Thursday, March 21, 2002

Walk 39 -- the Kingsferry Bridge to Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey

Ages: Colin was 59 years and 317 days. Rosemary was 57 years and 94 days.
Weather: Dull, but remaining dry. It brightened up later and we saw the sun for the first time in ages! There was a light wind and it was quite mild.
Location: The Kingsferry Bridge to Eastchurch, Isle of Sheppey.
Distance: 9½ miles.
Total distance: 240 miles.
Terrain: Grassy banks and across marshes where it wasn’t nearly as muddy as we had expected. We ended up walking through a prison!
Tide: Out, coming in.
Rivers to cross: No.11, the Swale – though it is not really a river because it is the strait between the Isle of Sheppey and mainland Kent.
Ferries: None, though we passed the other end of the long disused Elmley ferry which would have saved us twelve miles had it still been functional.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.16 from a farm called ‘Great Bell’ where a worker told us the public footpath ahead was closed and the only way we could get to Eastchurch was through the nearby prison!
How we got there and back: We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from Bognor to Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey where we parked on a patch of grass at the very edge of the village. We donned our walking boots, locked the bike rack inside the car, then cycled back to the Kingsferry Bridge where we crossed over it and left the bikes chained to a fence almost under it.
At the end, we had two cups of tea from our flasks in the car. Then we drove to the Kingsferry Bridge to pick up the bikes. From there we drove to the Medway Youth Hostel near Gillingham where we spent the night.

The first day of Spring! How my mother used to long for this day when she was coping with eight children and their chilblains, coughs, colds, sickness and diarrhoea through the dark winter days in that tiny bungalow without central heating in which we all lived until 1959. She seemed to turn a corner on March 21st each year – so it is a fitting day to restart our ‘Round-Britain-Walk’ half a century later!
We chained our bikes to a fence just inside a boatyard almost under the Kingsferry Bridge, then we climbed a steep bank and stepped over an ‘Armco’ barrier on to the bridge. It carries a very busy road and a railway across the Swale, and fortunately there is also a footway/cycleway alongside the road. The problem that had been worrying me all the time I was planning this walk was – how do we get across the railway to continue along the southern shore of the Isle of Sheppey? On all the maps I have been using, the public footpath seems to stop when it reaches the road/railway coming off the bridge and restarts the other side. And that is just what it did! We had a choice – either walk a mile up the road and back another mile along a track, or sneak under the bridge alongside the river. Since the tide was out, we chose the latter and found the mud under the bridge was not as gooey as we had feared.
So we embarked on the Walk ‘proper’. We were looking at oyster-catchers and avocets on the tidal mud through my little telescope, and I walked a little ahead of Colin. I looked down, and there was a snake lying on the path! It was a young grass snake, not very big. At first I thought it was dead because it didn’t move for ages, but then I noticed it’s little black tongue keep flicking in and out! Colin came up and said it was probably only playing dead, and as he got his camera out it started to wriggle. He took several photos, then picked it up. It’s skin was quite dry and smooth to touch, it was a magic moment! Eventually we let it slither away down the side of the grass bank.We were quite hungry by then, it seemed a long time since breakfast. We walked on a bit so that the sound of the traffic over the bridge was dulled, and sat on the slope of the grass bank out of the wind to eat our sandwiches. We had our backs to Ridham Dock (which is a bit of an eyesore, so that didn’t matter) and were facing the marshes. The sun began to come out and it looked much brighter which cheered us no end – we have had far too much dark grey and damp weather in recent weeks. As we walked on past all the industrial complexes on the other side of the Swale – the ones we had passed on Walk 38 – the smell of factory waste and burning wafted over to us. It was horrible! We would hate to live in Sittingbourne, or anywhere in this area, because we would be sniffing in these toxic substances all the time without realising it.
We turned inland by a little inlet and followed the official footpath across the marshes – not much of a footpath, we had to orientate the map then look for a landmark in the distance in order to work out the correct route. It turned out to be not nearly so muddy as we had feared – perhaps they haven’t had the torrential rain that we have had in West Sussex earlier this week when both the villages of Findon and Angmering were washed out! We were tempted to continue following the coastline as there seemed to be a grassy bank most of the way along, but we didn't know if we would suddenly come across a drainage ditch that was too deep to wade and/or too wide to jump (there were plenty of them about) so we decided not to risk it.
Where we regained the coast we came across the other end of the long disused Elmley Ferry which would have saved us twelve miles of walking, and we could have missed out all the yucky industrial section of Sittingbourne, had it still been in operation! We walked out as far as we could on what remained of the road, but we had to retrace our steps quickly because, even as we watched, waves were covering the ground where we had just stood.
Shortly after that, we entered a Nature Reserve where there was a hard-packed track leading off into the distance – in fact the occasional vehicle was using it. However, we could see that a continuous high grassy bank hugged the coastline, so we opted to walk along that. The sun came out, and we had marvellous views of shelducks, avocets, widgeons, oyster-catchers, the ubiquitous gulls, a heron, mallards, coots, redshanks, Canada geese and so on. It was wonderful! It was only when we came back on to the track at the other end that we read a notice requesting us not to walk along the bank because our high profile might disturb nesting birds! Oh well, you can’t win all the time!
We then did continue along the track through another Nature Reserve, and by now we were so far away from everything that the only sounds we could hear were the calls of birds. We heard, rather than saw, peewits and it was lovely to listen to their constant calls – pee-ee-ee-wit! pee-ee-ee-wit! We saw lots of rabbits bounding along, they really run fast! Colin saw a robin, then we both saw an owl – beautiful sight! We think it was a tawny, it was very big and a lovely colour of pale mottled brown. Unfortunately it was downwind from us, so it kept flying on away as we approached. We had several good sightings of it through my little telescope, but didn’t succeed with photography.
The track deteriorated, and turned inland. There is a lot of marshland along this southern coast of Sheppey which is inaccessible unless you know what you are doing. We had resigned ourselves to having to walk a couple of miles inland in order to get round.
As we passed a farm, a man with a tractor asked where we were going. We showed him on our recently bought map – and on the internet map which I had downloaded only the previous evening – the green line of the public footpath leading across fields to a track which is not marked in green because tracks rarely are. A last mile up the track leads to Eastchurch where our car was parked. “Oh, you can’t go along there!” he said, “that’s private property, there’s no right of way along the track! There’s a big green notice put up by the Council, been like that for a couple of years!” “Does that mean the public footpath comes to a dead end in the middle of nowhere?” I asked, incredulously. “Must do,” he replied, “you’ll find you can’t get through if you go on that way!” “Well,” I said, “how are we going to get to Eastchurch? We can’t go back the way we came because we must have walked about eight miles and we are rather tired!” He hesitated, then conceded, “You could go along my farm track to the prison and walk out through there!” “Is that all right, I mean can we just walk through a prison like that?” I asked. “Yes, it’s fine, there’s nobody there!” This we found just a little difficult to believe because on our way to placing car and bikes this morning we had seen prison ‘buses’ both going in and coming out of the complex and it had all looked very functional to us.
So we trudged off up said track and emerged into a road passing a notice which declared ‘NO ENTRY TO UNAUTHORISED PERSONS’ or some such, and displaying another notice, road-sign type, of walkers with a red diagonal line through the middle – we got the distinct impression we weren’t supposed to be there! We were, in fact, inside the prison complex and there was a lot of traffic about – it must have been the end of a shift or something. No one stopped us to ask who we were or what we were doing there as we marched along between high walled compounds, past a notice requesting all visitors to leave the area quickly once their visit was over, and through red & white striped STOP gates which were open. We escaped!
We had been walking steadily uphill for over a mile, the sun came out, we were away from the coastal breeze, and this was the tail-end of a near-ten mile walk which had been preceded by a seven mile cycle ride against the wind – in other words we were knackered! We came on to the Eastchurch bypass, and walked along the grass verge (which was very uneven and squidgy underfoot) to the corner of the village where our car was parked. Opposite was the track we should have come out of, and sure enough there was a big green notice, signed by the Council, saying that it was not a public footpath and there was no right of way down it – we hadn’t noticed that earlier in the day. (Wonder what position on the Council the owner of the land holds – no! stop it! mustn’t be cynical!)

That ended Walk no.39, we shall pick up Walk no.40 next time at the south-east corner of Eastchurch village on the Isle of Sheppey. We were so hot and tired, we had to have two cups of tea plus chocolate biscuits before we could even think straight! Then we drove back over the Kingsferry Bridge to pick up our bikes, then on to the Medway Youth Hostel, near Gillingham, where we spent the night.

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