Thursday, May 09, 2002

Walk 44 -- the Kingsferry Bridge to Upchurch

Ages: Colin was 60 years and 1 day. Rosemary was 57 years and 144 days.
Weather: Dull, grey, overcast, and the cold wind was still with us.
Location: The Kingsferry Bridge to Upchurch – ‘Goodbye’ to the Isle of Sheppey!
Distance: 10 miles.
Total distance: 278 miles.
Terrain: Mostly grassy banks through Chetney Marshes, then two miles along a fairly busy lane, followed by more grassy banks, farm lanes and finally through an orchard.
Tide: In, going out.
Rivers to cross: Back across the Swale, so it must count as no.11 again.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
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 Upchurch where we parked in the village. We donned our walking boots, locked the bike rack inside the car, then cycled back to and over the Kingsferry Bridge with not only lorries, but a train thundering towards us! We chained the bikes to a field gate down from the bridge.
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, and thence back to the campsite.

Colin celebrated his 60th birthday yesterday – the age of free prescriptions! Now he is a genuine OAP, though he can’t claim his state pension for another five years. We celebrated by visiting a place called ‘Wildwood’ which is near Herne Bay. It is an initiative to captive-breed British wild animals and reintroduce them into the wild, though there is some controversy about the wisdom of bringing back animals like wild boar and wolves! Colin was most thrilled to see a pine marten there, but I was more excited to see wildcats – we have never seen either of these animals before except on film.
We may seem an eccentric couple to be camping at our time of life in a tent when it is so cold, but we are both enjoying it enormously. The tent is tall enough to stand up in, and we have all the equipment to make outdoor life easy – like a picnic table with its own seats, armchairs that simply unfold, beds that inflate themselves, a cooker on a set of shelves with a hanging larder and a bright and cheerful gas lamp. We are extremely cosy and comfortable at night, and we are so active during each day we are too hot rather than too cold. If we were sitting-about types it would be a different story, but I have put a lot of careful planning into these few days and we haven’t had a moment to spare for cooling down. By the time we have finished our meal at night, we are so tired we go to bed and cuddle up in our nice warm sleeping bags. Our tent is on the cliff top, but it is sheltered from the wind by a tall hedge and a couple of trees. It hardly flaps at all, and is very snug inside. Since the first night we haven’t had any rain, but we could do with a little more sun. And we both love sleeping in a tent – don’t know why, but we do!

We started today’s walk by stomping across the Kingsferry Bridge, for the last time we hope! Traffic thundered past in both directions, and when we cycled across earlier to place the bikes, there was a train to add to cacophony because the bridge carries the railway line too. We clambered down the bank, over a stile, then turned our backs on the construction to continue westward. We have walked nearly forty miles around the Isle of Sheppey to get back to exactly where we started, and it is a bit disheartening to think we have made so little progress around the perimeter of Britain in all that time. If the island hadn’t have been connected by a bridge we would have missed it out, but that wretched structure made it part of mainland Britain – no wonder we hate it! We turned to wave it ‘Goodbye’, but not with tears in our eyes!
But the bridge had one last surprise for us – we were about five hundred yards down when we saw a barge full of gravel coming towards us. As it approached the bridge, we noticed the traffic had stopped either side and the centre section rose up. We both thought of the same thing – supposing it gets stuck up there! That is the only road and the only railway across to the island, there are no ferries in operation, and you can’t swim across because the mud is too soft. The thought of getting stuck on the Isle of Sheppey with no means of getting off filled us with horror! Then the barge was through, the centre section descended and life resumed its normal hectic pace.We were once more walking the ‘Saxon Shore Way’ so the route was well marked. We followed the river for nearly two miles, looking at birds on the way – we have got quite blasé about herons and oyster catchers. Then Colin saw a green woodpecker, and we got very excited. It was perched on a fence post on the landward side of the raised river bank, and kept flying on to a nether post every time we approached it. Colin found this very frustrating because he was trying to photograph it! He didn’t succeed, and eventually it flew away – but it had been a real thrill to see it.
The ‘Saxon Shore Way’ turns sharply left avoiding Chetney Marshes ahead which is private land. (We were really quite glad of that because it cut out a long boring walk!) However, on our maps it showed the next couple of hundred yards or so of river bank to be a public footpath – we couldn’t think why because it doesn’t go anywhere. A five-barred gate blocked our way, and the string holding it was tied in a tangle of knots. Since the gate had a strand of barbed wire across the top, we decided not to bother. We sat in the lee of the bank out of the wind and ate our lunch, watched by a flock of sheep.
A little further on, a metalled road (marked on our maps as a Byway Open to All Traffic) crossed our path, and to keep strictly to rule no.1 – walk the nearest safe path to the coast – we had to follow it for about three-quarters of a mile until we reached a pond. As it rounded a bend, we passed a derelict wind-pump which looked as if it had a stork’s nest on its platform near the top. Colin climbed up the iron ladder to have a look (not bad for a 60 year old!) but said if it had been such a nest it had long since been abandoned.
We had met no one, simply no one, since we had crossed the bridge, nor did we expect to in such a bleak place on a grey day like today. Imagine our surprise when, on hearing a car behind us, we turned round to find it was the Police! What had we done? A single police officer was in the car, but he had several dogs in the back. He asked us if we were enjoying our walk, and we replied that we were despite the dull weather. He then asked, “Haven’t you strayed a little off the path?” I replied, “No, this is a Byway Open to All Traffic until the pond, then it is private and we will turn back!” I showed him on the map exactly where we were, and he conceded that he didn’t really know where all the public rights of way were, but told us the local gamekeeper gets very annoyed when people stray on to the marshes – which are private – and then they get called out which is a nuisance. Surely he hadn’t been summoned because someone had seen us turn on to that road a mere ten minutes earlier!
But no! It turned out that he had an agreement with the gamekeeper to exercise police dogs on the marshes so long as he kept them well away from the sheep. That was what he was doing, and he just happened along at the same time as us. We explained about our ‘Round-Britain-Walk’, and he relaxed and switched off his engine. We chatted for about twenty minutes. He said he would like to retire as we have done, he’d really had enough and his wife wanted him to as well. It was he who told us about Deadmans Island and Radio Caroline. He said the wind-pump we had just passed was working only last year, and we discussed the birds we had seen and were likely to see. Then off he went to exercise the dogs.
We came to the pond, but it wasn’t much, and there was a yellow notice telling us it was the end of the public path. A similar notice was on the road the policeman had driven down. To save ourselves nearly a mile of walking we needed to take a short cut through a farmyard, but the twenty yards or so across there was private land. We looked about – no one was in sight and the policeman had disappeared into the murk at the nether end of Chetney Marshes. The gate was padlocked, so we climbed over and scuttled across to the further gate. Horror of horrors! This gate was padlocked too, but it also had barbed wire across the top making it impossible to climb! Our public path was just the other side – we could reach through the gate and actually touch it! We looked for a way out, then Colin saw it. Right by the river’s edge the barbed wire stopped, so by climbing carefully over some wobbly rocks amongst a patch of stinging nettles we were able to straddle the fence where the wire was smooth. Phew!
We were once more on the ‘Saxon Shore Way’ which followed the Medway mud very closely for the next mile or so. We could hardly call it a river, let alone the sea, and it is aptly named ‘Bedlams Bottom’! We passed what looked like a ships’ graveyard, a dozen or so ghostly hulks rotting in the ooze. What a mess Man leaves in his wake! Two geese were sitting on the bank further ahead, and we wouldn’t have done them any harm. However, they weren’t to know that as they stood up to fly away. One of them failed to make height and crash-landed on the rocks lining the edge of the mud! It was a sickening thud, and we thought it must have injured itself. We both felt very guilty. We held back as it began to flap violently in its panic, then it settled down to get its breath back. After a few minutes it managed to get up unaided and loped across the wet mud to a patch of marsh grass leaving footprints in the gunge. We hoped it was all right, there was nothing we could do to help it.
The path led through some bushes, then across a couple of fields, up a hill prettily named ‘Raspberry Hill’ and on to a lane. There was nothing pretty about Raspberry Hill Lane. We had to follow it for two and a half miles to the village of Lower Halstow. It was fairly narrow and passes a brickworks. Every so often we had to leap into the bushes as traffic sped by. It led along next to the endless Medway mud, and on one of the muddy laybyes was a heap of household rubbish which had been tipped out of a skip – a basin, a fence panel, an oven, a bath etc! The next day we had to drive down the lane, and overnight someone had tipped what looked like two more such loads in a different layby. Surely there is a Council tip somewhere in the area? It’s no wonder there are five million more rats than humans in this country with all this fly-tipping! We put our heads down and marched as quickly as we could to Lower Halstow, grateful that the peninsula of Barksore Marshes is completely inaccessible so we could miss it out.
At Lower Halstow we were in for a treat – several treats as it turned out! The little medieval church of St Margaret of Antioch was open, so we walked in to have a look. A woman inside was a bit startled, “Oh! I wasn’t expecting anybody!” she exclaimed. When she calmed down and realised we were bona-fide visitors, she told us a little about the history of this delightful little church. It was first built in Anglo Saxon times incorporating tiles from a Roman building which was on this site. Built on a slight mound, it has never been flooded though it is adjacent to the marshes. The church was extended in the medieval period, and there are several wall paintings which, though very faint, have survived since the 13th century. My favourite was of the devil suspended above two women, and he is laughing because they have the wickedness to be talking in church!
“Would you like to see the font?” asked our lady guide as she unlocked a padlock and pulled the lid up on chains. The wooden lid is Tudor, but the decorated leaden font is one of the oldest, and certainly the best preserved, of its kind in Britain. This is because it was coated in plaster of Paris during the Civil War to hide it from Cromwell’s soldiers when they were scouring the country vandalising churches. The congregation were so frightened, they told no one what was under the plain white plaster and the secret died with them. It was not until 1921, nearly three centuries later, that bits of plaster began flaking off and the beautiful decorated lead font was revealed!
Above the altar is a First World War memorial window. The church was in a very dilapidated state a hundred years ago, but the Rev Olive (Vicar from 1902 to 1924) initiated restoration in 1907. His wife had three nephews who were all killed in France in 1917 whilst only young men in their twenties – two of them were awarded the Victoria Cross. The emotive window depicts the vision of one of them as, rifle in hand, he crouches in those terrible trenches.
In May 1982, during morning daylight hours, an 18th century brass spider chandelier was stolen from the church. It was so heavy and cumbersome, it would have required at least three people to detach it from the ceiling and carry it out – yet no one apparently saw anything suspicious and its whereabouts have never been traced. The church has been locked ever since, such is the price of vandalism! We were so lucky to have been passing by when this lady was in attendance.
All this history we learned in just twenty minutes – it was fascinating! The church is an absolute gem! I noticed an enormous iron key – it must have been a foot and a half long – lying on the table. Sure enough, it is still used as the key to the church, though they have a back-up with a more modern lock. I asked the lady if I could lock up with the big key as we left, and it was with great satisfaction that I did so. Childish I know, but fun!
A few steps away from the church and we came to the wharf where there was an old Thames barge undergoing restoration. It looked good, so we sat on a woodpile opposite to admire it and ate a snack we had left over from lunch.
The path continued for some distance right next to the mud. Colin was ahead of me when I heard a little squawk from the long grass between me and the gunge. I stopped, but there was nothing.
Just as I was about to move off, I heard it again. I tried to part the grass, but I couldn’t see anything. I called Colin back, and he stepped further into the tall stalks. All of a sudden a squealing hen pheasant flew up and away from under our feet – it made us both jerk back in surprise! Colin reckoned she had been sitting on a nest, but it was very difficult to find. It was so well hidden, deep in the grass, but we found at least sixteen eggs she had been sitting on. We didn’t touch them, and put the grass back over them before walking on. Colin was confident the mother would return once we were away, I certainly hope so! Once again I felt guilty about unintentionally disturbing wildlife.
We were getting rather tired, and when the path turned abruptly inland with PRIVATE KEEP OUT notices barring our way to the end of the next little peninsula, we were not sorry. There followed a bit of lane walking which was very dull, and we had to keep reminding ourselves we were doing a coastal walk because there was neither sight nor sound of the sea. We almost missed our turning off because the stile was hidden in a hedge. We walked through a grassy orchard which was quite pleasant. Halfway across, we came to a double stile in a line of trees, and climbed over the first of these before turning off.

That ended Walk no.44, we shall pick up Walk no.45 next time at the double stile in the orchard behind Upchurch village. We took the footpath between the line of trees as it led into the village a quarter of a mile away where our car was parked. After consuming tea and biscuits by the roadside – and talking kindly to an old dear who obviously thought we were buying the cottage we were parked outside (it was for sale) while she told us how she had lived there as a child and she was thoroughly spoiled in the days when everybody knew everyone and how happy those days were and she would live them all through again, before she shuffled off with her stick – we went back to the Kingsferry Bridge to pick up our bikes. We returned for a last night at the campsite with the lovely sea views but the terrible toilets!

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