12 – Gravesend to Cliffe

The weather had one of the first shows of full Spring about it today, leading to one of the best walks we have done so far.  We were joined by my aunt, Jenny, who is now a regular participant in our excursions.  We parked at one of the central car parks of Gravesend but had to make a quick dash into the nearby shops to get some change for the parking meter.  Having paid the meter, we made it down to the riverfront just in time to see a large container ship being escorted towards the estuary by a stout but strong-looking little tug.

Today’s walk effectively put us on to the start of the Saxon Shore Way, a route around almost all of the Kent coastline, although it heads inland at various points.  It originally connected a series of forts, built by the Romans to hold off the Saxons, however, when the Romans left Britain the Saxons themselves then used it.  It runs some 140 miles, starting at Gravesend, following the coast of Kent, and ending in Sussex.  As much of it follows the coastline, it will be our regular host as we complete the Kent stage of our walk.

Thus, picking up the Saxon Shore Way we set off east, heading out of Gravesend.  We stopped briefly at the Gravesend Blockhouse.  This is one of the small isolated forts built by Henry VIII at around the time he was excommunicated, to protect the Thames and thus London from invasion.  It was enlarged in the 1660s so as to include a residence for the Lord High Admiral, but was ultimately demolished in 1844.  Once three storeys high, today all that can be seen is a single level, partially excavated and sectioned off from the surrounding buildings and car parks with a tight fence.  Just to the east of the blockhouse is the Port of London Authority building, in front of which is an impressive statue of Poseidon.

The Saxon Shore Way cuts inland at this point, but only by a single street, so it brought us out on the south bank of the Thames again at the Gravesend Promenade.  In the fresh Spring weather, this was an extremely pleasant area, with outside exercise machines, a wooden jetty, and great views across the river to Tilbury Power Station.  The kids ran off to the small climbing wall next to the exercise machines; I went off and took some photos; my wife and aunt chatted happily; the sun shone.

After about fifteen minutes a swan clambered out of the river, wading through the mud to wander up and see if there was any food on offer.  After taking a couple of photos we realised we had effectively stopped our walk to dither before we had really even started, and so headed off eastwards with slightly more resolve.

After circumnavigating a sailing club, the Saxon Shore Way continues through a rather insalubrious industrial estate.  We found that more than half of the buildings were derelict, and that some hard-working and diligent delinquents had painstakingly ensured that every pane of glass and lightbulb had been broken.  I had to marvel at their accuracy.  On more overcast days, perhaps the walk though this silent and enclosed alleyway would have been more threatening.  Not today.  Boosted by numbers and a beaming sun, we happily walked on.

After a couple of twists and turns, we passed the Ship and Lobster pub.  The path suddenly left the industrial area and became a grassy embankment, and the town of Gravesend abruptly ended.  Visibility was good, and we could see across the Thames to Coalhouse Fort where we had been the week before.  My wife commented that after so many weeks of leaving the coast and following the Thames inland, it was good to feel as if we were walking back the other way. I agreed.  We walked by a firing range (marked “Danger Area” on our Ordnance Survey map) and saw some horses up ahead, sharing our path.  It was a beautiful place and we decided to stop for lunch.  Our lunch break was slightly more eventful than we had intended, as the horses decided that as well as sharing our path, they might also see if they could share our lunch.  Several approached as we sat on the bank, coming right up to us to see what was on offer.  Despite making my wife and aunt distinctly nervous, they were gentle giants, and earned a couple of apples for their inquisitiveness.

As well as the horses, we were joined by a multitude of shipping, passing slowly along the Thames as we ate.  We timed our lunch well – the ships were literally queueing up to pass and entertain us.

Some of these ships we had seen previously; we tend to see quite a few of them regularly, They seem to be workhorses with regular runs.  We have started logging the ships we see on marinetraffic.com which allows us to track them on a map in real time.  Many seem to do the same old runs, day in, day out.

We picked ourselves up after lunch and continued on, soon reaching Shornmead Fort.  Built in 1796, it was one of the Napoleonic Forts designed to protect the Thames from a French invasion. Sitting just south of Cliffe Fort, and across the river from Coalhouse and Tilbury Forts, it is easy to image how it was designed to be part of a crossfire situation, so that all forts were capable of bombarding any ships that dared to run their gauntlet.  The forts did not see much action, and after the Napoleonic Wars Shornmead Fort was used to house the poor of the parish.  It was then demolished in 1847 to make way for a new fort, completed in 1852.  This new fort was never quite structurally sound, and thus it too was replaced, in the 1870’s.  It is this third reincarnation which stands in ruins today.  During the Second World War it was used as an embarkation point, and so had some concrete jetties built together with two pillboxes.  In the 1960’s it was then used for explosive demolition training, one of the reasons it is in the state it is today.  In my view, the fact that it has been allowed to fall into ruin is actually no bad thing.  It is on an “open site”, and we were able to climb over the area and explore it fully.  This is not like the Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts, which have been kept in repair, but which are not always open to the public.  Shornmead presents a good contrast to the other forts.  The ruins hold a raw beauty and there is a pang of excitement when exploring.  The more modern addition of graffiti, however, is a pity.  It is everywhere.

Leaving Shornmead Fort, we continued along our coastal path.  A beacon of some sort stood outside, in the shallows of the Thames.  It had solar panels and what appeared to be a wind-driven reflective panel.  Was it an un-manned lighthouse, placed at the point where the Thames meanders north, so as to protect the shipping?  This was my best guess.  The banks of the Thames here were beautiful, especially in the sun.  The only problem was the enormous amount of litter strewn across the whole area.  Since we had left Gravesend it had accompanied us constantly, seemingly growing in volume the more easterly we were.  Most of it was plastic bags and bottles, but there were some stranger sights.  One was a Christmas tree, obviously thrown into the Thames further up the river, which had come to be washed up here.  But by far the largest bit of “litter” was a rusty old car, half submerged in the mud.

Shortly after this car we reached some more “litter”, at least of sorts, as we passed the wreck of the Hands Egede schooner.  This is a Danish barge which was originally built in 1922, but which had an engine fire in 1955.  From 1957 it was towed around, transporting coal or gravel, however, all the towing weakened its structure.  It sprung a leak, was towed to shore and left to rot.

Just beyond the Hans Egede is Cliffe Fort.  Yet another Napoleonic Fort, this one was built in the 1860s.  Today it is owned by the aggregate company next door, and indeed, has mountains of sand and gravel almost piled up against it to one side.  It is not open to the public, but when we arrived a track ran around its front and we were able to have a wander around the outer walls.  Most of the windows were all barred and there were “Danger” signs all over the place.  However, it is clear that many people ignore these.  As we approached we saw people walking on the roof of the building.  Furthermore, the windows without bars have had sand piled up against them in order to block access.  People have dug away at this sand, creating small gullies through which to slip in a window and thus inside the fort.  We satisfied ourselves with peeking in through the bars.  The courtyard appears to be flooded today.

Apparently, in May 1877 a barge brought a gun over to the fort which was offloaded onto a railway waggon.  The wagon immediately listed and dropped the gun.  It sank two foot into the mud, and took 46 men working full time for 10 days to dig it out again.

Just after the fort is an inconspicuous looking slipway.  This is the site of the Brennan Torpedo launch.  Patented in 1877, the Brennan Torpedo is said by some to be the world’s first ever guided missile, although in fact it is not.  Earlier examples existed, but were not nearly as practical to use as the Brennan which is therefore a very important step in the development of such weapons, and certainly one of the first.  Seven launches were built, and one of these was at Cliffe Fort.  Whilst some of the others have been demolished, the one at Cliffe Fort still remains.

From Cliffe Fort, we continued along the path which ran through the aggregate yard and underneath a large conveyor belt.  This had deposited sand into several enormous mountains.  The ground was sandy, the sky a clear blue, and the sand itself looked bleached white.  It felt, for a moment, that we were in a mini Giza, staring at pyramids.

We carried on, quickly reaching Cliffe Creek.  Here we turned inland, walking away from the River Thames and through Cliffe Pools Nature Reserve, towards the town of Cliffe itself.  Whilst we were walking, the Rio de Janeiro, a massive container ship operated by Hamburg Süd, and which we had last seen off Canvey Island, pushed slowly by.  If only it had come 30 minutes earlier, we would have been right on the banks of the Thames; it would have been an incredible sight.

At last, we entered the town of Cliffe.  The parts I saw were attractive, lined with weatherboarded houses.  Cliffe is an old town, and can be found in records dating back to 43 AD.  We stopped at the Six Bells pub and enjoyed a pint of Shepherd Neame, whilst waiting for our taxis to take us back to Gravesend.

Points on this walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Gravesend Car Park:  N 51° 26.634 E 000° 22.237
  • Gravesend Blockhouse:  N 51° 26.679 E 000° 22.365
  • Port of London Authority Poseidon Statue:  N 51° 26.674 E 000° 22.479
  • Gravesend Promenade:  N 51° 26.654 E 000° 22.727
  • Firing Range:  N 51° 26.504 E 000° 24.724
  • Shornemead Fort:  N 51° 26.804 E 000° 26.038
  • Hans Egede Schooner:  N 51° 27.684 E 000° 27.350
  • Cliffe Fort:  N 51° 27.819 E 000° 27.350
  • Brennan Torpedo Run:  N 51° 27.809 E 000° 27.272
  • Cliffe Pools Nature Reserve:  N 51° 27.805 E 000° 28.552
  • The Six Bells, Cliffe:  N 51° 27.682 E 000° 29.874

Walk #12 Statistics:

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One Response to 12 – Gravesend to Cliffe

  1. Great to read your account of this walk. I remember the awful industrial estate on outskirts of Gravesend. One of the few places I felt uneasy walking through on my own. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to go down the awful passage you show in your photograph – went round by road instead. I think we met the same horses. And I have a similar photo of the car in the mud! Best wishes, Ruth

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