The aim of today’s walk was to leave the townscape of Chatham and get back to open countryside. We started at Chatham, an area dominated by maritime history. Next to the Council Offices is the site of the Royal Marines Barracks which stood here from 1779 to 1950, home to the Chatham Division (the “First and Grand Division”) of the Royal Marines. Based at Chatham for some 170 years, it was these marines who were rallied in May 1940 to fight the rearguard action in Holland during the rescue of the Dutch Royal family. During World War II, as Marines changed into Commandos, Chatham was deemed no longer suitable as a training base. In May 1950 the barracks were closed, and they were demolished in 1960. Not all of the buildings have been demolished. At Gun Wharf is The Command House, the old residence of the officer in charge there. It was at Gun Wharf that cannons were repaired and fitted to ships. Ammunition was also delivered here, brought across the River Medway from Upnor Castle on the opposite bank.
We continued along the sea wall but were soon diverted inland by the high wall of the Chatham Historic Dockyard. We walked along Dock Road, soon reaching the imposing gatehouse. The dockyard, now a museum, had a service of some 400 years, dating back to Tudor times when Chatham prepared the ships that were to fight the Spanish Armada. Its history is both important and impressive, and includes the building in 1759 of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. The museum today offers, amongst other things, tours of HMS Ocelot, a Cold War submarine and the last warship to be built at the dockyard, in 1962.
Our walk did not take us in to the Dockyard, but continued along Dock Road. Here we passed a plaque remembering 24 Royal Marine Cadets, aged between 9 and 13, who were killed on 4 December 1951 in what became known as the Gillingham Bus Disaster. They were walking along Dock Road on their way to a boxing match. Conditions were, according to some witnesses but disputed by others, foggy and poorly lit. One of the street lamps was not working. At just before 6pm a bus approached from behind them. It had its sidelights on but not its headlights, although this was standard practice at the time. The officer in charge of the cadets moved them into the kerb as far as possible, assuming the bus would see them. It didn’t. The driver had not realised they were there and initially thought he was running over loose stones until he heard screams and braked. Of the 52 cadets in the column, 17 died at the scene and another seven in hospital, six of them that evening. A further 18 were injured. It was the highest loss of life in a road accident in Britain at that time. At the inquest a verdict of accidental death was recorded. The coroner did not believe that either the cadets’ officer or the bus driver had been negligent. Despite this, the driver was charged with dangerous driving. He was found guilty, but with a recommendation of leniency by the jury. The judge agreed, saying, “You are a man of good character, with a good record as a motor driver, and no doubt you are a good citizen. It would be absurd for me in those circumstances to send you to prison“. He was banned from driving for three years and fined £20. The bus company accepted liability and paid some £10,000 to the parents of the boys.
Dock Road leads north into the Dockside Outlet Centre where we found the mast and bell from HMS Undaunted, dating back to about 1860. After use on the ship it was used as a muster bell in the Chatham Dockyard, ringing three times to signal the beginning of a shift. At 100 foot high it is rather tall, and must have created quite a noise.
We continued on and crossed over to St Mary’s Island. This used to be an area of marshland and swamp, over which the Romans built a bridge in order to create a ferry crossing to the Hoo Peninsula. This ferry service lasted some 1,900 years. It was also here on St Mary’s Island where a defensive chain was secured on this side of the Medway and run across the river in the seventeenth century, but which was either broken through or torn loose by the Dutch when they invaded the area in 1667.
From Napoleonic times the area was used to house prison ships, notorious for their poor conditions. By the 1850’s the prison camp on St Mary’s Island had expanded to include buildings, and in 1861 it was the scene of the Chatham Convicts’ Rebellion. This lasted four days, beginning with some soup being flung in the face of a warder, and ending with the intervention of troops to force proceedings to a bloody end. Five hours after the initial break-out, the warders themselves were able to capture the ringleaders and take back control. However, they were then rushed, and lost control again. The rioting then lasted another two days. Eventually, some 1,000 armed Royal Engineers and Royal Marines were ordered to charge the rioters. Each man was armed and had with ten rounds of ammunition. The result was described as “…a slaughter-house, blood flowing in streams in all directions…“. The rebellion was at an end; the consequential flogging of the prisoners lasted an entire morning.
In Victorian times it was decided to expand the Royal Dockyard into the island. The convicts dug out three basins and deposited the spoil to create the island itself. This was completed in the 1870’s, and the dockyard then lasted over 100 years, closing in 1984. The area is now a massive redevelopment and regeneration project, with its own marina (the old Basin 1) and many modern buildings.
We entered St Mary’s Island on its western side, over the swingbridge which separates Basin 1 from the Medway. Our timing was perfect. As soon as we crossed alarms sounded and barriers came down. The swingbridge was raised, allowing three boats into the dock, before the it swung back into place. The enormous dock gates parted, and the boats entered the river.
We left the swingbridge and continued along the path which runs alongside most of the circumference of the island. It is a pleasant walk, with vantage points and several information boards about its history. We were followed for a stretch by a common tern. It flew along the river close to the shore, plunge-diving for fish. After a distance of a few hundred feet it circled round to the start again for another trawl.
We stopped for lunch by a sculpture, “The Mariners”, at Finsborough Ness and then carried on.
The eastern part of St Mary’s Island is an inaccessible industrial area, so our path took us over some landscaped grassland to a boardwalk over Basin 2, and then over a bridge back to the mainland. We then had to put in a full mile’s tedious walk alongside the A2, a busy dual-carriageway running to and from the Medway Tunnel. It was with some relief that we reached the Strand Leisure Park and were able to get back on the banks of the Medway. We walked east, out of the town and back into the countryside. St Mary’s Island had really been our last major detour around the Medway estuary. This doesn’t count the Isle of Sheppey, which is yet to come, But Sheppey is mostly rural, offers views of the sea, and has some beaches. It is the sea we want on our coastal path; not estuaries. Having been round the Thames estuary we are now nearly done with the Medway estuary; Whitstable beckons, only a few weeks away!
As we left the Gillingham Marshes, we passed some terraced houses fronting the river. Someone had gone to great effort to create a garden with a maritme theme. I wonder what the neighbours think?
We walked on, eventually arriving at Sharp’s Green car park and the end of the walk. I called a taxi to go and collect my car while the others waited at Sharp’s Green. Half way back I turned the taxi around, having realised I’d left my money with my wife. Money collected, we set off again. Just as we pulled into Chatham Library car park I realised I had left my car keys with my wife aswell. The taxi driver was very good about this. “Ah!” you may say, “Of course he was – his meter was running!” Well, yes, it was. But instead of taking me back to the start he told me to wait in Chatham. He drove back to Sharp’s Green and treated it as a new job, so he didn’t charge for the drive back. He then brought the others back and even then would only accept a discounted rate for doing so and no second tip.
I don’t know your name, Mr Taxi Driver of the Rainham Cab Company, but thank you!
Points on this walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):
- Site of the Royal Marines Barracks: N 51° 23.293 E 000° 31.395
- Chatham Historic Dockyard: N 51° 23.730 E 000° 31.595
- Dock Road: N 51° 23.740 E 000° 31.921
- HMS Undaunted Mast: N 51° 23.953 E 000° 31.880
- St Mary’s Island Swingbridge: N 51° 24.284 E 000° 31.944
- The Mariners, Finsborough Ness: N 51° 24.409 E 000° 32.921
- St Mary’s Island Boardwalk: N 51° 24.178 E 000° 32.522
- Strand Leisure Park: N 51° 23.701 E 000° 33.799
- Themed Garden: N 51° 23.567 E 000° 34.226
- Sharp’s Green Car Park: N 51° 23.209 E 000° 35.612
Walk #20 Statistics:
- Date of Walk: 19 May 2012
- Walk #20 total distance covered: 7.99 miles
- Coast of Britain Walk Total Distance Covered: 138.53 miles
- CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO INTERACTIVE MAP!!!
Well done all. What a nice Taxi driver – it restores our faith in human nature!
Excellent blog, really enjoyable read being from Kent but also finding the rest incredibly interesting. Were you also aware that St Mary’s Island was used as a cemetery for French Prisoners of War in Napoleonic times and the bodies were subsequently removed to the grounds of the Dockyard Church which sits on the opposite side of Dock Road to the Marine Memorial, there behind a fantastic memorial to the them in the grounds?.
Thanks Dave. No, I don’t think I knew that, so thank you for the information!