Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Walk 43 -- Minster, via Sheerness & Queenborough, to the Kingsferry bridge, Isle of Sheppey

Ages: Colin was 59 years and 364 days. Rosemary was 57 years and 142 days.
Weather: Starting dull then turning sunny, and the cold wind was still with us.
Location: Minster to the Kingsferry Bridge (again!), Isle of Sheppey.
Distance: 10 miles.
Total distance: 268 miles.
Terrain: Concrete prom as far as Sheerness, a concrete path between two high fences to Queenborough, a gravel track out and back across Rushenden Marshes, then over rough grassy fields where we again had to play ‘guess where the path is’ in true Isle of Sheppey style!
Tide: Going out.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: No.42 at the entrance to a sewage works!
Pubs: ‘The Ship on Shore’ at Sheerness where Colin drank a local cider called ‘sheep dip’ – it was too sour for me.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.17 at Queenborough where the public footpath had been closed by the Council ‘until further notice in the interests of health and safety’ – but in reality because it went through someone’s industrial site and he didn’t like it.
How we got there and back: We were camping near Minster. We drove – with bikes on the back of the car – from the campsite to the Kingsferry Bridge where we managed to park just off the main road. We donned our walking boots, locked the bike rack inside the car, then cycled to Minster – the first part was horrid along the main road with huge lorries bombing past in both directions! We chained the bikes to a post by the public conveniences.
At the end, we had two cups of tea from our flasks in the car while we waited for a breakdown truck to hitch up a car which had conked out in ‘our’ layby! Then we drove to Minster to pick up the bikes, and thence back to the campsite.

We chained our bikes to a post just outside the public conveniences in Minster, which was very ‘convenient’ – if you’ll pardon the pun! Then we climbed the steps with blue railings and started walking towards Sheerness. Nobody about much today, being the day after a Bank Holiday and the weather a bit grey. The sea wall slopes up very high at that point with the ‘official’ footpath-cum-cycle track running along behind it. This was adjacent to the road and meant no view of the sea, so we climbed up and walked along the hard-packed shingle on the top. It soon gave way to a proper concrete prom, but the sea wall continued all the way to Sheerness with houses, shops and other enterprises in its shadow. The residents would have to sit on the roofs of their houses to see the sea – it was almost as if they wanted to blot it out of their lives! I couldn’t bear to live in a house with a twenty-foot high wall just over the road from my front windows.
Very soon we came to the only pub where we bought a drink in the whole of these four days walking! Called the ‘Ship on Shore’, we had to descend some very steep steps to get to it because it is one of the many businesses skulking behind the sea wall. In the ‘Good Beer Guide’ (Colin’s ‘bible’!) it describes ‘an interesting grotto’ in the car park. We thought it was a bit tatty – wonder if it was designed by a professional grotto-maker as was a similar 17th century construction we found in the grounds of a castle we were exploring down in the West Country last summer. What a career! Certainly beats teaching – I’m sure I missed my vocation somewhere along the line!
According to my ‘Beer Guru’ (Colin!), Sheppey is not very good for real ales but is famous for its local ciders. When he asked in the Ship on Shore, the landlord said he had one barrel on and disappeared out the back with a glass in his hand. He returned with a 7.8% concoction called ‘Sheep Dip’ which quite accurately described the taste as far as I was concerned! It was far too sour for me, and when I said my favourite cider was ‘Scrumpy Jack’ he was most rude about it – I think the words ‘piss water’ came into his description somewhere! He said, “This is the only pub you’ll get local cider on Sheppey” – and he was right as we were to find out.
We climbed the steps (too steep for our ancient knees!) and continued along the sea wall. Sheerness beach is mostly shingle and had a lost neglected look about it. There was the occasional derelict shelter but none of the usual paraphernalia of a seaside resort, with the exception of a school party on the beach! (Glad I wasn’t in charge of them – if you were to plot a graph of the revoltingness of school-children against time, it is currently going up in a logarithmic curve! I know, because I still have to do occasional supply teaching.) We had already eaten our lunch whilst sitting on a handy bench before we encountered the little darlings.
Further on we passed the roof of a Sports’ Centre from which emanated the sound of happy swimmers, and then a big open space which I had read was once a grand funfair (Did it have a Ferris wheel? I’ll never know!) which became more and more run-down and seedy over time. Now it is a brand new – -- -- -- Tesco store! Wow! Such is life in the 21st century! We speculated as to whether it is the nearest Tesco to the beach in this country – we shall find out! Further on, to our left, was the remains of a canal system with yucky green water of an unhealthy hue, and a high fence with lots of razor wire cutting us off from the secrets of Sheerness Docks. Peeping over the green bank behind the fence are some redundant Second World War fortifications looking very like Daleks in silhouette!
We walked along the top of the beach until we were met by a wall of rocks topped by swirls of razor wire – this was obviously as far as we were allowed to go. We posed for a silly photograph with the map making out our right of way had been cut off, but quite honestly we were surprised that we had been allowed to walk so far. Frustratingly, just one mile further on as the crow flies – across the mouth of the Medway – lies the village of Grain with its huge power station, approximately forty-eight walking miles away!
As we turned, a large container ship appeared round the end of the razor wire, steaming out of Sheerness Docks. It headed away towards the North Sea at a terrific rate of knots! We walked the half mile back to Tesco (tip-toeing past the Daleks!) and turned inland alongside one of the bits of disused canal, which was a more natural colour just there. Our attention was caught by the wildfowl, in particular by a baby coot that seemed to be abandoned and we speculated how long it could expect to survive. Then both its parents bobbed up from the deep with pieces of plant food in their mouths, and they started feeding them to their chick! They moved down the water to the road bridge. There we stood and watched this fascinating behaviour for ages, traffic pounding past a few inches behind us.
We also watched a swan who was sitting on her eggs – when she moved we could see quite a number of them. Unfortunately, being the edge of Tesco car park, she had made her nest out of modern rubbish! She was rearranging bits of plastic, cartons, wrappers, etc. We felt really sorry for her.
We crossed the entrance to the docks, passing a derelict church with a weather vane at a crazy angle, and entered Bluetown. We found we were walking alongside a high wall which was reminiscent of the Navy dockyard wall at Portsmouth, which we know so well. Sure enough, it turned out that Sheerness was built as a Naval dockyard in the 18th century, and Bluetown was named after the original wooden cabins built there as accommodation for the workers – they were painted blue with Navy paint! All this we gleaned from a plaque in the wall next to an old anchor which had been left on the pavement as a sculpture.
It was not the kind of area I would have felt comfortable walking in by myself at night. There were some very odd shops of a dubious nature, one advertised itself quite blatantly as a licensed sex shop! Every alternate building was a pub in yesteryear, though few of them still are today. Colin went in one and asked about local ciders – no, we don’t do them, we’ve got some Scrumpy Jack! Across the way we could see a building which looked like an enormous aluminium warehouse. Apparently it is a new indoor shopping mall which has only recently opened. We didn’t go in there, shopping malls are not our scene.
So we continued on in a southward direction, leaving Sheerness past an empty space on the map called ‘The Lappel’ which is reclaimed marshland. The dockyard wall gave way to a fence with a very unfriendly top, behind which were parked hundreds of brand new cars, rows and rows of them! Our path, which had started off as a disused railway leading from the dock, veered away from the road, went over a bridge and turned into a concrete channel with a high concrete wall to the left and the new car compound to the right. This continued for over a mile, we couldn’t believe the number of cars! No wonder there is so much traffic over the Kingsferry Bridge, it is all car transporters. We wondered how long the average ‘new’ car sits on the concrete there gathering the dust and turning rusty before it is taken away. It was only when we came out of our ‘channel’ (not exactly a coastal walk!) that we realised that they have reclaimed a lot more of the marshland since the OS map was printed, and filled it with new cars!
We were already at Queenborough, we came out opposite a lump of mud called ‘Deadmans Island’. We didn’t give it much thought, except comment on the strange name, but we learned its history later. In Napoleonic times there was a hospital on the site – hope it was a bit drier in those days! They buried all the unfortunates who didn’t survive their crude surgery on the island, and at high stormy tides you can come across coffins and bones which have risen up out of the mud!! Even the surgeon was buried there, and they put iron railings round his tomb because he was important. These railings can still be seen at low tide. You could write a fantastic horror story about such a place!
We noticed several ships moored nearby, and commented on a bright orange one called Caroline – ah! Caroline’s ship! we exclaimed thinking of our prospective daughter-in-law. It was only a couple of days later that we learned it was Radio Caroline, the pirate radio ship which used to blast out pop music from beyond the three mile limit in the sixties! We used to listen to it on our tinny ‘trannies’ in student days. It certainly made the stuffy BBC think again about what people really wanted to listen to, and most of those disc jockeys now work on Radio 2!
As we walked through Queenborough to get round the inlet, we passed another of Colin’s ‘real ale’ pubs. We went in to try another local cider – no! we don’t do them anymore! – so the landlord of the Ship on Shore had been right! However, the landlord at Queenborough and one of his customers were so keen to be helpful about our trek (completely missing the point that we wanted to walk the nearest safe path to the coast) and directing us to remote pubs miles away where we just might get a local cider, that we had difficulty getting away without appearing rude! Eventually we got outside the door, thanking them profusely but wishing they would just shut up and not repeat what they had just said for the fifth time.
We walked round the end of the muddy inlet and stopped dead. We were supposed to turn sharp right on to a footpath along the south side of the inlet, but there was a Council notice up to say that the footpath was closed ‘for reasons of health and safety’. The truth was – this bit of public right of way led right past an industrial outlet and the owner/leaseholder didn’t like Joe Public walking past his factory. Wonder what position on the local Council the owner/leaseholder of the factory occupies – no! no! stop it! slap on the wrist for cynicism!
A few yards further on, a road led into the industrial complex, and past the parked juggernauts we could see the sea wall – so we walked straight down to it, sat on it and ate the gooey cakes we had just bought at a local baker’s. So there! There was a very permanent fence across the public footpath we should have come down, the wooden steps were mostly missing and there had been no diversionary notices directing us the way we had come. However, some children came bounding along and were playing near us, so it appears the locals don’t take any notice either.
These children, two girls and a boy, were betting each other they could jump down eight feet or so into the mud and not sink – the boy in particular looked as if he was actually going to try it. The elder girl asked us, very politely, “Excuse me, do you think we would sink if we jumped on to the mud?” We assured them that they would, that it would be very dangerous to even try it, and that people have died attempting just such a trick. I told them, “Then you’ll never see your Mums and Dads again!” That made even the boy stop in his tracks, thank goodness. Colin found a large stone and threw it into the mud with great force to illustrate how wet it was, and we walked away relieved that they seemed to have got the message. Kids!
In all our conversation in the pub, we didn’t manage to glean the information we wanted – whether we could get on to the river bank from the end of the spit at Rushenden and hence along to the Kingsferry Bridge. We followed a track next to a railway line for almost a mile to the piers where there was a lot of industrial noise going on. The track seemed to peter out, and there was quite substantial earth moving going on to our left over towards the river bank where we wanted to be. We tried to find our way over there, but the earth was loose and banked up with deep ditches to cross. We speculated that the top of the river bank would be very rough walking and we were extremely tired, so we turned back to the housing estate at Rushenden.
We were so fed up by then we took the quickest route, which went through the middle of the estate, quite forgetting we were supposed to be finding the nearest route to the coast on our right. So what! It would only have meant going the other side of a few houses. We found our way to the entrance to the sewage farm – through the only kissing gate on this walk! – where we had been assured in the pub we could get through to the river bank. Then I noticed that the big gates in front of the sewage farm were shut and very firmly locked – so much for listening to people in pubs!
So we retraced our weary steps a few yards and tried to follow the public footpath which, on all our maps, leads across the fields in almost a straight line to the Kingsferry Bridge. We could see the bridge on the horizon, but in true ‘Isle of Sheppey’ fashion, there was no vestige of the footpath on the field. We had to use our navigational abilities to the full (I allowed Colin to do this because I was just too tired) to get across the last mile and a half through the long grass without treading in a cow-pat, falling down a hole or having to swim across a deep drainage ditch!We were only a hundred yards away when we climbed over a stile and then found a very stout barbed wire fence barring our way! There was a dirt track going left and right, but the bridge, and our car, were straight in front of us! We chose right, only because the sea is always supposed to be on our right, but that track ended in a heap of earth and rubbish. We each found a different way round it, noticed an earth bank which allowed us to cross yet another deep drainage ditch with dry feet, and clambered up on to the river bank with about fifty yards to go. At last!
We had noticed, when we were about a mile back, that another car was parked on our tiny dirt ‘lay-by’, and that the owners had their bonnet up. By the time we arrived, they had been joined by a third car, and then a breakdown truck.

That ended Walk no.43, we shall pick up Walk no.44 next time at the Kingsferry Bridge – once again! The broken down car had snapped its cam-belt (expensive!) and by the time we had gulped down tea and biscuits, they had nicely held up the rush hour traffic, hitched up the car to the tow truck and were gone. We drove to Minster to pick up our bikes and returned to our campsite with the terrible toilets – I have found the one in the ‘ladies’ that doesn’t have wee all over the seat, flushes properly and it doesn’t matter that it won’t lock because no one else is crazy enough to be camping when it is so cold!

1 comment:

Boulter's Canary said...

"Across the way we could see a building which looked like an enormous aluminium warehouse. Apparently it is a new indoor shopping mall which has only recently opened."

That would be Sheerness Steel - not a mall but a factory for turning old cars into steel cable. More or less out of business these days, I believe.