Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Walk 37 -- Conyer to Sittingbourne

Ages: Colin was 59 years and 175 days. Rosemary was 56 years and 317 days.
Weather: Even sunnier and warmer than yesterday, but a very sharp wind in the open.
Location: Conyer to Sittingbourne.
Distance: 7 miles.
Total distance: 225 miles.
Terrain: Grass banks, between marshes and mudflats. The last bit was through an industrial estate, along hard pavements with lorries thundering past – it was dreadful!
Tide: Going out.
Rivers to cross: None, though we did have to walk round the ends of Conyer Creek and Milton Creek.
Ferries: None, though we passed another disused one to the Isle of Sheppey which would have saved us 12 miles!
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None. (What a let down after yesterday!)
Pubs: None, because we didn’t get to Sittingbourne until they had all closed.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We drove from the Youth Hostel in Canterbury to Sittingbourne with our bikes as yesterday. We had planned to leave the car somewhere near the paper mill at Kemsley Down, but (a) there was nowhere to park, and (b) we couldn’t see any way we could get across to the Saxon Shore Way from the road. We drove back about a mile and a half to an ASDA supermarket because I wanted to go to the loo. We realised that parking was going to be a real headache, so we made the decision to discreetly use the superstore car park where we were! We backed the car into a space at the nether end by a tall hedge and quietly removed the bikes. Then we donned our walking gear and cycled to Conyer where we chained our bikes to a tree next to an electricity sub-station.
At the end, we had couple of very welcome cups of tea from our flasks in the car before driving back to Conyer to pick up the bikes. We then drove to the outskirts of Gillingham where we were booked in at the Medway Youth Hostel for the night.

Despite getting up at half past six we did not make a very good start this morning, nor were either of us in a relaxed mood. There were two reasons for this. One was Canterbury Youth Hostel which seemed to have a number of guests who were out of work and very vague about their permanent addresses. Both of us were mildly uncomfortable at sharing dormitories with such people who are inevitably depressed, have a chip on their shoulder, and two of them were ill with chest complaints. Some of our fellow guests from abroad (Fiji) were definitely not tourists, were noisy, and ‘took over’ the Members’ Kitchen which was far too small anyway. On top of that, the power tripped out in the night and was not fixed until the warden came in at half past seven. We were really rather glad to leave this morning, and relieved to be going somewhere else tonight.
The other reason was that we were unable to park our car anywhere near the point on the coastal path where we had intended to finish today’s walk, and we had to concoct ‘Plan B’. That meant shortening the distance – we couldn’t lengthen it because it would have meant too much walking – and the whole fiasco made us very late. Time is of the essence when it gets dark so early!
We found a tree in a pebbled courtyard in front of an electricity substation in Conyer which looked an ideal place to chain our bikes for the day. The trouble was, it was about fifty yards further down the road from where we parked our car, and hence finished our Walk, yesterday. We couldn’t leave that fifty yards out because, so far, we have walked every inch of the way from Bognor. I cycled to the spot where we parked yesterday, then walked back to the tree pushing my bike – Colin chained up the bikes, then marched up the road and marched back again. That bit of nonsense over, we started our Walk!
We took the footpath round the back of the boatyard where one of the masts was emitting a loud shrieking noise due to the wind blowing through it. We were amazed that a natural sound could be so ear-splitting! We viewed the half-built houses from the other side of the creek. They looked very pleasant there in the sun with the creek still full of water; but what about the view when the tide is out? and how much are they selling for?
Further down the creek, out of sight from the houses and the boatyard, was a small boat with a single cabin. It was stationary in the middle of the water, and as we got nearer we could see a light flashing on deck and a man standing there waving his arm from side to side. Our path was well back from the riverside because of the marshes, and we were a long way out of earshot. We didn’t know if he was signalling to us or not – it looked like semaphore and morse all rolled into one. It is too long since our Scouting/Guiding days – we can’t remember either code! He looked as if he had got himself stuck in the mud as the tide receded.
We had no intention of wading through the sludge to find out if he wanted to communicate with us. What could we do anyway? No way were we going to turn round and walk a mile back to tell anyone in Conyer (who?) that he was there. We surmised that if he really was stuck with a packed up engine, no outboard motor, no radio and no mobile phone then he must be an idiot and deserved all he got! It wasn’t as if he was in any danger, stuck in the mud in the sunshine. He could always swim to shore – it wasn’t far! Or he could wait for the tide to come in again. So we waved cheerily and walked on. Two helicopters then appeared from inland, looped over him and flew off again. Perhaps it was some sort of exercise, but we can’t think what.
Colin said it reminded him of the Scout camp at Burridge in 1978 (was it really twenty-three years ago?) when the boys pushed him over the mud in his kayak – it was thigh deep – so that he didn’t have to get himself dirty; and Jack sat in his canoe in the middle of the River Hamble for an hour smoking his pipe whilst waiting for the incoming tide to float him off again! Happy days! Poor old Jack’s been dead for ten and a half years now, but those Scout camps seem like only yesterday.
Then all was forgotten in the excitement – Colin saw a seal!! We were nearing the entrance to the creek and, frustratingly, had not yet got out our telescope/binoculars because we hadn’t seen any birds worth viewing. It dived. Had he imagined it? But no! It resurfaced a long way further out, it must be an animal swimming. It dived and came up once more – it certainly was alive and definitely wasn’t a bird, so we concluded it was a seal because that is what it looked like. Then it dived again with its nose pointing out to sea, and we didn’t see it again.
We came to the Point where Conyer Creek came out into The Swale – which isn’t a river, but a channel between the Isle of Sheppey and the mainland. Looking east we could see all the way back to Whitstable, and the end of Herne Bay Pier stuck out in the sea. We turned west, but the Isle of Sheppey is so near to the shore at this point it seemed as if we were still walking along a river bank. We had the ‘river’ to our right and marshes to our left all the way to Sittingbourne. The wind was quite sharp and we didn’t fancy stopping to eat our lunch because it was too cold. There was nowhere to shelter from it, so after looking at the map and seeing ‘Church: remains of’ I suggested that we might find a stone or two there to hide behind out of the wind. Trouble was, that was two and a half miles ahead and we were already hungry because we were running so late. This did not enhance our mood in any way!
We tried to look at the birds through our telescope/binoculars as we did yesterday, but even my lovely oyster-catchers did not hold the same magic when I was cross and hungry. We saw a big curlew walking on the mud with its very long beak – a beautiful sight! Groups of small birds were flying around in formation, and I followed them with my telescope as they twisted and turned in the sunshine. In fact, we saw a bigger variety of birds today than ever, many we couldn’t identify, and we did begin to feel a lot better.
Marching along in the wind we did not feel so cold, but knew that we would do so as soon as we stopped to eat. I was also very conscious that if we didn’t get to either of the two ‘real ale’ pubs in Sittingbourne before they closed at three o’clock, then Colin would be in such a foul mood I wouldn’t be able to cope. Eventually I voiced this concern, and he replied, “Oh, I’d given up ages ago thinking we would get there in time because it’s impossible now with us being so late!” If only he had said! If only people would communicate more, it would save so many misunderstandings! I slowed down a little then, was less tense and was able to enjoy the birds more.
We passed a number of burnt-out cars each side of the bank. How the vandals got them up there in the first place is a mystery because we were nowhere near any road. I expect they were all stolen vehicles which had been driven round at speed for a few hours before being dumped and torched. It seems to be what young people do for fun these days – what a sad reflection on present-day society! One was half submerged in the mud next to the remains of a jetty which used to be part of a ferry to the Isle of Sheppey. If it was still in operation, it would have saved us twelve miles walking – I wonder how long ago that one closed!
As we neared Milton Creek the marsh to the left turned into ponds, so it seemed we were ‘walking on water’, or at least a grassy bank through the middle of a lake. The map described them as disused oyster ponds, but we found out the next day that they were more recently used to make bricks which used to be a big industry in the area. Ahead of us, on the other side of the creek, tall chimneys and other marks of heavy industry loomed – it all seemed vaguely depressing. We haven’t passed through a ‘real’ seaside town for yonks – nor are we going to for a good many Walks yet.
As we turned south to walk down Milton Creek, the wind dropped making us suddenly a lot warmer. I suggested we stopped to eat our lunch sitting on the river bank before we got too near all the ‘works’ which we knew were ahead of us, but Colin marched on determined to get to ‘Church: remains of’ because I had said so a couple of hours back! (Like most men, the concept of changing your mind to suit the circumstances is completely alien to him.) Even as we approached a very noisy factory, lined with poplar trees on our side, he still carried on. We passed loads of suitable places to sit on the river bank, and even when it became patently obvious that ‘Church: remains of’ no longer existed because it had been buried by tons of rusty cars (a scrapyard was on the spot) he was still looking round for it! (He gets his bloodymindedness from his father who was just the same – once he had got an idea into his head, you could not shift it!) It was half past two and I was ravenous! I told him I was going back to the river bank because I did not want to eat my lunch in the middle of an industrial estate, and he could do what he liked. I stomped back about two hundred yards, sorted out my waterproof overtrousers to sit on and got out my filled baguette which we had bought that morning – Colin appeared and sat down quietly beside me. I’m afraid that when a morning starts badly, as today did, it puts us both out for the rest of the day.
The sun was already low in the sky, but we both felt a lot better for a short rest and something to eat. I reapplied my ‘Powergel’ (which relieves the pain in my arthritic toe like magic!) and we got going on the horrid part of today’s walk – through an industrial estate. We looked along the river bank where an unofficial path seemed to go the way we wanted, but we couldn’t make out, either from squinting along there or from the map, whether we would be able to get out the other end. We were too tired to take the risk, so we took the official path along the side of a road. We were surprised to see a notice in four languages reminding us to drive on the left! I suppose they get a lot of foreign lorries visiting the factories – it’s crazy how British industry is folding up everywhere and we live on cheap imports. We were passed by a number of lorries travelling at breakneck speed (‘time is money’) and several times by a street cleaner driven at about forty miles an hour by two young lads in what sounded like first gear! The vehicle was so new it still had trade plates on it, and we did wonder if they were so-called ‘joy riders’.
We turned on to one of the main roads through Sittingbourne, and had to put up with constant traffic by the side of us. We decided to turn into the industrial estate there to follow a footpath which was clearly marked on the map leading to ‘Crown Quay’, but like the ‘Church: remains of’ it had been completely obliterated. Crown Quay turned out to be some very ordinary warehouses, and we could not see any way out of the estate except the route we had come in, so we had to retrace our steps. We were both very cross!
We followed the cycle track we had ridden that morning which took us past MacDonald’s, skirted the first station on the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway (closed for the season) and turned round the end of Milton Creek which seemed to disappear under buildings at that point never to be seen again. It wasn’t very exciting. Some schoolchildren cycled across the main road at a crossing and disappeared in front of us through a bridge under the light railway. We followed, and found it to be a much quieter road. Further up, the Saxon Shore Way turned sharp right over a stile to lead back to the western bank of Milton Creek.

That ended Walk no.37, we shall pick up Walk no.38 next time at the stile. We continued about a hundred yards along the road which turned out not to be quite so quiet as we thought – it was fairly narrow and led into an industrial complex, so several times we had to leap into the hedge to let lorries pass! Eventually we turned into a footpath which took us over the railway by a tiny Halt, and down into the ASDA car park almost next to our car. It was already getting dark, and it was only 4pm!
We had a couple of cups of tea – and some cakes and biscuits which we had stashed away there – then we drove back to Conyer to pick up our bikes. After that, we drove to the outskirts of Gillingham (which took ages because the traffic was awful) and I successfully navigated us to Medway Youth Hostel which is a couple of converted oast houses in a quiet rural retreat. Suddenly we both felt very calm.

Our experience at Canterbury Youth Hostel which put us both in such a foul mood for this Walk, and a similar experience at Dover Youth Hostel a few weeks later (which we were using to hop over the Channel for a day-trip) put us off hostelling for life! We let our membership lapse. We do not expect to share a dormitory with people who are homeless and cough all night, suffer from various kinds of mental illness, cadge food in the member's kitchen or spend the evening blaming the local job centre staff for all their misfortunes. We do not expect to socialise with people who are depressed, looking for work, have no permanent address, whose immigrant status is doubtful, and who wake us up at 5am by playing a radio until they stand outside (noisily) to await their transport to a local farm.
We were on holiday for goodness sake, and we thought the hostelling association was budget accommodation for people who are taking a break. On both occasions we felt as if we had ended up in a hostel for the homeless!

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