky for me as we are here three hours before opening time!
Denton Wharf is the main base for the Port Of London Authorities fleet of more than 40 vessels and it's Marine Services crews, which maintain more than 60 aids to navigation, including buoys, and inspecting/maintaining more than 230 PLA moorings along the river. It also provides lift-out and maintenance services for other users of the Thames.
Horses on the Saxon Shore Way near Shornemead Fort. Although these horses looked healthy, many of the horses on this marsh are abandoned. Thankfully they are monitored by the RSPCA, but many charities are struggling to cope with the numbers abandoned, neglected or abused. Up to 100 abandoned horses have been reported here and many need help with starvation or illness. Shockingly ponies can be bought for as little as £5 in some places because prices have crashed in a saturated market. If you see a horse or any other animal suffering please call 0300 1234 999.
Shornemead Fort, now a disused artillery fort, was built in the 1860s to guard the entrance to the Thames from seaborne attack. Constructed during a period of tension with France, it stands on the south bank of the river at a point where the Thames curves sharply north and west, giving the fort long views up and down the river in both directions. It was the third fort constructed on the site since the 18th century, but its location on marshy ground led to major problems with subsidence. The fort was equipped for a time with a variety of large-calibre artillery guns which were intended to support two other nearby Thames side forts. However, the extent of the subsidence meant that it became unsafe for the guns to be fired and the fort was disarmed by the early 20th century. Abandoned in the 1950s, much of it was demolished by the Army Demolition School of the Royal Engineers in the 1960s. The barracks and administrative buildings have been completely destroyed and only the front of the casemates survives along with the magazines underneath, though the latter are now flooded and inaccessible. The surviving fragments of the fort and the area around it are now part of a nature reserve and can be visited by the public.
The views across the Higham Bight Bay to Cliffe Fort.
There are several Pillboxes (Type 24 & 22) on the foreshore at Shornemead, leftover from World War II and now partially buried by the seawall defences, they can not be entered.
A type 24 pillbox.
Tanks Traps over the Saxon Shore Way on the sea defences at Higham Bight.
The remains of Cliff Fort Crane or Creek Jetty at Higham bright used to construct and supply Cliff Fort which was built 1861-70.
The wreck of the schooner "The Hans Egede" a Danish vessel built in 1922. Named after a Norwegian missionary, she sprung a leak whilst being towed by a tug along the Thames in 1957. To prevent it becoming a hazard to other shipping she was left at Higham Bight, where she still sits today.
A closer look at skeletal timber remains of "The Hans Egede"
Cliffe Fort was built in the 1860's to guard the entrance to the Thames from seaborne attack. Constructed during a period of tension with France, it stands on the south bank of the river at the entrance to Cliffe Creek in the Cliffe marshes, Higham. Along with Shornemead and Coalhouse Forts, it formed an outer line of defence with New Tavern and Tilbury Forts further upstream forming an inner line of defence. Its location on marshy ground caused problems from the start and necessitated changes to its design after the structure begin to crack and subside during construction. The fort was equipped with a variety of large-calibre artillery guns which were intended to support the other nearby forts. A launcher for the Brennan torpedo—which has been described as the world's first practical guided missile—was installed there at the end of the 19th century but was only in active use for a few years. The fort saw about 60 years of usage as an artillery fort, from its completion in 1870 to its disarmament in 1927. It was repurposed during World War II to serve as an anti-aircraft battery on the approaches to London. The fort's military career ended when it was sold off after the war to the owners of a neighbouring aggregates works. Today it lies derelict, overgrown and heavily flooded. It is not accessible to the public and is in a poor and slowly deteriorating condition which has led it to be listed as an "at risk" heritage asset.
Some time after 1887, a launching station for the Brennan torpedo, a weapon which has been described as "the world's first practical guided missile" (fire by wire) was added to the fort. One of the magazines was converted into a chamber for the engine room with ancillary chambers for other machinery. One of the emplacements in the open battery also had to be taken out of service. A large concrete room was built onto the front of the fort to store the torpedoes, which were launched from a rail mounted on the roof of the torpedo room. Flank walls were added to the roof to protect the launch crews from enemy fire. Two slipways were built at different times, the second being added most likely in the 1900s, along with a telescopic control tower on the roof to direct the torpedoes. The torpedo had two propellers, rotated by wires which were attached to winding engines on the shore station and which played out after the torpedo was fired. By varying the speed at which the two wires were extracted, the torpedo could be steered to the left or right by an operator. Today only one of the slipways, along with the launching rails and vestiges of the tower are visible; the other slipway has long been in-filled. Only one example of the torpedo itself exists, which can be viewed at the Royal Engineer's Museum Chatham.
The boys take a closer look at the launch rails in the remaining slipway.
Cliff Creek on the Saxon Shore Way, which runs beside Cliff Fort.
On the Thames sea defences at Redham Mead.
Pictured here near Lower Hope Point are the remains of former coastguard cottages at Redham Mead. When I was younger I visited here and these cottages still had occupants, but today they are just ruins. It's a beautiful spot and it's a real shame to see them in such a sorry state. There's not much known online about these cottages, so any further information would be appreciated.
Sitting at a rather awkward angle is the the eastern boundary marker of the jurisdiction of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, which was erected here in 1861. This stone, a replacement for the original, was erected in 1982 and marks the lucrative monopoly to ferry people and goods between ships and from ships to shore on the River Thames.
Pictured here on the remote Cliffe Marshes are the remains of buildings used in the manufacture of explosives. Established as the Gunpowder Works in 1892 by Hay, Merricks and Company, gunpowder makers of Roslin, Scotland, it was eventually acquired by Curtis's and Harvey of Hounslow, who operated the site before it eventually closed in 1921, due to the downturn in the explosive market at the end of the Great War. Interestingly I read on the Cliffe History page, that between 1904 and 1921, 21 people were killed whilst working here and a further 38 suffered injuries. Along with other notable Kent gunpowder works disasters, it seems to me that making explosives in those days was not an industry you would want to be in. For further information about this interesting place please click on this link. http://www.cliffehistory.co.uk/the_explosives_works.html
The remains of the jetty on the Thames which served the Gunpowder Works, it was constructed to receive and dispatch powder/goods into the site.
On the opposite bank is the huge DP World London Gateway Port. Opened in 2013 the deep water port can handle the biggest container ships from around the world. The site is a fully integrated logistics facility which is semi-automated, it uses robotic automated stacking cranes to assist with managing containers as they are moved from ship to shore, onto trucks and trains. The 12 quayside cranes are among the largest in the world and can lift containers weighing 80 tonnes. Its American owners currently have three deep-water berths with the ability to expand to six. Having been closer to the site it looks impressive and almost out of this world on scale.
Walking the seawall on Cooling Marsh near Blyth Sands.
Being so remote many of the stiles are starting to show their age, but if you get the chance to walk this footpath give it a go, it really is a special place, especially on a sunny day like today. During the week it is very quiet and you will probably never see another living soul, but please carry plenty of food and water.
Amazingly at this location on Cooling Marshes a 900m section of the seawall has now been removed as a managed realignment site called "Site X". The seawall has been breached to create one of two compensatory mudflats to mitigate the construction of the DP World London Gateway site in Essex mentioned above. A new seawall has been built further inland to allow the estuarine waters to flood in and out with the tide. This has created a new mudflat habitat for many animals, especially breeding and wintering birds. The first time I saw this site I was amazed, as it seems to have sprung up overnight, without much consultation or being mentioned in the Kent press. All in all I believe it to be a good idea and if you look closely here at low water the original footings of the seawall can still be seen. What has happened as a positive is that the path from Cliffe village used to finish about a kilometre from the wall despite there being a trackway to it, meaning that there was no access to the foreshore. On several occasions in the past I had risked walking this trackway only to be stopped by someone living in a mobile caravan at the sheepfold and reminded it was private. Although allowed to continue on the path, it always made it a bit awkward, meaning I avoided the route. However now the seawall has been moved it connects with this path and means everyone can join or leave the seawall at this location, opening this area up to all walkers. Remember there is only one footpath running out from Cliffe village onto the marsh and alterations to the seawall have yet to be mapped, but please believe me when I tell you, you can now access the foreshore here.
Sadly this point also means the end of our coast walk today and we must now use the same footpath to walk into Cliffe village for our bus home. It's been a great day and I would like to thank the Wrong Roaders boys for joining me. 11.21 miles.